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Shells, stones and pollen

About the role of Sumatra in the evolution of the modern humand, little is known. The densely forested equatorial landscape didn't safe the kind of lake- and river-deposits that brought to light the very early version of the human kind in Eastern and central parts of Java. The early humans probably avoided the wet rainforests, and inhabited the fertile river valleys along Sumatra's mountainous spline. Maybe theyr remains will be found in the future, but the proove that exsists today is all secondary.

The earliest inhabitants

The biggest part of the last milion years Sumatra, as well as Java, was connected with the Malay peninsula. The sealevel on the whole was lower, because big numbers of water was catched in the Pleistocene glaciers. The western part of the Indonesian archipelago only exsists for about 6000 years in it's current chape, outside some short times during the warmer interglacial periods; the last one 120.000 years ago.

Probably about one million years ago, the first humans came to Sumatra over the lands formed in the Pleistocene time (1.6 milion to 10.000 years ago). The archeological prooves however only date back about 10.000 years. In a cave near Tianko Panjang, near Danau Kerinci (Kerinci Lake), a took made of vulcanic glass was found.

But the most famous remains of the early pre-agrarian period are giant mountains of rubbish like shells, bones and stone tools, which were to be found along the banks of the eastern coastal area near Lhokseumawe and Medan. About the people who made these hills of shells, little is known, but their skulls do raise ideas that they had melanesian looks, closely related to the people from Australia and New Guinee.

They hunted for deers, wild pigs, elephants and rhino's, and made their stone tools from bir river-stones. Their cultural remains are named after Hoa Binh, the archeological site near Hanoi (Vietnam). About the same materials, which date back 4.000 to 13.000 years,are also found on the Malay peninsula, Thailand and Vietnam (without the mountains of shells).

Austronesian Agrarians

All populations on Sumatra speak Austronesian languages. They are biologically very close to eachother and belong to the 'Southern Mongolide' population, that nowadays lives in the biggest part of South-Eastern Asia. This language-family includes about all the languages on the South-Eastern Asian islands, and the islands in the Great Ocean, beyond the Solomon Islands.

From about 4000 BC, the population of Taiwan started to move, About 2500 BC they reached Sumatra. Most Sumatran speak dialects of the Malay language, or a close variation on it like Monangkabau. Languages outside these Malay group are Gayo and Batak, and languages on the islands near Sumatra like Simeulue, Nias, Mentawai and Enggano.

Little archeological research is done on Sumatra, way to little to make usefull conclusions about the prehistorical relations of these populations. But there are two important remarks to be made. In the first place there are prooves that the forests around lakes, swamps, and aroung Gunung Kerinci and Danau Toba have been chopped down for over 4000 years, probably for agricultural purposes. Proove comes from palynology, the study for pollen which have been saved in the soil which is found in the area.
Picture: Kora Kora
Possibly this woodchop reflects the arrival of Austronesian populations to Sumatra, unless there were already people with other languages on the island. It still is one of the big question marks of the Sumatran question.

Second of all, the languages outside the Malay group, Gayo, Batak, Simeulue, Nias, Mentawai and Enggano are most likely local adaptions of originally Austronesian languages which were used in these areas. Aceh, which is connected with Cham in Southern Vietnam, could be an acception.

The Malay languages, which also occur in Malaysia and along the coast of Borneo, seem to mirror a later period of cultural and lingual expansion, maybe because of the rise of Srivijaya at the end of the 7th century. This Buddhist principalty was concentrated on the area around the nowadays Palembang on Southern Sumatra. The Malay languages could have replaced the original Austronesian languages on the island.

Along the eastern lowlands south of Medan the Malay language is spoken, even by the nomadic Kubu. These collectors are from Southern Mongolid origin, and speak a language that is related very strongly to the language of their neighbors that it is actually very likely they once stepped towards collecting food, from cultivating. This would mean a turnaround process, differing from the way in which cultures develop normally.

Bronze Age and Iron Age

As well as Java, Sumatra doesn't have detailed archeological founds before the Bronze Age. Around the start of the current era the island starts to exsist in the archeology, this was when the high-developed Dongson culture in Vietnam came to Sumatra and took the art of ironworks with it.

The bronze Dongsondrums, with their nice decorations of boats, houses with higher floors, animals, birds and human warriors are found on different locations on the island, for example near Danau Kerinci in Western Sumatra and near Bengkulu

The famous Batu Gajah (Stone of the Elephant), shows a Dongson-drum, carried on a back of a man, which seems to be on top of an elephant. This stons is now stores in the museum of Palembang, but it originally belonged to the fascinating complex of megalith monuments in the fields around Pagaralam (Western Sumatra). The reliefs on these stone monuments show men on elephants or buffalo's with helmets, and humans that were thought to be snakes.

In enormous underground gravetombs of flat rocks, arctefacts like beats and objects from bronze and iron and even gold have been found. Some graves are painted on the insdide. In one case two humans are shown, holding a Dongson-drum. Examples of these paintings can be seen in the National Museum in Jakarta.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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