Scales of Interaction across the South China Sea between 6000 and 4000 BP. A chaîne opératoire approach to the Neolithic stone adzes of the Min River Delta, Pearl River Delta and Taiwan.

Change log

This thesis investigates the variability of the Neolithic stone adzes (6000 to 4000 BP) retrieved from different sites located on the coasts of the South China Sea. The aim of this research is to provide an answer or multiple answers to the nature of the actors behind the emergence of this complex patterns of variability.

For several decades the “Neolithicization” processes across the Asian-Pacific region were explained as the result of the diffusion of Proto-Austronesian speakers: the spread of Neolithic material cultures, food production, rice farming, animal domestication, etc. The assumed underlying cause was the migration of agriculturalists that started in China c.9000 years ago, passed through Taiwan and the Philippines c.4000 years ago, and eventually spread over the wider Pacific region. General criticisms of this “Out-of-Taiwan” model include the primacy of linguistic inferences over archaeology, its use as a mass migratory meta-narrative, and the lack of strong archaeological evidence of for the Neolithicization process. In broad critical terms, this synthesis is seen as a form of Culture-History oversimplification of complex sea-based interactions that, eventually, could lead to the emergence of material cultural similarities and differences in distant part of the Asian-Pacific region.

To translate this complexity into sizeable and interpretable measures, this thesis uses an approach based on the study of the dynamic processes of production, use and discard of tools: namely the reconstruction of the chaîne opératoire. This approach is applied to the ground stone adzes retrieved from four sites of the Pearl River Delta (Fu Tei, Kwo Lo Wan, Sha Ha, Yung Long), one site from the Min River Delta (Tanshishan) and one site from Southwestern Taiwan (Nanguanli). The resulting figures are statistically charted and combined using a multivariate analysis approach across sites, adze types, and materials used, to explore patterns of dependency. The ultimate aim of this type of analysis is to demonstrate that the complexity of material culture variability in the South China Sea is not the result of a direct people diffusion, but a combination of different factors that are variously environmental, techno-cultural, and based both on pragmatic and representational choices.

The dissertation reaches the conclusion that the variability in the archaeological record is the outcome of a mix of local particularism, cultural diffusion and demic diffusion, and that it was part of a multi- directional network of connectivity that linked the ‘Neolithic’ nuclei of Southern China and Southeast Asia. These movements of materials and ideas did not flow only on one level but on many levels: some reached a small distance from a propagating nucleus, spreading some material elements, some instead reached the furthest reaches of the South China Sea and spread other elements of material culture.

This approach demonstrates that the complexity of the interactive networks, as emerging from the patterns of material culture variability in the Asian-Pacific region, cannot be tackled with the adoption of wide-encompassing meta-narrative models, revolving around purely cultural frameworks and rooted in 20th century Culture-History. It is instead necessary to take into account that the emergence of some material traits can be mechanical outcomes (forms of environmental adaptation, the exertion of material constraints over the morphological templates of the lithic workers) or super-structural outcomes (forms of socio-technological, socio-cultural acceptance or rejection of certain material innovations), and not simply mirrors of past diffusions or migrations of peoples.

Barker, Graeme
Asia-Pacific, Austronesian, Coastal China, Hong Kong, Lithics, Neolithic, Taiwan
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Funder name: AHRC. Funder reference: 1320045.