Peter Lynn

September 2008

In Deepest Darkest Borneo.

Yes, really.

Kite festivals have some memorable side trips for participants.

I well remember the jet boat ride up the rapids below Niagara Falls during the festival there three years ago- a learning experience- in how to breathe water that is.

Jet boat dunking

The just completed Bintulu event in Sarawak (Borneo) took us all to the Niah caves.

Actually, Michael Alvarez christened them the "not so Niah" caves on account of a two hour bus trip then an hour's jungle walk to get to them- and as we wanted to be back for the afternoon's kite flying, this required a 7.30am start and even then left only a half hour or so to explore the caves themselves.

They're huge, immense, formed in limestone by water action when they were at the sea shore (now they're about 15km inland) and are significant as being the site of the earliest (at 40,000years) 'modern' human remains known in Asia/Australasia.  'Modern' being in the sense of our specie's second wave of migration out of Africa- the Asian cohort of the first wave from a million or so years ago having been wiped out (completely?)* by the explosion of Toba, in Sumatra about 75,000 years ago. 

At Niah, human presence seems to have been continuous since Palaeolithic (early stone age) times- for shelter, burials and more recently, for guano digging and birds nest collecting, and even more recently for archaeology and tourism.

The birds nests are collected for making birds nest soup and sell for as much as US1500 per kilogram.  Swallows (who share the caves with millions of bats) make the nests- which are stuck together and to the cave ceiling by dried saliva- the sought after soup constituent.

The cave ceiling is a LONG way up, and the means by which the nest collectors get to them really caught my eye for its obvious application to kite flying.

They reach up with long poles, VERY long poles, with tiny wick lamps at their top end so they can see what's doing. Hooking out nests with these poles (some as long as 20m) would be difficult with your feet firmly on the ground, but the nest collectors also do it while hanging on to the top of other very long poles that project up, guy supported, from the cave floor.

Collecting bird nests

Collecting bird nests


Just what's needed for getting kites out of trees and things- now I know how far off the pace I was with my previous efforts at using a pole in this way (see photo), thinking that a 10m pole was about the practical limit.

Retreiving kite from tree

But back to Niah; the archaeological digs there, starting in 1958, have opened a window on the lives of people who have lived in this area during the last 40,000 years.   No evidence of kite use has been found there as yet- either because there were never any kites there, or that there were but they left no remains.

This last fits with a widespread belief amongst kite fliers (including myself until recently) that kite origins are probably unknowable because kites degrade rapidly and leave no identifiable archaeological evidence.

But is this true?

I now believe it's not; as kite fliers we tend to wishfully think of finding complete recognisable kites, but to provide evidence as to origins and dates, even the tiniest residue would be sufficient. By current archaeological practise, kites could leave irrefutable evidence of their existence after thousands of years, even in a midden. 

For example, the remains of a particular type of leaf which showed traces of having had a line tied around it's spine in a particular place would be immediately recognised as likely to have been a kite.

And, seeing as in pre-European times, leaf kites were certainly made by the tens of thousands in South Asia, and that they were an everyday and important part of life (used for fishing, for play and probably ritually), it seems very likely that evidence capable of tracking their origins and development will be findable. It's also at least plausible that all known styles of kites derived from leaf kites so to trace their origins is in fact to trace the origin of all kites.

Leaf Kites

But do archaeologists and ethnologists excavating the very many Palaeolithic and later sites in South Asia know what to look for with respect to kite remains?

Would they recognise the remains of a kite if they came across one? - or will they need specialist kite knowledge that can only come from kite fliers.

Actually, I plump for the archaeologists and ethnologists on this one- even as far back as 1955 they had generally accepted that fishing kites at least had but one origin and that that was in South Asia (see quote below *), whereas single origin theories seem not to have occurred to the kite flier community until quite recently.  We're enthusiastic amateurs in this field, they're professionals.

Maybe we can do something to encourage them to look harder though.


Peter Lynn, Wokingham, August 29th, '08


*There are apparently some remaining genetic traces of the first wave in Asia- but only via the female (mitochondrial) line- supporting the feminist view that all men are murderers and rapists I suppose.


*From Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia IX 1955, Bengt Anell.

Contribution to the history of fishing using kites in the South Seas. Page 38


"It remains to decide in what way and where the kite first originated and how it was

afterwards spread.  It may be assumed that we have here to do with one single and

specific invention, firstly because the method is rather complicated, secondly

because it is unknown in other parts of the world-----"


(From other text it is clear that this is referring specifically to fishing kites).




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