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The Emergence of Bone Technologies at the End of the Pleistocene in Southeast Asia: Regional and Evolutionary Implications

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2012

Ryan J. Rabett
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, UK Email:
Philip J. Piper
Archaeological Studies Program, University of the Philippines, Diliman, 1101 Quezon City, Philippines Email:


For many decades Palaeolithic research viewed the development of early modern human behaviour as largely one of progress down a path towards the ‘modernity’ of the present. The European Palaeolithic sequence — the most extensively studied — was for a long time the yard-stick against which records from other regions were judged. Recent work undertaken in Africa and increasingly Asia, however, now suggests that the European evidence may tell a story that is more parochial and less universal than previously thought. While tracking developments at the large scale (the grand narrative) remains important, there is growing appreciation that to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human behavioural evolution requires an archaeologically regional perspective to balance this.

One of the apparent markers of human modernity that has been sought in the global Palaeolithic record, prompted by finds in the European sequence, is innovation in bonebased technologies. As one step in the process of re-evaluating and contextualizing such innovations, in this article we explore the role of prehistoric bone technologies within the Southeast Asian sequence, where they have at least comparable antiquity to Europe and other parts of Asia. We observe a shift in the technological usage of bone — from a minor component to a medium of choice — during the second half of the Last Termination and into the Holocene. We suggest that this is consistent with it becoming a focus of the kinds of inventive behaviour demanded of foraging communities as they adapted to the far-reaching environmental and demographic changes that were reshaping this region at that time. This record represents one small element of a much wider, much longerterm adaptive process, which we would argue is not confined to the earliest instances of a particular technology or behaviour, but which forms part of an on-going story of our behavioural evolution.

Copyright © The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2012

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