This blog provides a forum for presenting and discussing the latest findings relating to the ancient Indian Ocean, from archaeology, molecular genetics, historical linguistics and other disciplines. It takes a long-term view of the Indian Ocean region, exploring the processes that shaped its cultures, societies and environments from the Pleistocene to the historical period.

We welcome your ideas, inputs and views. Please provide news of relevent publications, conferences, meetings, and other events.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Palaeoanthropology: Early Homo sapiens in China

The timing of the dispersal of our species from Africa is a continuing and lively topic of debate. Evidence that modern humans existed in China more than 100,000 years ago is both equivocal and thought-provoking. Read More.

Giant Eruption Cut Down to Size

More than 2000 times as massive as the blast that ripped open Mount St. Helens in 1980, the Indonesian "super-volcano" Toba ejected millions of metric tons of volcanic ash, sulfur, and other debris into the atmosphere 74,000 years ago. The eruption darkened the skies, cooled the globe by 10˚C for half a decade, and redirected the course of human evolution. At least that's what some climatologists and archeologists have concluded. But a new model indicates that Toba's climate effects were milder and abated quickly, suggesting that humans may have made it through the incident relatively unscathed. Read More

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Launch of Oxford Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art and Culture

Oxford University is to launch a new centre to study the archaeological and cultural heritage of Asia.

On 21 October, the Oxford Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art and Culture, based in the University’s School of Archaeology, will officially open to become the only Asia-specialist centre of archaeological research and teaching in Europe.

Although Asia has some of the world’s richest archaeological and artistic forms of heritage, surprisingly little is known or taught about this period in Britain.

Research and teaching will encompass all areas of Asia and cover the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) through to the historical period.

Asia celebrates a huge diversity of cultures but less research has been conducted into how the different cultures are related. The new Centre will look at how the cultural influences, both within the region and in the wider world beyond, might be connected. The research will not only draw on archaeology but also other disciplines, such as anthropology, art history, linguistics, molecular genetics, the earth sciences and geography.

As from October 2011 the Centre will offer a new Asia-specific Master’s degree stream and new courses in the Archaeology of Asia, Chinese Archaeology and in the Palaeolithic of Asia.

Centre Co-director Professor Chris Gosden said: ‘Asian archaeology and heritage studies are enormously important for understanding how the modern world was shaped, and there is a growing need for world-class expertise in this area. The Oxford Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art and Culture has been developed to support research and training in various areas of Asian archaeology and heritage studies, and to offer opportunities for scholarly discussion, networking and collaboration.’

One of the Centre’s main aims is to increase the School’s academic links with Asian institutions in order to support major research programmes and encourage further research collaborations and student exchanges.

The Centre will also seek to work with scholars specialising in this field at institutions elsewhere around the world. Researchers at the School of Archaeology already have field projects in China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

To mark the Centre’s launch on 21 October, Dame Jessica Rawson will give a public lecture entitled ‘From Steppe Road to Silk Road: Inner Asia’s Interaction with and impact on China, 2000 BC – AD 1000’. Professor Rawson, Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology, is to be affiliated to the School of Archaeology and the Centre, increasing its capacity in Chinese art and archaeology. Professor Rawson’s research covers a wide range, and her current project focuses on the Zhou dynasty (1045-221 BC) and China’s early interaction with Inner Asia. She has served as Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum and Warden of Merton College. Professor Rawson is a Fellow of the British Academy and was made a Dame of the British Empire for services to oriental studies in 2002.

The three Co-Directors of the Centre are Professor Chris Gosden, Professor Mark Pollard and Dr Michael Petraglia. Dr Michael Petraglia was recently appointed to the School of Archaeology, in part because of his active field projects in India. These include an international study of the impact of the colossal Toba volcanic eruption (in what is now Indonesia) 74,000 years ago. His most recent research findings of Stone Age tools, suggest that humans migrated out of Africa 70,000 – 80,000 years ago, earlier than previously thought.

Also instrumental in the launch of the new Centre is Dr Nicole Boivin. Dr Boivin has conducted research in South Asia for 15 years and is the Director of the the SEALINKS Project, a new international project funded through a prestigious €1.2 million Starting Grant from the European Research Council. The Sealinks project is exploring the origins and development of early seafaring activity and long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean, including some of the earliest evidence for globalisation.

