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Department of Archaeology


The cultured rainforest: Long-term human ecological histories in the highlands of Borneo


Aims and methods of project

The Cultured Rainforest project is one of a series of major research projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under their Landscape and Environment strategic research initiative. The project began on 1 April 2007, and will be for three years. The aims of the project are to investigate long-term and present-day interactions between people and rainforest in the Kelabit Highlands of central Borneo (Malaysian Sarawak), so as to better understand past and present agricultural and hunter-gatherer lifestyles and landscapes. We are attempting to understand the nature of cultural and ecological relations in the present and recent past, and to use this as a starting point for understanding the deeper past. The project has three main strands. Anthropologists are using anthropological and ethnohistorical methods such as oral histories to collect information on present-day forest life and the past as people remember or imagine it, on how objects are used today and (using museum collections) in the recent past. Archaeologists are conducting surveys and excavating selected monuments to reconstruct the lives of past forest dwellers. Palaeoecologists are studying fossil pollen in sediment cores and associated with archaeological sites to document the long-term history of the rainforest and human impacts upon it.


The research team

The project research staff are:

  • Professor Graeme Barker: University of Cambridge: Principal Investigator
  • Professor Chris Gosden: Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Monica Janowski: Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Huw Barton: School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Chris Hunt: School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Jayl Langub: University of Malaysia, Sarawak
  • Dr Lucy Farr: Research Assistant/Associate in GIS, University of Cambridge
  • Samantha Jones: Research Student, Queens University Belfast, supervised by Dr C. Hunt
  • Ian Ewart: Research Student, University of Oxford, supervised by Dr Laura Peers, Pitt Rivers Museum


Highlights of the research so far

The first phase of fieldwork (July 2007) has highlighted the profound differences in the ways in which Kelabit farmer-foragers and Penan foragers see their respective 'proper' relationships with the landscape. While the Kelabit aim to mark the landscape (constructing megalithic monuments, cutting ditches, making rice padi fields and cemeteries), the Penan aim to leave nothing but their personal traces, a kind of aura of their having been there, with a minimal physical expression. Both groups believe that forest spirits have the role of guardians of the forest, punishing those who misbehave in relation to the living environment. In a region where no systematic archaeological study has been undertaken, the team has identified a wide range of funerary monuments, settlement forms, and other landscape constructions dating to the last 1000 years, some of the locations being linked by origin myths and genealogies to the present-day Kelabit. Sediment cores were taken for pollen analysis (to reconstruct past vegetation, and human impacts on it) from a number of locations in the northern and southern Kelabit Highlands. Initial studies of the cores suggests that they will be a good guide to the intensity of land use in their localities in recent centuries, possibly back to c.1000 years ago, but the presence of much older charcoal washing into the core locations also suggests that the history of human activity in the Kelabit Highlands may be of much greater antiquity.


Public engagement

The fieldwork is undertaken with the permission of the State Planning Unit of Sarawak, under the aegis of Sarawak Museums. Presentations on the project during the 2007 fieldwork were made to Sarawak Museum staff; to Ose Marang, Kelabit Resident of the Miri Division (the administrative officer for the Kelabit Highlands); and to the community of Pa' Dalih, which hosted the team. The work of the team was also reported on 'e-Bario', an internet site based in Bario that is an important communications system for Kelabit people throughout Sarawak and beyond. The project is also sharing information with the International Timber Trade Organization (ITTO), an NGO working for the Sarawak government on a development plan for the Kelabit Highlands. In addition to an academic monograph and papers, the project will involve a community-authored book on genealogical histories and will culminate in an exhibition at Sarawak Museum, Kuching, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford.

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