An Amazing Beginning
The original inhabitants of Southeast Asia were a short, hairy, black-skinned race related to the Australian Aborigines, commonly called Negritos. Today they are found only in the most remote areas, still living a stone age lifestyle, but once they roamed the entire region, hunting and practicing slash-and-burn agriculture as far north as the Yangtze River.(1)
Archeological excavations in Thailand (Spirit Cave, Non Nok Tha) and northern Vietnam (Dongson, Hoabinh) reveal a major surprise: the first Southeast Asians had agriculture and pottery at the same time as the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, evidence now suggests that rice was grown here a long time before it was grown anywhere else, and even the pottery found here may be the world's oldest. The most impressive discovery was made at Ban Chiang, a hill on Thailand's Khorat Plateau, in the early 1970s; this hill covered a village that was settled continuously, for more than three thousand years. 126 skeletons were discovered intact, buried with the pottery and metal tools it was thought they would need in the afterlife. One 4,000-year-old skeleton was nicknamed "Nimrod" because he showed all the marks of a mighty hunter; he was unusually tall, and buried with deer antlers, hunting weapons, and a necklace of tiger claws. Even the oldest graves contained bronze bracelets, bells and spearheads, dating back as far as 3600 B.C.!
At this early date the Khorat smiths were doing better work than their Mesopotamian counterparts; by 3000 B.C. they figured out that the strongest bronze alloy is made by mixing 1 part of tin with nine parts of copper. They were probably helped by a geographical advantage: Southeast Asia is the world's richest source of tin. Tin is uncommon in the West, and before the Mesopotamians discovered it, they made bronze by mixing copper and arsenic, with brittle and sometimes hazardous results.
Since little archeological excavation has been possible in Southeast Asia to date--thanks to modern problems like the Indochina wars--the discoveries made so far have caused considerable controversy. Traditionally it was believed that the Middle East is the only cradle of civilization, and distant centers of civilization like India, China and Central America somehow learned it from their elder brothers in Egypt and Iraq. The discoveries mentioned above bring this theory into question. Did the Middle East invent everything first? Did the Far East get started on its own, without help from the West? Part of the controversy stems from the fact that in Iraq we can trace the development of metalworking from its earliest stages, while the bronze works found so far in Thailand are products of a fully developed metallurgy. Pro-Thai advocates argue that we have not yet figured out where Mesopotamia first got its tin, so if there was any transfer of metals and ideas, it was from east to west, not the other way around.
At the 1600 B.C. level, archeologists came across another important discovery: iron spearheads, knives and bracelets. Normally the Hittites of ancient Turkey are credited with being the first people to forge iron, but these objects are just as old as anything the Hittites produced. Around the same time, the people went from dry cultivation to the wet-cultivation of rice in flooded fields that is still practiced today; that greatly increased the total food supply. The carabao, or water buffalo, was domesticated around this time to pull plows, and the discovery of spindles and bits of thread suggest that they already knew how to make cloth from silk (this may have been learned from the Chinese).
Ban Chiang's achievements were limited to agriculture and metallurgy; they had no cities, no writing, no temples and no kings. Warfare seems to have been unknown as well; nobody was buried with any shield or weapon of war, no skeleton found to date shows signs of a violent death, and no settlement shows evidence of having been destroyed by fire or force of arms. They lived simply, turning out their pottery and bronzes until the first millennium B.C., when they vanished as mysteriously as they came. But by that time they had left their mark on other cultures. It now appears that China learned how to make bronze from them, for the Chinese word for copper, "tong", is the same word used in the oldest Southeast Asian languages.
There are hundreds of circular mounds--some as much as twenty feet high--that still await investigation in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They are spaced an average of 18 miles apart, and most of them are probably villages. Now that political conditions in the region have finally relaxed, it may be possible to excavate them to see if they can answer the questions raised by the artifacts found so far. Perhaps these hide the missing cities of the Ban Chiang civilization. Unfortunately, when the natives living near Ban Chiang found out that the potsherds in their ground were worth something to foreigners, they dug up and smuggled thousands of pieces out of the country before scholars had a chance to study them. Furthermore, when the villagers ran out of authentic pots to sell, they started making convincing-looking forgeries. The artifacts still lying in those other mounds may revolutionize our knowledge of ancient history, if the archeologists can get to them before the looters do.
1 - The Chinese record dealings with ethnic groups like the Vietnamese, the Hmong, and the Thais all the way back to the first centuries of their long history. Since the Chinese only lived in the Yellow River valley at this early date, their non-Chinese neighbors must have once lived in China too. These groups later moved south to their present locations when the Chinese expanded into the lands across the Yangtze River after 1000 B.C.
©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball