PREHISTORIC MYANMAR AND ANCIENT BURMESE HISTORY

The prehistory of Myanmar spanned hundreds of millennia to about 200 B.C.. Archaeological findings suggests shows that homo erectus lived in the region now known as Burma as early as 750,000 years ago. The firmest evidence of this is Yuanmou Man—one of the oldest known hominid fossil in China, and thought to be a Homo erectus fossil—found in Yunnan Province of China, which borders Myanmar. The oldest fossils found in Asia—including Peking Man and Java Man—are Homo Erectus. In 1994, Java Man was dated to be 1.7 million years old.

The earliest archaeological evidence suggests that cultures existed in Burma as early as 11,000 B.C. when a Stone Age culture called the Anyathian people lived along the Irrawaddy River. Named after the central dry zone sites where most of the early settlement finds are located, the Anyathian period was when plants and animals were first domesticated and polished stone tools appeared in Burma. Though these sites are situated in fertile areas, evidence shows these early people were not yet familiar with agricultural methods. Most indications of early settlement have been found in the central dry zone, where scattered sites appear in close proximity to the Irrawaddy River. The Anyathian, Burma's Stone Age, existed at a time thought to parallel the lower and middle Paleolithic in Europe. [Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, Wikipedia *]

The Neolithic or New Stone Age, when plants and animals were first domesticated and polished stone tools appeared, is evidenced in Burma by three caves located near Taunggyi at the edge of the Shan plateau that are dated to 10000 to 6000 B.C. About 1500 B.C., people in the region were turning copper into bronze, growing rice, and domesticating chickens and pigs; they were among the first people in the world to do so. By 500 B.C., iron-working settlements emerged in an area south of present-day Mandalay. Bronze-decorated coffins and burial sites filled with earthenware remains have been excavated. Archaeological evidence at Samon Valley south of Mandalay suggests rice growing settlements that traded with China between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. *

Myanmar: the Land of Human Origin?

Pondaung is a geographical region in Myanmar lying partly in the Sagaing and partly in Magway Divisions of Myanmar. According to the Myanmar government: “It has become well known world wide due to the discovery of fossilized remains of anthropoid primate some years back by both Myanmar and foreign geologists. Teams of experts on the subject from the United States, France and Japan have made research trips to this area with the cooperation of the Office of the Strategic Studies of the Ministry of Defence and geologists of various Universities of the Ministry of Education and discovered substantial fossilized remains not only of the anthropoid primate but also of some wild fauna and flora. After laboratory tests and analysis of their finds and scientific discussions at international forums a consensus has been reached that "Pondaung anthropoid primate fossils are 40 million years older than their Egyptian counterparts which were once considered the oldest".[Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The French Professor Jean Jacques wrote in the French newspapers ." Primates fossils that were discovered in Pontaung region in the northwest of the Union of Myanmar revealed that this region was once inhabited by the human beings that dates back about 40 million years ago and thus these fossils were 7 million years older than the fossils that were found in Egypt.” ~

“Myanmar has found the most reliable proof of 'Human Origin'. Scientists believe that human originated from primates, or people simply call them monkeys. The word 'primate' generally refers to mammals which have both hands and legs and being the most intelligent among all other living beings. Therefore. to trace the human origin. scientists had to look into the earliest evidence of anthropoid primates. The discovery of many fossilized remains of Pondaung primates within the past few years by French, Japanese. and other international scientists has confirmed the original findings. ~

“The Pondaung area is situated in the northwestern part of central Myanmar which consists two ranges named Pondaung and Ponnyadaung of over 3000 feet high. lying in a North-South direction. It has been a famous fossil site for The eastern range is Pondaung and the western range is Ponnyadaung. These two ranges are composed of the rocks of the Pondaung Formation. The formation is almost entirely composed of massive quartz sandstones. brown on the weathered surface. but of a greenish tint in fresh stream sections. As of today. scientists found 4 different groups of primates: Pondaungia. Amphipithecus. Myanmarpithecus. and Bahinia.” ~

