Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stone Age Potters of Sabah

The article below highlights the great discoveries by Stephen Chia on the ancient trade that occurred between Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

Specifically, the most recent research involves obsidian that originated in Talasea, New Britain found at the site of Bukit Tengkorak, Sabah on the island of Borneo some 3,000 years ago.

The site not only contained ancient pottery but is one of the few Neolithic pottery manufacturing sites that have been discovered.

Paul Kekai Manansala
SpotLight: Stone Age Potters

Bukit Tengkorak in Sabah’s southeastern Semporna peninsula was a pottery hub for the region 3,000 years ago. — Pictures courtesy of the Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Bukit Tengkorak in Sabah’s southeastern Semporna peninsula was a pottery hub for the region 3,000 years ago. — Pictures courtesy of the Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Malaysia aims to become an ICT hub and an education hub, among others. But 3,000 years ago, it was a pottery-making hub, pre-historians tell SANTHA OORJITHAM.

A clay stove found at Bukit Tengkorak archaeological site, in a style still used today.
A clay stove found at Bukit Tengkorak archaeological site, in a style still used today.
KAMPUNG Tampi-Tampi villagers today don’t think twice about using clay from the foot of Bukit Tengkorak and nearby areas in southeastern Sabah for their pottery, digging wells for fresh water, burning wood for fuel and eating a wide range of fish, shellfish and molluscs.

But most of them are unaware that from about 3,000 until 2,000 years ago, people at the summit of the 600-foot hill did the same--when the Semporna peninsula was a late Stone Age population hub and craft centre.

Experts from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the Sabah Museum Department and the Department of Natural Heritage have found millions of sherds which show that the site about five kilometres from Semporna town was one of the largest, if not the largest, pottery making sites in Island Southeast Asia (SEA) and the Pacific during the Neolithic era (the last part of the Stone Age, beginning 8,000 BC).

Their findings have overturned some theories about how prehistoric people lived and traded in the region.
Until the excavations here, archaeologists believed that long-distance sea trade and migration of people in insular SEA and the Pacific moved east from Melanesia (near Papua New Guinea) to Polynesia, leaving behind what is known as the "Lapita culture" of pottery, stone tools and ornaments.

"Our research at Bukit Tengkorak shows that 3,000 years ago, people were not only moving east towards New Britain in Melanesia but also westwards towards Sabah," explains Dr Stephen Chia of USM’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, who based his PhD thesis on the site.

"This is one of the longest trading routes in the world during the Neolithic period," says the archeochemist who found obsidian (a volcanic glass used to make tools) at the site and traced it chemically to Talasea in New Britain, 3500 kilometres away. His fieldwork in Southeast Asia also found stone tools and pottery similar to Bukit Tengkorak in the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Sulu Archipelago and Sulawesi.

The Lenggong Valley in Perak was Malaysia’s earliest centre of habitation and its first capital over 100,000 years ago, notes Heritage Commissioner Datuk Professor Zuraina Majid. But 15 years of research, several PhD theses and four archaeologists studying the Semporna peninsula "point to another hub, attracting people from 72,000 years ago (at the Tingkayu site, for example) until now. Another site near Lahat Datu might be close to 100,000 years old, based on the stone tools found there."

"We are filling in the whole prehistoric sequence as we progress in our research, adding to knowledge of Early Man here — the way he made stone tools, pottery and metal, his adaptation to his surrounding, his subsistence activities, his contacts with the surrounding islands, exchange of ideas, etc.," she says. "All this made East Sabah a lively hub of previously unknown activity in the Southeast Asian region."

Foreign experts are also excited about the implications of the findings at Bukit Tengkorak. "The significance of this site is the witness of the exchange and movement of prehistoric people and material culture between Southeast Asia and the Pacific," says Professor Rasmi Shoocongdej of Bangkok’s Silpakorn University.

"Dr Chia’s work, among the finest research in SEA, fills in a gap of the intra-regional trade network of the Lapita culture of western Pacific and Sabah."

"It is very difficult to identify prehistoric pottery-making places," adds Kazuhiko Tanaka at the Institute of Asian Cultures in Tokyo’s Sophia University. "Bukit Tengkorak is one of the rarest examples of such sites."

Chia has set himself three tasks: Locating prehistoric settlements in Semporna and along Sabah’s southeastern coast, mapping ancient sources and trade routes of Neolithic obsidian artifacts and pottery between Bukit Tengkorak, Island SEA and the Pacific, and finding the origins and factors leading to the contact, trade and movement of prehistoric people.

He has already answered some questions about why Bukit Tengkorak, on the rim of a two-kilometre-wide volcanic crater, was probably chosen as a pottery making site: Its height and strategic location next to the coast made it a landmark easy to find, while its panoramic view served as a lookout for traders and enemies coming from either the Semporna Peninsula or the Sulawesi sea.

“Bukit Tengkorak was a ‘penanda’ (marker) for us so that we would not get lost,” says Hajjah Lambong Panglima Atani, a 67-year-old Bajau Laut who spent her childhood on a "lepa" boat.

Volcanic boulders at the summit form a shelter from the sun and rain as well as a natural wind tunnel for drying and firing the pots.

As the nearby villagers today know, there is at least a square kilometre of clay deposits at the foot of Bukit Tengkorak, plenty of fresh water from wells or streams, and firewood.

Agate and chert for making stone tools came from the foothills while food remains show the Neolithic pottery makers ate a wide variety of fish, shellfish and mollusks (still found in Semporna market today) as well as wild boar, deer, macaques and other mammals.

But like every archaeologist, Chia has more questions: Who were the people who made the pottery and stone tools here? Were they indigenous or a migratory group? Were there other sites nearby?

The team have found five promising new sites in Semporna. Last month, they started surveying Bukit Kamiri, not far from Bukit Tengorak, with a similar environment (natural wind tunnel, boulders for shelter and plenty of raw material, water and food supplies) with similar pottery and stone tools.

"If we can find a third site like this, it could really support what were the factors and reasons for choosing a site for pottery making and for burial as well," says Chia.

All this would "provide clues about who the people were," says Chia, who will be looking for more sites in Semporna and along the east coast of Sabah.

"We hope our research will contribute to building the nation’s history and its relationships with the rest of SEA and the Pacific."