The Arrival of the Malays

   by Charles Kimball

In the first millennium B.C., new races began to move into Southeast Asia from the north, displacing the original Negritos in the process. The first immigrants were the ancestors of the Malayo-Polynesian races; they arrived so early that no historical record of their arrival exists. Their mode of transportation was the outrigger canoe; whether they invented this simple but very seaworthy vessel is uncertain, but they quickly became excellent sailors. By 700 B.C. Dongson-style pottery was turning up in places as far away as New Guinea, indicating that the Malayo-Polynesians were already colonizing most of the areas where they live today: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. Between 1 and 500 A.D. they traveled even farther, crossing the oceans to reach New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii, Easter Island, and even Madagascar. By any standard these were astonishing journeys; the distance from Madagascar to Easter Island is two-thirds of the way around the world!

Back in Southeast Asia, the Dongson culture enjoyed its best years. Around 500 B.C., craftsmen in north Vietnam began making large bronze drums covered with various scenes, of people riding in boats, fighting battles, or conducting important ceremonies. These remarkable examples of metallurgy were buried with the dead, or served as urns to hold cremated remains.

history of thailand,thai history
An Ifugao tribesman, with Banawe in the background
They probably had some sort of religious significance, because many of the tribes living in the region today believe that a person needs a drum to contact his ancestral spirits. To the northwest, around Lake Dian in China's Yunnan province, another bronzeworking culture sprang up after 1000 B.C. The Dian people produced not only drums but drum-shaped containers for cowrie shells (the local form of money), and the lids of the containers are even more elaborate than the drums. These lids have miniature figures of people and their surroundings, a complete diorama. For example, one such display shows 127 people gathered around a platform bearing 16 drums, with a thatched roof stretched over the platform and a giant bronze drum standing nearby. Both cultures were eventually conquered by the Chinese: Dongson in 111 B.C., Dian in 109 B.C.

One other achievement deserves to be mentioned here. Around 1 A.D., at Banawe, in the northern Philippines, somebody left an astonishing work of engineering; using only stone age tools, they carved entire mountains into terraces so that rice may be grown on the slopes. Today's residents on the terraces, a tribe called the Ifugao, still maintain and use them, and the terraces are considered the "eighth wonder of the world" by Filipinos. But Banawe and the journeys across the Indian and Pacific Oceans mark the end of the time when Southeast Asia was a technological leader; for most of the two thousand years since Southeast Asia has borrowed most of its culture from other nations, rather than inventing its own.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball