New Light On A Forgotten Past

By Wilhelm G. Solheim II, Ph.D.
Professor Of Anthropology, University Of Hawaii


Picture 1: Dongson bronze

The world has turned its attention to Southeast Asia during the past decade, but the cause of the interest has been war. The overwhelming nature of military events has obscured some astonishing discoveries about the ancient history and prehistory of the people who live there. Yet in the long run these discoveries, primarily archeological, will affect--perhaps more than the war or its outcome--the way we think about the area and its people, and the way they think about themselves.

Even the position of Western man and his place in the evolution of world culture may be drastically affected. For clear and powerful indications are emerging that some of the earliest steps toward civilization may have been taken in Southeast Asia.

Where Did Man First Grow Plants and Cast Bronze ?

European and American historians generally have theorized that what we call civilization first took root in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, or on its hilly flanks. There, we have long believed, primitive man developed agriculture and learned to make pottery and bronze. Archeology supported this belief, partly because it was in the region of that Fertile Crescent that archeologists did their most extensive digging.

Now, however, discoveries in Southeast Asia are forcing us to re-examine these traditions. Material excavated and analyzed during the past five years suggests that men were cultivating plants there, making pottery, and casting bronze implements as early as anywhere on earth.

The evidence comes from archeological sites in northeastern and northwestern Thailand, with support from excavations in Taiwan, North and South Viet Nam, other areas in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even from northern Australia.

Materials uncovered and dated by carbon 14* are the cultural remains of people whose ancestors may have been growing plants and making polished stone tools and pottery thousands of years earlier than were the peoples of the Near East, India, or China.

Picture 2: Cast in double molds

At one site in northern Thailand, bronze was being cast in double molds (picture 2)  well before 2300 B.C.---perhaps earlier than 3000 B.C.. This is substantially earlier than such work in India or China, and possibly earlier than the first bronze cast in the Near East, where, until now, most experts have thought that bronze metalworking began.

One may reasonably ask: If it is so important, why has Southeast Asia's role in prehistory remained unknown until now?

There are several explanations, but the main reason is simply that very little archeological research had been done in the area before 1950. Even now the work has barely begun. Colonial officials did not place a high priority on studies of prehistory, and few of the men who did investigate it had professional training. Not one complete site report acceptable under present standards was published before the 1950's.

Secondly, what they did uncover was interpreted on the assumption that the flow of culture was eastward and southward. Civilization, they theorized, having begun in the Near East, flowered in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and later in Greece and Rome. It also moved east to India and China. Southeast Asia, being so far from the point of origin, got it thereafter.

Europeans found advanced cultures in India and China. When they saw similarities in the architecture and aristocratic lifestyles of those countries and Southeast Asia, they assumed Indian and Chinese influence. Even the name they gave the area--Indochina--reflected this attitude.

Migrating Peoples and "Waves of Culture"

For purposes of prehistory, what we usually think of as Southeast Asia must be expanded somewhat to include related cultures. Prehistoric Southeast Asia, as I use the term, consists of two parts. The first is "Mainland Southeast Asia," which extends from the Ch'in Ling Mountains, north of the Yangtze River in China, to Singapore, and from the South China Sea westward through Burma into Assam. The other I call "Island Southeast Asia," an are from the Andaman Islands, south of Burma, around to Taiwan, including Indonesia and the Philippines. (See the double supplement, Asia and Peoples of Mainland Southeast Asia, distributed with this issue.)

Robert Heine-Geldern, an Austrian anthropologist, published in 1932 the traditional outline of Southeast Asian prehistory. He suggested a series of "waves of culture" that is, human migrations--which brought to Southeast Asia the major peoples who are found there today.

His most important wave -- people who made a rectangular stone tool called an adz-- came from northern China into Southeast Asia, he said, and spread from there through the Malay Peninsula into Sumatra and Java, and then to Borneo, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.

Later, Heine-Geldern dealt with the coming of bronze to Southeast Asia. He theorized that the original source of the Southeast Asian Bronze Age was a migration from eastern Europe about 1000 B.C. The people in this migration, he believed, moved east and south, entering China during the Western Chou Dynasty (1122-771 B.C.). They carried with them not only a knowledge of bronze working but also a new art form. That is, they decorated their bronze with geometric patterns, spirals, triangles, and rectangles, as well as with scenes or pictures of people and animals.

Picture 3: Dongson bronze drum

Picture 4: Dongson bronze artifact

As applied to Southeast Asia, both Heine-Geldern and Bernhard Karlgren, a Swedish scholar, called this culture Dong Son, after Dong Son, a site in North Viet Nam south of Hanoi, where large bronze drums (picture 3) and other artifacts (picture 4)  had been unearthed. Both men felt that the Dong Son people brought bronze and the geometric art style into Southeast Asia (picture 1).

Prehistorians, for the most part, have followed this traditional reconstruction, but there were some facts that did not quite jibe. A few botanists who studied the origins of domesticated plants, for example, suggested that Southeast Asia had been a center of very early plant domestication.

In 1952 Carl Sauer, a ž S. geographer, went a step further. He hypothesized that the first plant domestication in the world took place in Southeast Asia. He speculated that it was brought about by people much earlier than the Dong Son period, people whose primitive culture was known as Hoabinhian. Archeologists did not immediately take up Sauer's theory.

Dams Add an Element of Urgency

The existence of a Hoabinhian culture had first been proposed in the 1920's by Madeleine Colani, a French botanist turned paleontologist and then archeologist. She based the idea on excavations of several cave and rock-shelter sites in North Viet Nam, the first of which was found near the village of Hoa Binh.

Typical artifacts in these sites included oval, circular, or roughly triangular stone tools flaked on only one side, leaving the original surface of the rock on the other. Neat grinding stones were found in most sites, and many stone flakes. Upper levels usually held pottery and a few somewhat different stone tools, with the working end ground to a sharp edge. Animal bones and large quantities of shell were usually present.

Archeologists felt that the pottery was associated accidentally with the Hoabinhian tools and had been made by more advanced people living nearby, possibly farmers who had migrated from the north. They also felt that the edge grinding of the stone tools had been learned from these outsiders. But no sites of tile northern farmers have ever been found.

In 1963 I organized a joint expedition of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand and the University of Hawaii to do archeological salvage work in areas that would be flooded by new dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries." We were to start work in northern Thailand, where the first dams were being built.

No systematic research had ever been done on the region's prehistory. I felt that it was urgent to begin a series of excavations before much of this area went under water.

Surprises From an Unimpressive Mound

During the first field season we located more than twenty sites; during the second we excavated some of these and tested others; and in 1965-66 we made a major excavation at Non Nok Tha. While the carbon-14 dates from this site have presented some problems, they strongly suggest a sequence of human habitation (with some interruptions) going back to well before 3500 B.C.

Non Nok Tha is a mound of about six acres that rises less than six feet above the surrounding rice fields. While working there, we lived in the small Thai-Lao village of Ban Na Di, a couple of hundred yards from the mound.

We spent about four months at our first excavation. Hamilton Parker, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, was in charge the first year. Donn Bayard, a student of mine working for his Ph.D., returned to Non Nok Tha in 1968 to make a second excavation for his doctor's thesis. Since then Otago and the University of Hawaii have continued to support our work in Thailand as a joint program with the Thai Fine Arts Department.

The results of those excavations, now in their seventh year, have been astonishing, hut have 01714' unfolded slowly as the analysis of our finds proceeds in our laboratory in Honolulu. As we started to receive our carbon-14 dates, we began to realize what a truly revolutionary site this was.

In a scrap of broken pottery little more than an inch square, we found an imprint of the husk of a grain of rice, Oryza sativa. From the carbonddating of a burial in a level above this potsherd, we know that it--and the rice-ðate at the latest from 3500 B.C. This is as much as a thousand years earlier than rice has been dated for either India or China --where some archeolotrists have claimed, rice was first domesticated.

From carbonddating of associated charcoal, we know that bronze axes, cast in double molds of sandstone, were being made at Non Nok Tha substantially earlier than 2300 B.C. --probably before 3000 B.C. This is more than 500 -ears earlier than the first known Bronze casting in India, and 1,000 years before any known in China. It may also prove older than sites in the Near East, which is where bronze manufacture was long assumed to have begun.

The rectangular molds we found at Non Nok Tha all came in pairs (page 334), indicating that they had been placed together where we found them, rather than having been lost or discarded. Considering the whole and broken crucibles that turned up, and the many small nodules of bronze scattered about, we have no doubt that we have unearthed a bronze-casting area--in effect, an ancient ax factory.

Portions of cattle were interred with some of the early burials at Non Nok Tha. These have been tentatively identified as domesticated animals very similar to the zebu (Bos indicus). This would be the earliest dated find of domesticated cattle in eastern Asia.

Chester German, a student of mine at the University of Hawaii, was the one who located' Non Nok Tha by finding potsherds eroding from the mound. In 1965 he returned to Thailand for his Ph.D. work. He wanted to test the suggestion by Carl Sauer and others of possible plant domestication by Hoabinhian people. In far northern Thailand, close to the Burmese border, he found Spirit Cave --and what he was looking for.

Cave of Death Yields Startling Dates

Spirit Cave stands high on the side or a limestone outcrop, overlooking a stream which ultimately drains into the Salween River in Burma (see supplement map). The cave was apparently once used as a mausoleum - hence the name.

Picture 5
: Stone tool

Excavating. its floor, German found carbonized plant remains, including two probable beans, a possible pea, a Chinese water chestnut, a pepper, and bits of bottle gourd and cucumber, all in association with typical Hoabinhian stone tools (picture 5).

The remains of animal bones, chopped into small pieces but usually not burned, suggest that the meat cooked here was not roasted in or on the fire but stewed, probably in a container of green bamboo--as is still done in Southeast Asia todaÜ

A series of carbon-14 dates for this site range from 6000 B.C. back to 9700 B.C., and there is still older material, in deeper layers, \let to be dated. At about 6600 B.C., new elements entered the site. These include wellddeveloped pottery, burnished, incised, and marked by the woven cords used in its manufacture; rectangular, partially polished stone tools; and small slate knives. Hoabinhian tools and plant remains continue to he found with this more recent material.

We may regard the finds at Spirit Cave as at least preliminary corroboration of Carl Sauer's hypothesis, and other expeditions are adding evidence of a complex and widespread Hoabinhian culture. U Aung Thaw, Director of the Archeological Survey of Burma, excavated in 1969 a remarkable Hoabinhian site at the Padah-lin caves in eastern Burma. It contained, among other things, many cave paintings. This is the farthest west that a Hoabinhian site has been reported.

Excavations in Taiwan by a joint expedition of the National Taiwan University and Yale University, led by Professor Kwangchih Chang of Yale, have shown that a culture with cord-marked and incised pottery, polished stone tools, and polished slate points had a long existence prior to 2500 B.C.

Puzzle Begins to Fit Together

In view of the new excavations and dates I have summarized here, and others, perhaps equally important, that I have not, it is interesting to speculate on how the prehistory of Southeast Asia may someday be reconstructed. In a number of published papers I have made a start on this. Most of the ideas I have proposed must be labeled as hypothesis or conjecture. They need a great deal more research to bear them out--or refute them. Among them are these:

  • I agree with Sauer that the first domestication of plants in the world was done by people of the Hoabinhian culture, somewhere in Southeast Asia. It would not surprise me if this had begun as early as 15,000 B.C.
  • I suggest that the earliest dated edge-ground stone tools, found in northern Australia and dated by carbon 14 at about 20,000 B.C., are of Hoabinhian origin.
  • While the earliest dates for pottery now known are from Japan at about 10,000 B.C., I expect that when more of the Hoabinhian sites with cord-marked pottery are dated, we will find that pottery was being made by these people well before 10,000 B.C., and was possibly invented by them.
  • * The traditional reconstruction of Southeast Asian prehistory has had migrations from the north bringing important developments in technology to Southeast Asia. I suggest instead that the first neolithic (that is, late Stone Age) culture of North China, known as the Yangshao, developed out of a Hoabinhian subculture that moved north from northern Southeast Asia about the sixth or seventh millennium B.C.
  • I suggest that the later so-called Lungshan culture, which supposedly grew from the Yangshao in North China and then exploded to the east and southeast, instead developed in South China and moved northward. Both of these cultures developed out of a Hoabinhian base.
  • Dugout canoes had probably been used on the rivers of Southeast Asia long before the fifth millennium B.C. Probably not long before 4000 B.C. the outrigger was invented in Southeast Asia, adding the stability needed to move by sea. I believe that movement out of the area by boat, beginning about 4000 B.C., led to accidental voyages from Southeast Asia to Taiwan and Japan, bringing to Japan tare cultivation and perhaps other crops.
  • Sometime during the third millennium B.C. the now-expert boat-using peoples of Southeast Asia were entering the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. 'They brought with them a geometric art style -- spirals and triangles and rectangles in band patterns-that was used in pottery, wood carvings, tattoos, bark cloth, and later woven textiles. These are the same geometric art motifs that were found on Dong Son bronzes and hypothesized to have come from eastern Europe. · The Southeast Asians also moved west, reaching Madagascar probably around 2,000 years ago. It would appear that they contributed a number of important domesticated plants to the economy of eastern Africa.
  • At about the same time, contact began between Viet Nam and the Mediterranean, probably by sea as a result of developing trade. Several unusual bronzes, strongly suggesting eastern Mediterranean origins, have been found at the Dong Son site.

Past May Help to Light Up the Present

The new reconstruction of Southeast Asian prehistory I have presented here is based on data from only a very few sites and a reinterpretation of old data. Other interpretations are possible. Many more well-excavated, welldated sites are needed just to see if this general framework is any closer to what happened than is Heine-Geldern's reconstruction. Burma and Assam are virtually unknown prehistorically, and I suspect that they are of great importance in Southeast Asian prehistory.

Most needed are many more details about small, definable areas. By intensive investigation in a small area, it will be possible to work out the local cultural development and ecological adaptation to see how living people fit in with the framework of prehistory. After all, it is people we want to understand, and this information may give us some insight into their interaction with each other and with their changing world in Southeast Asia.

Wilhelm G. Solheim Ii, Ph.D.