ECONOMIC PATTERNS OF NEOLITHIC LIFE
The economic prehistory of the Malay Peninsula followed a slightly different course than that of Sabah and Sarawak. By about 10,000 years ago, during the Hoabinhian cultural period, the hunting and gathering lifestyle was established throughout the northern and central Peninsula, as well as a basic trade network along which travelled shells, stone resources, forest products and social information. There is no confirmed evidence that the population grew rice or practised systematic agriculture, but encouragement of plant resources most probably took place.
During the Peninsular Neolithic (c. 4,500-2,500 years ago), there would have been some field agriculture of rice and foxtail millet. These crops are not proven by actual remains, but Peninsular Neolithic artefacts are closely paralleled in central and southern Thailand sites where rice cultivation is definitely attested about 4,000 years ago.
The origin of Malaysia's Neolithic people is often the subject of heated debates. Some academics believe that the Peninsular Neolithic populations (few commit themselves on Borneo) were indigenous to the Malay Peninsula and acquired agriculture and Neolithic artefacts by trade contact with people from Thailand. A contrary and popular theory, which uses linguistic evidence, is that the Peninsular Neolithic people were the ancestors of the present-day Orang Asli group, the Senoi, whose ancestors migrated down the Peninsula from southern Thailand about 4,500 years ago. No living archaeologists equate the Peninsular Neolithic with Austronesian migrations, although this was a popular view in the 1930s.
Hoabinhian pebble tool industries do not occur in Borneo, but the flake tool users of Sarawak and Sabah seem to have been hunters and gatherers. Rice remains from Sarawak's Gua Sireh have been dated to about 4,500 years ago. The knowledge of rice cultivation could have been introduced from Taiwan via the Philippines, or from the Malay Peninsula or southern Thailand. Present-day Austronesian-speaking groups were no doubt present during the Bornean Neolithic, but it is not known whether rice cultivation was connected with them or some other group, such as an Aslian population from the Peninsula. Neolithic pottery from Sarawak has more similarities with pottery from the Malay Peninsula than the Philippines. However, Neolithic pottery from Sabah (c. 3,500 years ago), relates to that of the Philippines and eastern Indonesia—areas which probably did not have a rice economy—and it is here that the Orang Laut (sea nomad) economy appeared based on fishing, shellfishing, trading, and tuber and fruit growing.
Overall, the economic patterns of Malaysian Neolithic life remain poorly known. Obviously, people continued hunting and gathering, just as before agriculture developed. In the rainforest environment, rice cultivation would have been restricted by climatic factors and poor soils away from the alluvial plains. Many other plant foods must have supported Neolithic life. Few remains of such plants exist in the archaeological record. However, the future for plant discovery looks set to change with the advent of new research methods.