8: Why cultivate? Anthropological and archaeological approaches to foraging-farming transitions in Southeast Asia
GRAEME BARKER & MONICA JANOWSKI (eds)
Why cultivate? Anthropological and archaeological approaches to foraging-farming transitions in Southeast Asia
Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, 2011
141 pp, 8 tables and 45 figures
ISBN 978-1-902937-58-8, hb £35
Reviewed by Ian Glover, Institute of Archaeology, University College London
As noted in the preface this monograph originated from a panel held in 2007 at the meeting of the European Association of Southeast Asian Studies in Naples where a group of anthropologists and archaeologists from seven countries agreed to revisit the perennial topic of how and why early communities in many parts of the world, and for the occasion, island Southeast Asia, made the transition from collecting their food to, for the most part, producing it – a process usually summarised in V. Gordon Childe’s memorable and still useful term, ‘The Neolithic Revolution’.
As the editors note in Chapter 1 the transition, often seen as progress, from food collecting to food production is usually seen in broad historical terms as an almost inevitable and one-way process, an evolutionary step on the way from savagery to civilisation. But the reality is more complex as the 12 contributors to the book make clear. In island Southeast Asia, as in the equatorial tropics in Africa and meso-America, for low density populations there is an abundance of wild foods derived from palms, roots, tubers and fish although animal and avian food sources are more scattered and difficult to access. In many parts of this region the dichotomies between horticulture, farming and gathering is often missing and some communities pass from one to another depending on location and season and when inter-island communications break down from external political disruptions or times get difficult following an El Niño induced drought cultivators return to managed gathering of sago palm starch as Ellen reports from Seram in the Moluccas in Chapter 4.
The general theme of varied human interactions with the environment, available resources, social organisation and population densities are explored in the nine chapters: by Huw Barton and Tim Denham on prehistoric vegeculture and social life; on the management of woody perennials and the transition to vegeculture; by Roy Ellen on sago as a buffer to subsistence stress and inter-island networks in eastern Indonesia; by Graeme Barker, Chris Hunt and Jane Carlos on transitions to farming – archaeological and biomolecular and palaeo-ecological perspectives; Brian Hayden on rice – ‘the first luxury food’; by Signe Howell on the ‘uneasy’ move from hunting and gathering to cultivation by the Chewong of Malaysia; by Dario Novellino on the forager-farming interface on Palawan, Philippines; and finally by Monika Janowski and Jayl Langub on the contrasting economies of the Penan and Kelabit of Borneo.
Neither the editors in Chapter 1 where they ask, ‘Why cultivate?’ nor the authors of the following chapters come to any clear conclusions as to how and why early communities in island Southeast Asia made the transition from collecting their food to producing it but the evidence is fairly clear to show that such a transition, in broad historical terms, has and still is happening. This is a slow uneven process with many winding tracks through the forest and where there have been many cul-de-sacs. Where populations are low and dispersed the carefully managed wild resources of the rivers, coasts and forests seem to have been sufficient to provide life well above the subsistence level. But where populations are aggregated and settled then something more than management seems to have been necessary and many communities were drawn into food production allied to collected forest products which offered benefits despite the greater labour involved.
A key element in this seems to be the increasing availability of rice which, as Hayden argues and palaeobotanists such as Fuller (2006) seem to agree, was first a supplement to roots and arboreal foods such as acorns and chestnuts in the Yangzi valley in central China, in the early Holocene and over the following millennia was disseminated throughout mainland and into island Southeast Asia as a luxury food essential for feasting and ceremonies.
This handsomely produced and illustrated book is directed primarily at academic historians and archaeologists and seeks to examine and undermine the uncritical acceptance of an inevitable expansion of farming cultures from a few distinct Neolithic hearths in various parts of the world. However, seen in the broader context of East Asian prehistory it is clear that there has been an overwhelming if sometimes slow expansion of food production from the north which has been impinging on and transforming the many local subsistence systems and as Hayden points out (p.3), ‘Today rice dominates the economic, cultural, social and often religious lives of almost every inhabitant of Southeast Asia … success in rice growing is widely associated with status and prestige and a good relationships with the Spirits.’
Fuller, D. 2006. Agricultural origins and frontiers in South Asia: a working synthesis. Journal of World Prehistory 20 (1): 1–86.