Stone Age Myanmar

The pre-migration period of Burma spanned from 11,000 B.C. to 4,000 B.C. before the mass migration. This era is characterized by stone age culture which later advanced to bronze and iron age cultures. The cave ritual system, which was later used for Buddhist caves, is believed to have been rooted in the earliest civilization of this era. The effect can be seen today in many Buddhism ritual caves across Burma. Stone Age men lived in Padah-lin caves situated in Ywagan township in southern Shan States by 11,000 B.C. Neolithic paintings found inside Padah-Lin Caves. Have been radiocarbon dated up to 13,000 years ago.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “As infrequent archaeological excavations have slowly revealed pieces of Burma's past, a better but still incomplete understanding of Burma's prehistory has slowly emerged. Scant archaeological evidence suggests that cultures existed in Burma as early as 11,000 B.C., long before the more recent Burmese migrations that occurred after the A.D. 8th century. The conventional western divisions of prehistory into the Old Stone Age, New Stone Age and the Iron or Metal Age are difficult to apply in Burma because there is considerable overlap between these periods. In Burma, most indications of early settlement have been found in the central dry zone, where scattered sites appear in close proximity to the Irrawaddy River. Surprisingly, the artifacts from these early cultures resemble those from neighboring areas in Southeast Asia as well as India. Although these sites are situated in fertile areas, archaeological evidence indicates that these early people were not yet familiar with agricultural methods. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

The Anyathian, Burma's Stone Age, existed at a time thought to parallel the lower and middle Paleolithic in Europe. At least six kinds of stone hand tools have been discovered in the fourteen sites associated with this period. This assemblage of stone tools in conjunction with additional archaeological evidence indicates that these people lived by hunting animals and gathering wild fruits, vegetables and root crops. =

The Neolithic or New Stone Age, when plants and animals were first domesticated and polished stone tools appeared, is evidenced in Burma by three caves located near Taunggyi at the edge of the Shan plateau that are dated to 10000 to 6000 B.C. The most complex of these, the Padhalin cave, contains wall paintings of animals, not unlike those found in the Neolithic caves at Altimira, Spain or Lascaux, France. These paintings may be interpreted as an indication that the cave was used as a site for religious ritual. Thus, caves were among the earliest sites used for Buddhist worship in Burma. This is of importance because the use of caves for religious purposes continued into later periods and may be seen as a "bridge" between the earlier non-Burmese, Animist period and the later Buddhist period. Numerous caves around the ancient city of Pagan have been outfitted with Buddha images or have been incorporated into early temples such as Kyauk Ku Umin or Thamiwhet and Hmyatha Umin. =

A Buddhist temple is referred to as a cave, whether it is naturally formed or, as is most often the case, architecturally constructed. The Burmese word for cave is "gu" and has been continually used to refer to Buddhist temples. It is frequently incorporated into the name of a temple, for example Shwe Gu Kyi or Penatha Gu. Also, until the twelfth century, temple interiors were intentionally dimly lit. This effect was achieved by installing permanent stone or brick lattices in all the relatively small windows. (The Burmese ethnic group has been credited with building their temples with larger, unobstructed windows and thereby creating more brightly-lit interiors - a transition that is seen in the temples of the Pagan Period). =

By the second half of the first millennium B.C. a new developmental phase began in the dry zone of Burma. Referred to as the early Bronze - Iron Age, these cultures shared practices and methods of production with various neighboring areas. Burial methods resemble those of Thailand and Cambodia. Iron working technology most likely came from India or other parts of Southeast Asia, and ceramic forms and decoration correspond to those of the bronze - iron Age levels at Ban Chiang in northern Thailand and at Samrong Sen in Cambodia. Numerous beads have been recovered that stylistically resemble those imported from Andrha Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in India. =

