PhD Student: Nuno Vasco Oliveira 2004-2008


Thesis Title: “Subsistence Archaeobotany: Food Production and the Agricultural Transition in East Timor"

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Oliveira, N.V. (2008) Subsistence Archaeobotany: Food Production and the Agricultural Transition in East Timor. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Department of Archaeology and Natural History, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra. p.387.

Scientific Objectives:

  • This research is part of a doctoral project that aims at investigating early plant food management and the introduction of agriculture in East Timor, using charred plant remains from archaeological sites as a direct proxy. These have been recovered from archaeological sites in Timor, through comprehensive flotation and wet sieving techniques.

Background and Results: East Timor’s economy today relies mostly on subsistence farming practices, involving a diversified array of food products from different origins. Amongst the most widely distributed, corn (Zea mays) and cassava (Manihot esculenta), originated in the Americas and are known to have been introduced after the XVI century, with the first European colonial contacts. Rice (Oryza sativa) was domesticated in Mainland Southeast Asia, and is believed to have been introduced in Timor within the last 3500 years. Many fruits and nuts (such as Canarium sp., Artocarpus sp., the breadfruit, and Pandanus sp.), as well as different tubers of the Dioscoreaceae and Araceae families (the yams D. alata and D. hispida, and taro, Colocasia esculenta), are also widely known and may have been in use since the Early- or the Mid-Holocene.

The history of plant management and the agricultural origins in the wider region has been mostly investigated through more indirect proxies, such as animal domesticates, pottery (Bellwood 2005; Spriggs et al. 2003), as well as pollen records. In East Timor, the first pottery and animal domesticates appear in the archaeological record around 3500 B.P. and are generally associated with the introduction of fully agricultural practices. However, with the exception of Ian Glover’s work in the 1960s (Glover 1986), very few plant remains have ever been reported from excavated sites.

Fig. 1 Map of Timor

Inset shown in Fig. 1

A first field survey in East Timor was conducted in 2004, where a few sites were test excavated in the region of Baguia (Fig. 1). Preservation of charred material at these sites was generally poor (Oliveira 2006), and in 2005 work was mainly carried out at Bui Ceri Uato Mane (BCUM), a rock shelter located in Baucau (Figs. 2 & 3).

Fig. 2
Bui Ceri Uato Mane (BCUM) rockshelter.

After the 2005 fieldwork season, a comprehensive assemblage of charred plant remains was recovered, through archaeological excavations and flotation and wet sieving processes (Fig. 4). The recovery method followed he one that has been used in the region by Fairbairn (2005). A small collection of modern reference material has been collected from around the site for comparative purposes (Fig. 5), and was later completed with specimens provided by the National Australian Herbarium, in Canberra.

Fig. 3
BCUM excavation.

Analysis of the archaeobotanical assemblage from BCUM is still taking place, involving comparative light-powered and scanning electron microscope work between the modern reference material and the archaeological specimens. Other smaller assemblages from sites previously excavated by Sue O’Connor and Matthew Spriggs are also being analysed and will soon be published.

Fig. 4 Fig. 5

Results so far obtained reveal no presence of rice or millet (Setaria italica) in any of the excavated assemblages, suggesting that neither of these crops were introduced with the first pottery or animal domesticates. They may have only arrived in a later period, when the caves investigated were no longer being systematically used for habitation purposes. Ongoing analysis also suggests that different fruits and possibly tubers may have been in use since the Early- to Mid-Holocene. This doctoral project is due to finish in May 2008 and an account of the identified species will soon be made available.

Sue O’Connor, Matthew Spriggs, Andrew Fairbairn, Peter Bellwood and colleagues at the Australian National University; Gulherme Cartaxo & GERTiL, in Dili; Emma Bonthorne and Patrícia Baptista for assistance in the field; Lyn Craven, Frank Zich and Jo Palmer, at the Australian National Herbarium; the traditional owners at Kaisido/Osso Ua, especially Mr. Augusto Belo, Mr. Constantino Belo and Mr. Naha Suso.

This research is supported by a scholarship by the Portuguese Government (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia) and the Department of Archaeology and Natural History, RSPAS, ANU.

Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: the Origins of Agricultural Societies. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

Fairbairn, A. (2005). Simple Bucket Flotation and Wet-Sieving in the Wet Tropics. Canberra, RSPAS, Australian National University. [1.9Mb]

Glover, I. (1986). Archaeology in Eastern Timor, 1966-67. Canberra, RSPAS, Australian National University.

Oliveira, N. V. (2006). Returning to East Timor: Prospects and Possibilities from an Archaeobotanical Project in the New Country. Uncovering Southeast Asia's Past. Selected Papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, The British Museum, London 14th-17th September 2004. I. C. G. E. A. Bacus, V. C. Pigott. Singapore, National University of Singapore: 88-97.  [0.4Mb]

Spriggs, M., S. O'Connor, P. Veth (2003). Vestiges of Early Pre-agricultural Economy in the Landscape of East Timor: Recent Research. Fishbones and Glittering Emblems. Southeast Asian Archaeology 2002. A. K. A. Karlström. Stockholm, Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities - Östasiatiska Museet: 49-58.

Contact Information:

Dr. Nuno Vasco Oliveira
Adviser, Secretary of State for Culture
Ministry of Education
República Democrática de Timor-Leste
Vila Verde, Dili

T: + 670 333 9647
M: + 670 736 9666



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