The new Centre has been supported by a gift from an anonymous donor to enable the creation of a new post of Assistant Director. The financial support will also pay for a research seminar series, conferences and workshops, and researcher and student exchanges.

To visit the Oxford Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art and Culture website click here.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Stone tools 'change migration story'

A research team reports new findings of stone age tools that suggest humans came "out of Africa" by land earlier than has been thought.

Click here for the BBC story.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Toba Supervolcano – Impact on Indian Environments Overblown

Palaeo-3 is the latest forum for a debate on the Toba volcanic super-eruption of 74,000 years ago and its role in shaping terrestrial environments and evolutionary events. The most recent debate stems from an article published by Martin Williams and his team which contends that the Toba eruption was followed by climatic cooling and the deforestation of India (see also press release by co-author Stan Ambrose, and sensational media attention). The researchers base this claim on study of carbon isotopes from ash profiles in the Son and Narmada River Valleys in India and pollen from a marine core in the Bay of Bengal. The team of earth scientists and archaeologists argued that Toba led to major and prolonged alterations in ecological settings in India, such as the replacement of forests by grasslands and woodlands. The investigators reasoned that these dramatic landscape alterations would have taken a heavy toll on tropical ecosystems and even the survival of certain mammals and humans in India and elsewhere, as supposedly demonstrated by genetic bottleneck data in a number of species. In their article, they say, "Our results demonstrate that the Toba eruption caused climatic cooling and prolonged deforestation in South Asia, and challenge claims of minimal impact on tropical ecosystems and human populations" (emphasis ours).

Though we are keen to learn more about the effects of the Toba super-eruption on ecosystems, especially given the paucity of such studies in India, we make the case that Martin Williams and his team have overstated their evidence. In a Palaeo-3 comment by Michael Haslam and myself, we assert that the new study provides no compelling evidence that clearly and convincingly links Toba to major and catastrophic impacts on ecological settings in India. For starters, as revealed by the illustration provided in Haslam and Petraglia (above), we point out that climatic cooling was well underway before the volcano exploded, thereby questioning the cause and effect relationship between Toba and environmental deterioration. Moreover, we argue that the so-called forest to grassland transition may be the consequence of natural changes in climatic regimes or even to other local depositional processes, such as the growth of grasses on top of ash. Indeed, we are highly skeptical that all vegetative communities across India responded in the same way after the ash was laid down. Instead, we suggest that a mosaic of ecological conditions existed across the subcontinent after the Toba event. On the basis of the current evidence, we see no reason to accept the claim, as forcefully made by Williams and his colleagues, that Toba altered the course of human and mammalian evolution. And, on this score, it is somewhat surprising to see that Williams and his team admit in a reply that the evidence to demonstrate a causal link between Toba and genetic bottlenecks is tenuous.

The Toba debate will not end here. But, stay tuned for additional publications that will soon appear on Toba and the archaeology of human populations residing along the Indian Ocean rim.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A new Bajuni database

Despite its inaccessibility (it remains untranslated and copies are hard to obtain), Vinigi Grottanelli’s Pescatori dell’Oceano indiano (1955) is generally agreed to be one of the best studies of a rural Swahili-speaking community. It’s our principal ethnographic source on the Bajuni (aka Gunya, aka Tikuu), whose traditional territory comprised a long string of coastal settlements and islands between Kismayu (Somalia) in the north and the Lamu archipelago (Kenya) in the south. And the political turmoil of recent decades in Somalia has turned it into a valuable historical document, a record of a way of life that for thousands of Bajuni has been shattered by persecution and conflict.

The Bajuni minority in Somalia didn’t have a very good time during the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre (1969-91), suffering discrimination and a variety of indignities. From 1974 fishermen had their fishing gear and boats confiscated and were compelled to join government cooperatives, while some were force to move off the Bajuni islands. But matters went from bad to worse following the outbreak of the Somali civil war and the overthrow of Siad Barre in January 1991. Bajuni joined the general exodus of victimised groups from Somalia, and many of them fled to UNHCR refugee camps in and around Mombasa, where the Kwa Jomvu camp became their main home until it was finally closed down in 1998.

