Palaeoenvironment of Southeast Asia and Its Impact on Population Movements and Cultural Innovations Past and Present

Roger Blench1, Bérénice Bellina2, Jean-Christophe Galipaud3, Frank Muyard4

1MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

2French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)

3Institute of Research for Development (IRD)

4Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO)

Recent years have seen the publication of reports and papers raising concerns about rising sea levels in Southeast Asia and the potential impact on coastal populations. Research published in 2021 now estimates that sea level rise may be far more rapid than previous projections. However, this phenomenon is not new. During the Pleistocene, much of island SE Asia was connected by land bridges, and the gradual rise in sea level accounts for the delimitation of a series of zoogeographical zones.

Less well understood is the response of humans to these environmental changes during these periods of climate change. Sea-level rise would have isolated some populations on specific islands. Some groups responded by ending land-based subsistence, while others lost maritime skills entirely. Clearly when human populations can move freely between regions, we will expect to see the development of regional archaeological cultures; the Hoabinhian is a good example of this. Once barriers to communication progressed on islands, local archaeological horizons more easily develop. However, the paradoxical consequences of these changes is a search for alternatives, catalysing innovations on the technical front, such as more and better ships, and in-depth exploration of resources, leading to the exploitation of potential trade routes and cultural changes. These changes would certainly have influenced social and economic organization in some groups, for example, driving specialization. In this perspective, we may wonder to what extent environmental change may account in part for both the Austronesian-speaker expansion and the development of sea nomad culture.

The theme of the panel is therefore to question how palaeoclimatic and environmental change in Southeast Asia impacted population movements and cultural organisations from the Pleistocene to the near present. Understanding past changes should enable us to better evaluate future developments. However, it should also act as a counterweight to crisis rhetoric, which paints the current situation as unprecedented. Environmental changes also contribute to the search for solutions and adaptations of lifestyles and may be seen as some components for cultural catalysts. In this panel, we invite papers discussing these issues pulling together palaeoenvironmental, historical, archaeological, genetic and linguistic data.