The Cultured Rainforest Project

CRF composite3

Researcher: Dr Huw Barton

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 project research team

  • Professor Graeme Barker, University of Cambridge: Principal Investigator
  • Dr Huw Barton, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester: Co-Investigator
  • Professor Chris Gosden, Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Monica Janowski, Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Chris Hunt, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast: Co-Investigator
  • Dr Jayl Langub: University of Malaysia, Sarawak
  • Lindsay-Lloyd Smith: Post Doctoral Research Fellow
  • Lucy Farr: Research Assistant/Associate in GIS
  • 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

Progress of the project

The project team of anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers worked together in the field in the Bario and Pa' Dalih areas during the summer of 2008, and individual team members undertook further periods of fieldwork afterwards. Two project workshops were also held in Cambridge in the autumn and spring to discuss progress and plans. The work of the project was presented in invited lectures and at various international conferences (detailed on the report form) as well as in informal seminars at members' institutions and in Sarawak.

Veg use Kelapang4

The second year of the project has produced much new data charting the complexity of the relations between people and rainforest in the Kelabit Highlands, past and present, and the linkage between the two. The two seasons of archaeological fieldwork have provided the beginnings of a reasonably robust chronology of human occupation in the Kelabit Highlands stretching back at least 4,000 years. There are now a number of settlement sites identified from a range of topographic localities (ridge-top and river terrace especially), with secure radiocarbon dates spanning the last 1,700 years.

The settlement and land-use patterns emerging for the past two millennia point to the long term and repeated re-use of particular places in the landscape such as the Long Kelit confluence in the Upper Kelapang valley up to the recent past, with a ditched promontory site discovered at Ruma Ma'on Taa Payo, dating to the early first millennium AD, for which there are no historically- or orally-documented analogues. Geophysical survey at Long Kelit has located a range of sub-surface features which excavation has shown are likely to indicate an archaeology of longhouses 50-100 years ago not dissimilar to that of the recorded and recent past with indications of earlier settlement on the same locations.

The sequence of vegetation change indicating human impacts on forest that has been obtained from pollen cores taken from palaeochannels in the Upper Kelapang exhibits a considerable degree of congruence with the secure dates from the excavated settlements, though it is not yet clear when the activities that resulted in vegetation change and forest clearance recorded in the pollen diagrams involved cultivation as opposed to foraging.

A significant theme emerging from the project is the importance of the past – real, remembered, mythical - for people's sense of place today. Although ties to the forest environment are being loosened amongst the Kelabit, the emphasis on the acquisition of material culture as part of the panoply of social relations remains.

A second theme is that concepts of farming and foraging, wild and domestic, are significantly blurred in present-day forest lives, and probably were so in the past as well. Though Kelabit attitudes to rice exemplify a cultural and cosmological distinction between what is 'domestic' (rice) and what is 'wild' (all other plants), the spatial concept of a natural wildness versus a cultural domestication is a misleading notion. Plants and in some cases animals are frequently moved from the 'wild' environment to a more 'domestic' garden setting, and plants from the garden to the forest clearing, causing no particular difficulty in classification.

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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