Taungthaman Site and Padah-Lin Cave

Dr. Richard M.Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “ The site of Taungthaman is located near the 19th century city of Mandalay, on an alluvial terrace of the Irrawaddy River within the walls of the 18th century capital, Amarapura, and was occupied from the late Neolithic through the early iron age, around the middle of the first millennium B.C. Many artifacts have been uncovered at Taungthaman such as sophisticated stone tools, intricate ceramic wares, and primitive iron metallurgy. Many of these objects would have been acquired from the prosperity gained through industrious farming and trade. When burying their dead, their new affluence encouraged these people to include among the grave goods fine decorative ceramics produced by specialized potter artisans as well as the more common household objects such as bowls and spoons. Human and animal figures discovered at Taungthaman in the 1970's are thought to have been used for religious practices. If this is so, these artifacts represent the oldest of their kind found in Burma. Although no building in permanent material was discovered at Taungthaman, the excavations uncovered a pattern of post-holes that are the results of buildings having been supported on wooden pilings. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus, Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Roughly polished stone implements of various sizes are often found in the Shan States of eastern Burma. Pebble tools, including choppers and chopping tools, are found in the Pleistocene terrace deposits of the Irrawaddy Valley of Upper Myanmar. These complexes are collectively known as the Anyathians, thus, the culture is called the Anyathian culture. The Early Anyathian is characterized by single-edged core implements made on natural fragments of fossil wood and silicified tuff, which are associated with crude flake implements. However, domestications and polishing of stones, which are possible signs of Neolithic culture, are not known until the discovery of Padah Lin caves in Southern Shan State. =

Three caves located near Taunggyi at the edge of the Shan Plateau, depict the Neolithic age when farming, domestication, and polished stone tools first appeared. They are dated between 11,000 to 6,000 B.C.. The most significant of these is the Padah-Lin cave where over 1,600 of stones and cave paintings have been uncovered. These paintings lie from ten to twelve feet above the floor level depicting figures in red ochre of two human hands, a fish, bulls, bisons, a deer and probably the hind of an elephant. The paintings indicate that the cave was probably used for religious rituals. If so, these caves could be one of the earliest sites used for worshiping in Burma. The use of caves for religious purposes continued into later periods. Thus, Buddhist Burmese use of cave worshiping originates from the earlier Animist period. =

Bronze Age and Iron Age Myanmar

The finding of bronze axes at Nyaunggan located in Shwebo township suggests that Bronze Age of Burma began around 1500 B.C. in parallel with the earlier stages of Southeast Asian bronze production. This period spans from 1500 to 1000 B.C. during which knowledge of the smelting and casting of copper and tin seems to have spread rapidly along the Neolithic exchange routes. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ^]

Bronze and Iron age cultures overlapped in Burma. This era saw the growth of agriculture and access to copper resources of the Shan hills, the semi-precious stone and iron resources of the Mount Popa Plateau, and the salt resources of Halin. The wealth is evident in grave items bought from Chinese kingdoms. A notable characteristics of the people of this era is that they buried their dead together with decorative ceramics and common household objects such as bowls and spoons. ^

The Bronze Age arrived circa 1500 B.C. when people in the region were turning copper into bronze, growing rice, and domesticating chickens and pigs; they were among the first people in the world to do so. The Iron Age arrived around 500 B.C. when iron-working settlements had emerged in an area south of present-day Mandalay. Evidence also shows rice growing settlements of large villages and small cities that traded with their surroundings as far as China between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. Bronze-decorated coffins and burial sites filled with the earthenware remains of feasting and drinking provide a glimpse of the lifestyle of their affluent. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Evidence of trade suggests ongoing migrations throughout the prehistory period though the earliest evidence of mass migrations only points to circa 200 B.C. when the Pyu people, the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant, began to move into the upper Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan. The Pyu went on to found settlements throughout the plains region centered around the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers that had been inhabited since the Paleolithic. The Pyu were followed by various groups such as the Mon, the Arakanese and the Mranma (Burmans) in the first millennium A.D. By the Pagan period, inscriptions show Thets, Kadus, Sgaws, Kanyans, Palaungs, Was and Shans also inhabited the Irrawaddy valley and its peripheral regions. +

Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “From the limited information available at present, the evolution of these early prehistoric cultures into the later Mon and Pyu societies is not well understood, although the late Iron Age coincided with the rise of Pyu culture and the creation of the first cities in Burma. However, there is ample evidence that by the fifth century AD, the Mon as well as the Pyu peoples had adopted the Indianized cultural life then widely practiced throughout mainland Southeast Asia which included elements of both Hinduism (Brahamanism) as well as aspects of Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus, Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Early Burmans and Ancient People of Myanmar

The ethnic Burmans—the people who dominate Myanmar today— didn't arrive until A.D. 9th century. Over a period of few centuries, they emigrated south from Tibet, passed through what is now the Yunnan Province of China and established settlements along the Irrawaddy River.

