SE Asia rainforests shaped by humans for 11,000 years

The idea that rain forests are pristine regions with minimal human interference is being challenged. A new study comes to the brave conclusion – based on ancient pollen samples which contain charcoal and and therefore suggest that land was cleared and planted – that the rain forests of SE Asia have been “managed” by humans since about 11,000 years ago! The rain forests of this region, far from being entirely natural, are “cultural artefacts”!

C.O. Hunt, R.J. RabettHolocene landscape intervention and plant food production strategies in island and mainland Southeast AsiaJournal of Archaeological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.12.011

“.. gives cause for us to question some authors continued adherence to a singular narrative of the Austronesian Hypothesis and the ‘Neolithisation’ of this part of the world. It also leads us to suggest that the forests of this vast region are, to an extent, a cultural artefact”.

sundaland map the-truth-seekers.org

sundaland map the-truth-seekers.org

This covers the region of what was once Sundaland until the end of the last glacial. The land area here shrank rapidly after about 20,000 years ago as sea-levels rose and reached roughly what it is now around 12,000 years ago.

The idea that rain forests were managed starting around then suggests that population numbers were not so small at the time and sea-level rise led not only to large – but slow – migrations or expansions of peoples but also led to land clearance for the purpose of planting. And that suggests the spread of agriculture.

From the Press Release:

New research from Queen’s University Belfast shows that the tropical forests of South East Asia have been shaped by humans for the last 11,000 years.

The rain forests of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Thailand and Vietnam were previously thought to have been largely unaffected by humans, but the latest research from Queen’s Palaeoecologist Dr Chris Hunt suggests otherwise.

A major analysis of vegetation histories across the three islands and the SE Asian mainland has revealed a pattern of repeated disturbance of vegetation since the end of the last ice age approximately 11,000 years ago. ….. 

Evidence of human activity in rainforests is extremely difficult to find and traditional archaeological methods of locating and excavating sites are extremely difficult in the dense forests. Pollen samples, however, are now unlocking some of the region’s historical secrets.

Dr Hunt, who is Director of Research on Environmental Change at Queen’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, said: “It has long been believed that the rainforests of the Far East were virgin wildernesses, where human impact has been minimal. Our findings, however, indicate a history of disturbances to vegetation. While it could be tempting to blame these disturbances on climate change, that is not the case as they do not coincide with any known periods of climate change. Rather, these vegetation changes have been brought about by the actions of people.

“There is evidence that humans in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo burned fires to clear the land for planting food-bearing plants. Pollen samples from around 6,500 years ago contain abundant charcoal, indicating the occurrence of fire. However, while naturally occurring or accidental fires would usually be followed by specific weeds and trees that flourish in charred ground, we found evidence that this particular fire was followed by the growth of fruit trees. This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place.

“One of the major indicators of human action in the rainforest is the sheer prevalence of fast-growing ‘weed’ trees such as Macaranga, Celtis and Trema.  Modern ecological studies show that they quickly follow burning and disturbance of forests in the region.

“Nearer to the Borneo coastline, the New Guinea Sago Palm first appeared over 10,000 years ago. This would have involved a voyage of more than 2,200km from its native New Guinea, and its arrival on the island is consistent with other known maritime voyages in the region at that time – evidence that people imported the Sago seeds and planted them.”

The findings have huge importance for ecological studies of rainforests as the historical role of people in managing the forest vegetation has rarely been considered. It could also have an impact on rainforest peoples fighting the advance of logging companies.

Dr Hunt continued: “Laws in several countries in South East Asia do not recognise the rights of indigenous forest dwellers on the grounds that they are nomads who leave no permanent mark on the landscape. Given that we can now demonstrate their active management of the forests for more than 11,000 years, these people have a new argument in their case against eviction.”

These findings may provide some partial and nuanced support for the Austronesian Hypothesis:

Austranesian Hypothesis Bellwood

Austronesian Hypotheis extract

C.O. Hunt, R.J. RabettHolocene landscape intervention and plant food production strategies in island and mainland Southeast AsiaJournal of Archaeological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.12.011

Abstract: In the areas adjacent to the drowned Pleistocene continent of Sunda – present-day Mainland and Island SE Asia – the Austronesian Hypothesis of a diaspora of rice cultivators from Taiwan ∼4200 years ago has often been linked with the start of farming. Mounting evidence suggests that these developments should not be conflated and that alternative explanations should be considered, including indigenous inception of complex patterns of plant food production and early exchange of plants, animals, technology and genes. We review evidence for widespread forest disturbance in the Early Holocene which may accompany the beginnings of complex food-production. Although often insubstantial, evidence for incipient and developing management of rainforest vegetation and of developing complex relationships with plants is present, and early enough to suggest that during the Early to mid-Holocene this vast region was marked by different approaches to plant food production. The trajectory of the increasingly complex relationships between people and their food organisms was strongly locally contingent and in many cases did not result in the development of agricultural systems that were recognisable as such at the time of early European encounters. Diverse resource management economies in the Sunda and neighbouring regions appear to have accompanied rather than replaced a reliance on hunting and gathering. This, together with evidence for Early Holocene interaction between these neighbours, gives cause for us to question some authors continued adherence to a singular narrative of the Austronesian Hypothesis and the ‘Neolithisation’ of this part of the world. It also leads us to suggest that the forests of this vast region are, to an extent, a cultural artefact.

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About ktwop

Scientist, technologist, salesman, manager, executive and now a consultant and author.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Evolution, Homo Sapiens, Hunter-gatherer, Peopling the world and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to SE Asia rainforests shaped by humans for 11,000 years

  1. Pingback: Asian rainforests and human history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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