Conducting research with Swahili-speaking refugees in Kenya might have been tricky at that time, politically and research-permission-wise at least. The subsequent emigration of large numbers of Bajuni and others to Europe and North America has perhaps made it easier, though a generation has now grown up in a very different linguistic and cultural environment from that of their original homeland. Asylum-seekers’ histories of displacement, including their knowledge of language and place, are of special interest to the immigration authorities processing their claims and the civil society organisations and lawyers defending their rights. Since 2004 linguist Derek Nurse has engaged with numerous cases of refugees claiming to Bajuni from Somalia, and this work has seen him return to research that he began in northern Kenya in 1978 (Nurse 1980).

The academic fruits of this are now online in his Bajuni Database. This comprises a general overview of ‘Bajuni: people, society, geography, history, language’, a Bajuni lexicon, a grammatical sketch (that updates Nurse 1982), and three maps (one of the whole Bajuni coast, plus sketch maps of Chovae and Chula islands). These aren’t polished documents, but are very useful nonetheless. The overview – part of which is a gazetteer of Bajuni villages down to the Kenya border – is of particular interest. Very few Bajuni remain in Somalia, and their world is clearly not what it was in the days before the dictatorship of Siad Barre and the Somali Civil War. Current prospects for research on the south Somali coast and Bajuni islands don’t look good, and recording what we know of this lost world and its former inhabitants is the best we can do. It is also important for the Bajuni diaspora, and a poignant reminder of the widespread suffering that the Somali conflict has caused.

(This is an abridged version of an original post, 'The Lost World of the Bajuni', on the East African Notes and Records blog.)


Grottanelli, Vinigi L. 1955. Pescatori dell’Oceano indiano: saggio etnologico preliminare sui Bagiuni, Bantu costieri dell’Oltregiuba. Rome: Cremonese.

Nurse, Derek 1980. Bajuni historical linguistics. Kenya Past and Present 12: 34-43.

Nurse, Derek 1982. The Swahili dialects of Somalia and the northern Kenya coast. In M.-F. Rombi (ed.) Etudes sur le Bantu Oriental (Comores, Tanzanie, Somalie, et Kenya. Paris: SELAF. 73-l46.

Nurse, Derek 2010. Bajuni Database. Online at http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~dnurse/bajuni_db.html.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Goodbye to a pioneer and polymath

We note sadly the passing of Dr. Raymond Allchin, who died on 4th June 2010 at the age of 86. Raymond, together with his wife Dr. Bridget Allchin, was a major figure in South Asian archaeology for a half a century. He travelled widely in the Indian subcontinent, exploring, surveying and excavating sites that would become classic type sites, particularly for the south Indian Neolithic, and both together with Bridget and alone, writing major works on Indian culture and archaeology. Raymond’s knowledge of the Indian subcontinent was remarkably broad as well as deep, and reflected a profound passion for the region and its people. He wrote and taught about archaeology, history, art, linguistics, poetry, place-names, and ethnography, leaving a corpus of literature that has stood the test of time. Raymond leaves as a legacy such major institutions as the Ancient India and Iran Trust, of which he was a Founding Trustee, and the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, of which he was a founding member.

Raymond helped to educate and inspire numerous generations of South Asian archaeologists, including my own. I knew him only late in his career, after his retirement from the University of Cambridge, but was nonetheless struck by his intelligence and warmth. While I lived in Cambridge, our families met occasionally for tea or dinner, and I remember his lively and often humorous stories with great fondness. Also memorable was the grace that he sang at my wedding to a fellow South Asian archaeologist – in Sanskrit and, naturally, without notes. I feel fortunate and grateful to have known Raymond. In his later years he worked closely with Bridget on an autobiography covering some of the early years of their travels in the subcontinent, and I hope we will see published soon the memories of their extraordinary life together.

Obituary in the Times:

Times Higher Education Supplement:

The Hindu:

Society of Antiquaries of London:

Allchin Memorial lecture delivered in Kerala:

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Open Access article - Coral Reefs

Dear colleagues,

Please find this link to an Open Access article that we have published recently in Coral Reefs. This article illustrates the method that we will apply to the coral cores within our MASMA project. Click here to see article. Cheers, Jens

Monday, 31 May 2010

Ethnoornithology on the Kenya coast

Last year (2009) Nature Kenya / the East Africa Natural History Society (EANHS) published its Checklist of the Birds of Dakatcha Woodland, an Important Bird Area (IBA) in the hinterland of Malindi on the Kenya coast. The woodland is home to a number of globally threatened and near-threatened bird species and is itself threatened by illegal commercial agricultural development. One of the birds under threat graces the checklist’s cover: the beautiful Fischer’s Turaco (Tauraco fischeri), known as kulukulu in the Giriama (= Giryama) language. This is the first checklist of its kind in Kenya to include the vernacular names of birds recorded and cross-checked by local community members, and is an important addition to the ethnoornithology of the wider region.

