The 'human revolution' in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behavior of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)

Graeme Barker*, Huw Barton, Michael Bird, Patrick Daly, Ipoi Datan, Alan Dykes, Lucy Farr, David Gilbertson, Barbara Harrisson, Chris Hunt, Tom Higham, Lisa Kealhofer, John Krigbaum, Helen Lewis, Sue McLaren, Victor Paz, Alistair Pike, Phil Piper, Brian Pyatt, Ryan RabettTim Reynolds, Jim Rose, Garry Rushworth, Mark Stephens, Chris Stringer, Jill Thompson, Chris Turney

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    296 Citations (Scopus)

    Abstract

    Recent research in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia suggests that we can no longer assume a direct and exclusive link between anatomically modern humans and behavioral modernity (the 'human revolution'), and assume that the presence of either one implies the presence of the other: discussions of the emergence of cultural complexity have to proceed with greater scrutiny of the evidence on a site-by-site basis to establish secure associations between the archaeology present there and the hominins who created it. This paper presents one such case study: Niah Cave in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, famous for the discovery in 1958 in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of a modern human skull, the 'Deep Skull,' controversially associated with radiocarbon dates of ca. 40,000 years before the present. A new chronostratigraphy has been developed through a re-investigation of the lithostratigraphy left by the earlier excavations, AMS-dating using three different comparative pre-treatments including ABOX of charcoal, and U-series using the Diffusion-Absorption model applied to fragments of bones from the Deep Skull itself. Stratigraphic reasons for earlier uncertainties about the antiquity of the skull are examined, and it is shown not to be an `intrusive' artifact. It was probably excavated from fluvial-pond-desiccation deposits that accumulated episodically in a shallow basin immediately behind the cave entrance lip, in a climate that ranged from times of comparative aridity with complete desiccation, to episodes of greater surface wetness, changes attributed to regional climatic fluctuations. Vegetation outside the cave varied significantly over time, including wet lowland forest, montane forest, savannah, and grassland. The new dates and the lithostratigraphy relate the Deep Skull to evidence of episodes of human activity that range in date from ca. 46,000 to ca. 34,000 years ago. Initial investigations of sediment scorching, pollen, palynomorphs, phytoliths, plant macrofossils, and starch grains recovered from existing exposures, and of vertebrates from the current and the earlier excavations, suggest that human foraging during these times was marked by habitat-tailored hunting technologies, the collection and processing of toxic plants for consumption, and, perhaps, the use of fire at some forest-edges. The Niah evidence demonstrates the sophisticated nature of the subsistence behavior developed by modern humans to exploit the tropical environments that they encountered in Southeast Asia, including rainforest. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)243-261
    Number of pages19
    JournalJournal of Human Evolution
    Volume52
    Issue number3
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2007

    Keywords

    • behavioral modernity
    • dating
    • subsistence
    • tropical environments
    • PLEISTOCENE HOMO-SAPIENS
    • RAIN-FOREST ECOSYSTEM
    • CURVE SPANNING 0
    • PAIRED TH-230/U-234/U-238
    • RADIOCARBON CALIBRATION
    • PRISTINE CORALS
    • C-14 DATES
    • EAST-ASIA
    • SEA
    • INDONESIA

    Cite this