This post is by Cyler Conrad, author of the recently published paper “Archaeozoology in Mainland Southeast Asia: Changing Methodology and Pleistocene to Holocene Forager Subsistence Patterns in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia.” He is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There is a rich diversity of animals – mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and mollusks – in Mainland Southeast Asia, but which of these animals did prehistoric human foragers consume? This paper takes a closer look at the fauna exploited by hunter-gatherer groups in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia during the last 50,000 years.
My goal was straightforward: I wanted to explore broad patterns in the faunal data from this ecologically rich region. What types of prey were commonly hunted? Did this change over time? I reviewed the literature, compiled the data, ran several metrics to explore changes in faunal composition, and found several distinct patterns.
First, it became apparent that prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia consumed Chelonians (tortoises, hard-shell turtles and soft-shell turtles) abundantly over the past 50,000 years. However, there do not appear to be tortoise or turtle-related extinction events during this same period – a striking difference from modern trends in Chelonian exploitation (Asian Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Status).
The trend in Chelonian exploitation during the late Pleistocene and Holocene is likely more complex (e.g. species specific exploitation) than I identified here. One issue confronting Southeast Asian zooarchaeologists is identification of tortoises, turtles and other reptiles in archaeological sites (see here for recent approaches). Most turtle and tortoise identifications are made to the Order or Family level, but no lower. Clearly, reanalysis of Chelonian assemblages is needed in Mainland Southeast Asia to understand what types of species-specific exploitation occurred during this period.
In addition to turtles, hunter-gatherer groups commonly consumed several other types of taxa, such as deer, wild boar and monitor lizards. In some regions deer were more abundant (Thai sites) and in others wild boar were more common (Peninsular Malaysian sites).
Finally, the diachronic analysis of the faunas showed a surprising pattern: little change over time. This was particularly remarkable during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, when climatic changes are thought to have driven subsistence change in this region and elsewhere in the world.
While it is my hope that this paper will provide novel insights into the Mainland Southeast Asian zooarchaeological record, there is much more work needed before we fully understand why these taxa were such popular food items for prehistoric hunter-gatherers.