Giriama is one of the Mijikenda idioms and is closely related to Comorian, Swahili, and other Sabaki Bantu languages. Cognate bird names can therefore be found in the Comoros as well on many of the islands off the East African coast from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south. Tracking the linguistic history and geography of these and other animal names can provide important information about people's migrations and interactions in the past (cf. my 'Island Subsistence: Hunting, Trapping and the Translocation of Wildlife in the Western Indian Ocean'). Bird names are particularly useful in this regard because we have better information about avian distributions and environmental preferences than we do for many other groups of animals.

(For more on the Dakatcha checklist and other aspects of Mijikenda ethnoornithology see the original post on 'Giriama Bird Names', and an earlier one on 'Birds of Omen and Little Flying Animals with Wings', at my East African Notes and Records blog.)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Trajectories to Malagasy Rice

As we all know Madagascar was settled by westward journeys of Austronesians, probably towards the middle of the First Millennium AD. Not surprisingly they brought rice, presumably tropical japonica from Indonesia. Interestingly, indica rice are also widely cultivated in Madgascar today. As summarized, albeit briefly, in a new article by Purugganan (The evolution of rice: molecular vignettes on its origins and spread), these japonica and indica groups are well-differentiated genetically from each other, and can be suggested to represent two waves of introduction with two separate bottlenecks. But they have also hybridized, and unique landrace races, especially from the highlands of Madagascar, appear to be of local hybrid origin. This highlights the importance of multiple episodes of plant translocation across the Indian ocean, and the, perhaps rare but highly significant, role of hybridization events in the local adaptation of crops such as rice. We look forward to the publication of further details of the Malagasy rice genetic research from NYU.

This article has now been finally published and paginated as part of a special issue on rice.

Journal Issues on Bananas and Indian Ocean Plants

As evidence that Indian Ocean connections, and their role in crop dispersal, have been gaining increased attention, I would like to draw attention, somewhat belatedly, to two journal special issues of last year that may be of interest. At the very end of 2009 a special issue of the French periodical Etudes Ocean Indien (Vol. 42-43) devoted to plants and people was published. Articles are in either in English and French. Of particular interest personally, were papers by Lefevre on the indigenous classification of plants in part of Madagascar, the 'folk models' by which rice is understood in Madagascar explored by Hume, the use of wild plant foods and famine food on Zanzibar (by Martin Walsh), and a study of that interesting stimulant kat, chewed in Ethiopia and Yemen (by Carrier & Gezon); there is also a SEALINKS paper I wrote with Nicky Boivin on the crops, cattle, commensal small mammals and weeds [pdf] that have moved back and forth between India and East Africa in the past.

Slightly older, was a special issue of journal Ethnobotanical Research and Applications, devoted to bananas. While many paper focus on bananas in Asia, several touch on the movement of bananas between Asia and Africa, especially papers by Blench, and Hlidebrandt & Neumann; important paper of a more archaeobotanical/methodological slant are papers on phytoliths and banana seeds by Vrydaghs et al. and De Lange. The papers are all in the middle of the 2009 volume, starting from page 169. A full list of banana papers was posted previously on the archaeobotanist blog.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Archaeological Fieldwork Kicks Off in Arabian Peninsula

The Arabian peninsula is in a critical geographical position for understanding human movements out of Africa, as exemplified in a number of papers in a book co-edited by Petraglia and Rose, “The Evolution of Human Populations in Arabia” (Springer, 2009). While some inroads have been made to understand the dispersal of modern humans and our archaic ancestors, relatively little interdisciplinary and long-term fieldwork has been conducted to tackle this problem. Our team aims to change this situation -- thanks to a new 5 year agreement with the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities and in partnership with Dr. Abdullah Alsharekh of King Saud University.