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese and Cambodians originated from southern China. The Burmans appear to have migrated south from Tibet to Yunnan in China, along with several other linguistic and cultural groups, more than 3,000 years ago. They, the Tai and the Mons have similar physical characteristics have been described by some anthropologist as southern Mongoloids.

Trickles of Burman migrations may have begun as early as the 7th century. The Burmans came down in significant numbers with the early 9th Nanzhao raids of the Pyu states and remained in Upper Burma. Like that of the Pyu, the original home of Burmans prior to Yunnan is believed to be present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces. After the Nanzhao attacks had greatly weakened the Pyu city-states, large numbers of Burman warriors and their families entered the Pyu realm in the 830s and 840s and settled at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, perhaps to help Nanzhao pacify the surrounding countryside. Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to include its immediate surrounding areas— to about 200 miles north to south and 80 miles from east to west by Anawrahta's accession in 1044. Historically verifiable Burmese history begins with Anawrahta's accession. [Source: Wikipedia

Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism were introduced into southeast Asia around the time of Christ, when Thailand and southern Burma were inhabited by people known as Mons. The Mons adopted Therevada which had been introduced by way of Eastern India. Northern Burma, which had stronger historical links with India, was dominated by Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India.

Ancient Chinese chroniclers described the inhabitants of present-day Myanmar as the people with the “Gold Teeth.” For a long time it was thought these people might be mythical. In the early 2000s, farmers in Hali, an A.D. 1st millennium walled city 40 miles north of Mandalay, found a skeleton with a jawbone with six highly-decorated gold teeth. Halin has been occupied for at least 3,000 years. It lies on a major trade route between India and China.

Buddhism reached Sri Lanka about the middle of the 3rd century B.C. From there and from India, some centuries later, it spread to Southeast Asia, reaching Cambodia, Sumatra and Java by the A.D. 3rd century and Burma by at least by the A.D. 5th century. It also took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong in there and in Indonesia until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century.

Buddhism may have arrived earlier. According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Suvanaphoum (the Golden Land) is the 3rd century B.C. Suvanaphoum was an emerging area of Indian and Chinese culture is thought to have embraed southern Myanmar, Thailand and eastern Cambodia.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India’s Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, when Indian missionaries are said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand’s central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Mahayana Buddhism may have been the first form of Buddhism to really take hold in Southeast Asia. It arrived in northern Burma from India and remained there from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India. Buddhist monks from India and China also brought with the knowledge of medicine and science from those cultures. Mahayana Buddhism is believed to have arrived in southern Southeast Asia via the Kingdom of Srivjaya in Indonesia or Funan, where it was practiced in the A.D. fifth century.

In the 8th century the powerful Shri-Vijaya kingdom in Sumatra introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana to the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. The Khmers were originally Hindus. In the late 12th century, Jayavarman VII made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. Mahayana was compatible with the form of Hinduism and the god-king concept that existed in Cambodia at that time. It was expressed in Sanskrit. The Khmers converted to Buddhism in the 12th century under king Jayavarman VII (See Javyavarman VII, Cambodia) but continued to acknowledge Hinduism and worship many Hindu gods, particularly Shiva and Vishnu. The Khmers spread Mahayana Buddhism across Southeast Asia until their kingdom collapsed in the 14th century.

Buddhism had all but died out its homeland of India when it arrived in Southeast Asia. It provided a philosophical and oral framework for people that extended from Tibet to Vietnam. Even though Buddhism became the predominate religion, Hinduism and animism and local religions remained alive and fused together in a way that was unique to the region, embracing some Hindu deities and cult practices and absorbing some animist spirits. Many legends that became part of local folklore have both Hindu and Buddhist elements. Sometimes even different elements of the same religion came together in unique ways. The god Hara-Hara, popular in Khmer art, was a combination of Shiva and Vishnu.

Arrival of Theravada Buddhist in Southeast Asia

Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and was introduced to Southeast Asia in southern Burma, when it was inhabited by people known as Mon, by way of eastern India and Sri Lanka. The religion took hold in Burma in A.D. 1040, when the Burmese monarch King Anawratha converted to it. Theravada Buddhism mixed with indigenous beliefs (particularly the belief in spirits called nats) and was spread with the help of rich patrons who supported the monasteries and established new monasteries across country that educated the people. In the process, Mahayana Buddhism disappeared.

The Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand owes little to China because it was carried their by monks from India. The texts were in the Pali language and derived from Sanskrit. The Buddhism that was introduced to Cambodia initially belonged to a now dead sect of Mahayana Buddhism called Sarvastivada. Theravada Buddhism did not appear there and in Laos until the 14th century. In Thailand, there is little evidence of it until the 13th century.

In the 13th century the Thai people arrived in northern Thailand from southern China. They absorbed Buddhism from the Mons in the central plains. In the 14th century Thai monks schooled in Sri Lanka returned with reformed concepts of Theraveda Buddhism, and helped spread the religion to Laos and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism arrived in Cambodia slowly in beginning in the 11th century from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. It offered a new ideology and undermined the Hinduism and the god-king elements of Khmer rule. Theravada Buddhism gained a stronger foothold in Cambodia when the Thais conquered Angkor in 1431 and was the dominate form of Buddhism by the 15th century. It was expressed through the Pali language.

Pyu, Mon and the Pre-Pagan Period

The prehistory period came to a close circa 200 B.C. when the Pyu people, the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant, began to move into the upper Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan. This era marks the beginning of urbanization when city states began to be established. Several sizable first millennium cities were founded by the Pyu, the Mon and the Arakanese. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The first millennium AD in Burmese history, The Urban Age, is characterized by the first appearance of cities and the formation of nation states. Of great importance in this process was the arrival from India of a wide variety of ideas and beliefs, both religious and secular. The occurrence of urbanism and Indianization at this time is shared by other polities in mainland Southeast Asia and should be considered a regional phenomenon even though the earliest known city, Beikthano, is found in Burma. Indeed, coins minted in Burma have been found in urban sites as far away as northern Thailand and southern Vietnam. It was also during this period that sophisticated irrigation systems using weirs were established in the central dry zone and henceforward the dry zone remains paramount in Burmese political life and history. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

As evidenced by artifacts and inscriptions, an array of religions were practiced during the Pyu period such as Hinduism and in particular Vaishnavism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayanna Buddhism, Tantrayanna Buddhism and a vast range of uncodified animist beliefs and rituals. By the end of this period, the major Animist spirits (nats) had been subordinated to Theravada Buddhism which become the religion of choice among the lowland rice farmers and Theravda Buddhism has remained the predominant religion in Burma until the present day. =

From approximately 200 B.C., a number of walled cities were built in central Burma whose plans consisted of rounded squares or rectangles. It is believed that circular shapes (at times oval, as in ancient Thai sites) was an indigenous Southeast Asian creation whereas the square or mandala plan was imported India. Upon examining aerial photographs of these cites, it is obvious that the dichotomy between circular and square is not clear-cut. The corners of the city walls have been rounded as well as the entrances to the gateways and in addition, the city walls are not straight but bulge elliptically. Some features of the Pyu cities are certainly of Indian origin such as the use of twelve gates. Therefore the plans of these early cities show a mixture of traits, some indigenous, some borrowed. =

Although the Burmese began to live in cities before the arrival of Indian ideas, these foreign ideas were essential to create important capitol cities of international and cosmological significance. The adoption of Indian concepts of city planning incorporated a belief in the efficacy of the world axis that connects the centermost point in a properly constructed Mandala city with the city of the Gods above (Tavatimsa heaven) in order to assure prosperity throughout the kingdom below. =

A remarkable characteristic of the Mon and Pyu cultures is that they minted and used silver coinage. The earliest type of these uninscribed coins depicts a conch on one side and a Srivatsa (a door-like symbol associated with good fortune) on the other. These coins date from the 5th century, originated in the Pegu area, and became the model for almost all coinage in mainland Southeast Asia during the first millennium AD. The later Pyu coins are derived from this earlier Mon type and appear in several varieties till the end of the A.D. 8th century. Many of these coins have had a small hole punched along their perimeter so that the coins may have been used as much for amulets as for trade. After the Pyu Period that ended in the late 9th century, coins were not used again in the Burmese kingdoms until the 18th century! =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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