In March of this year a small team of interdisciplinary specialists conducted a pilot study in the palaeolake region of the Nafud Desert in northern Arabia. We concentrated our fieldwork in the Jubbah basin, since this area was known to contain a palaeolake, Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites, and an extraordinary amount of rock art. We were not disappointed in our choice of our survey area, since a few intensive days of work showed that the region contained a wealth of lakeside sites and rockshelters with artefactual material. We plan on conducting long-term field work in Jubbah to understand how humans adapted to changing environments over the last 125,000 years. We also plan on conducting field work on older Acheulean sites (with characteristic large stone tool forms known as handaxes and cleavers), which probably relate to much earlier exits of closely related ancestors, such as Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis.

The joint fieldwork programme is part of a 5 year agreement between the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities and the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Our initial fieldwork has been supported by a grant to Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts, “Monsoons and Migrations”, Australian Research Council.

DList Agulhas and Somali

New paleoclimate project in the western Indian Ocean

A new WIOMSA MAMSA project has been funded: Coral reefs and global change – a historical perspective spanning the western Indian Ocean (MASMA/CC/2010/02 project). This project will run from 1/5/2010 until 30/4/2012.
Below is a brief summary of planned research, anyone wanting further information should please contact:jens.zinke@nioz.nl or chris.reason@uct.ac.za
Project Summary:
This study proposes to examine the spatial and temporal environmental changes affecting coral reef ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean. In this multi-disciplinary project, environmental geochemists dealing with the direct data acquisition on biological archives (corals), will work in partnership with climate scientists, environmental modellers and ecologists. This will allow direct comparison of the geochemical data obtained by the geochemist with models of river discharge and pollution and ecological changes. Integration of these data should provide a far better understanding of the entire ecosystem in the region investigated and lead to improved sustainable management of the coastal environment .The project is divided into two interdependent sub-projects:

1) a coral proxy-climate-based, and
2) a model-ecology-based project.

As part of sub-project 1, we will drill coral cores to reconstruct environmental changes in various reef complexes across the tropical Indian Ocean (Mauritius, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya) in relation to natural climate change and anthropogenic influences.
The major objective of sub-project 2 will be the quantification of land use and hydrological change in tropical catchments over decadal to century scales, and to determine the relative importance of anthropogenic versus climate forcing. These data will provide the link between land use changes, river runoff, sediment compositions and the coral proxy records that are required to distinguish the relative roles of natural and anthropogenic induced changes in the coral reefs. Finally, we will link the results of subproject 1 and 2 to long-term ecological reef monitoring programmes of our partner institutions to infer the impact on temporal and spatial biodiversity changes in coral reef ecosystems across the western Indian Ocean.
The results of this project will provide a broader management context and to allow conservation scientists to identify environments where corals are expected to survive climate change and insure that management and conservation actions are focused on these key areas.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

UK-Sri Lanka team explores Indian Ocean links

A new collaboration between a consortium of UK and Sri Lankan institutions has been initiated to study early maritime subsistence and trade in Sri Lanka. The collaboration brings together researchers and students from the universities of Oxford, UCL, and Ruhuna with the Post-Graduate Institute of Archaeological Research and the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology. A first fieldwork season was recently conducted, investigating coastal midden and port sites, as well as inland shelters. The project aims to better understand the emergence of coastal communities, regional trade and long-distance contacts, though the application of a suite of new techniques to the extraordinary but still poorly known Sri Lankan record. Preliminary results are providing insights into the spread of crops and commensal species, as well as Sri Lanka’s role in the spice trade.

The project is being undertaken as part of the Oxford-based Sealinks Project and the UCL-based Early Rice Project. Students from the University of Ruhuna participated in an associated field school.

Out of Africa

Our team has recently written the article, "Out of Africa: new hypotheses and evidence for the dispersal of Homo sapiens along the Indian Ocean rim", published by the Annals of Human Biology. We argue that modern humans were present in Arabia and South Asia earlier than currently believed, and probably coincident with the presence of Homo sapiens in the Levant between ca 130 and 70,000 years ago. We go on to argue that climatic and environmental fluctuations during the last 125,000 years would have had significant demographic effects on Arabian and South Asian populations, though indigenous populations would have responded in different ways. Based on a review of the current genetic, archaeological and environmental data, we indicate that demographic patterns in Arabia and South Asia suggest an early dispersal. This new hypothesis, based on new evidence, contrasts with the consensus view of Indian Ocean movements, which contends that modern humans moved out of Africa 60,000 years ago, rapidly moving along the coast to eventually reach Australasia. This new model has obvious implications about the unfolding of the later demographic history of human populations in Eurasia.