People in Southeast Asia may have been among the first to develop agriculture. There is some evidence of wild yam and taro cultivation dating back to 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. in Indonesia. Rice cultivation in Malaysia and bean cultivation in Burma may date back to the same period. Most historians place the origin of agriculture to the Asia Minor (Turkey) to around 8000 B.C.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand:“Modern linguistic theory and archaeological evidence suggest that the first true agriculturists in the world, perhaps also the first metal workers, spoke an early form of Thai and lived in what we know today as Thailand. The Mekong River valley and Khorat Plateau in particular were inhabited as far back as 10, 000 years ago, and rice was grown in the Ban Chiang and Ban Prasat areas of northeastern Thailand as early as 4000 BC (China, by contrast, was growing and consuming millet at the time). The Ban Chiang culture began bronze metallurgy before 3000 BC; the Middle East’s Bronze Age arrived around 2800 BC, China’s a thousand years later. Ban Chiang bronze works were stronger than their Mesopotamian or Chinese counterparts, mainly due to Ban Chiang’s access to the abundant tin resources of the Thai-Malay Peninsula.

Some archaeologists believe that the 11,500 year old beans found at Spirit Cave might be the first harvested agricultural crop. They base this on the discovery of certain tools that are good for cutting and harvesting plants. These tools resemble ones found at early agricultural sights in Asia Minor.

People that lived in a site called Khok Phanom Di in Thailand between 4,000 and 3,500 year ago practiced rice farming and buried their dead facing east in shrouds of bark and asbestos fibers. Rice is believed to have first been being cultivated there around 3,500 B.C. The oldest rice grains ever were discovered in China. They date back to about 8,000 B.C. See Rice, Food.

Agriculturist society seemed to become widespread during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C. These people were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities in Laos, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The earliest domesticated animals in China were pigs, dogs and chickens. This trinity of domesticated animals is believed to have spread from China across Asia and the Pacific. Among the other animals that were domesticated by the ancient Chinese were water buffalo (important for pulling plows), silkworms, ducks and geese.

Spirit Cave and Burma’s Anyanthian Culture

Until roughly 4000 B.C. Southeast Asia was still occupied by hunter gatherers making pebble and flake stone tools. Spirit Cave, which overlooks a steam running into the Salween River near the Thai-Burmese border, was occupied 14,000 to 7,500 years ago by people who hunted deer, pigs, monkeys, bamboo rats, otters and flying squirrel, caught fish and crabs, and ate melons and beans.

The Spirit Cave people used scrapers choppers and flakes and fairly sophisticated stone knives and tools called adzes. Archaeologists also found a poison made from plants that are relatives of the caster-oil family that may have been used for poisoning arrowheads or darts. Nine-thousand-year-old pottery was also found in Spirit Cave. It is as old as samples found Japan, often regarded as the home of the oldest pottery in the world (China claims to have pottery that is solder0.

Southeast Asia was also the home of the ancient Anyanthian culture. Evidence of Neolithic (Late Stone Age) culture has been found at Taunthaman, a site in Myanmar near the city of Mandalay. Neal Robbins wrote on Yahoo World History: “There are three caves near Taungthaman; one has paintings of animals. It is called the Pandhalin cave. The culture that resided in them has been dated to 10,000-6,000 B.C.That cave may have been used for religious rituals. No buildings made of permanent materials have yet been found. However, post holes have been discovered. Posts in them may have supported the roofs of structures. The stone age in Burma is called the Anyanthian.

“At least 14 stone age sites have been found in Burma. Taunthaman itself was occupied from the late Neolithic to the early Iron Age, which was about 500 B.C. Stone tools of at least six types have been discovered. The people of the stone age in Burma made ceramic items, such as pottery and spoons. Some ceramic objects were buried with the dead. Figures of humans and animals have been found. These small sculptures may have had some type of religious significance. The stone age people of Burma hunted game and gathered fruits, vegetables, and roots. The stone age in the area ended around 500 B.C. Bronze and iron implements began to be used. The metallurgy technology may have been imported from India.”

World's First Bronze Age Culture in Thailand?

Bronze artifacts discovered in northeastern Thailand, around the village of Ban Chiang, were originally dated to 3600 to 4000 B.C., more than a thousand years before the Bronze Age was thought to have begun in the Middle East. The discovery of these tools resulted in a major revision of theories regarding the development of civilization in Asia.

The first discoveries of early Bronze Age culture in Southeast Asia were made by Dr. G. Solheim II, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii. In the early 1970s, he found a socketed bronze ax, dated to 2,800 B.C., at a site in northern Thailand called Non Nok Tha. The ax was about 500 years older than the oldest non-Southeast-Asia bronze implements discovered in present-day Turkey and Iran, where it is believed the Bronze Age began. [Source: Wilhelm G. Solheim II, Ph.D., National Geographic, March 1971]

Non Nok Tha also yielded a copper tool dating back to 3,500 B.C.. and some double molds used in the casting of bronze, dating back to 2300 B.C, significantly older than similar samples found in India and China where it is believed bronze metal working began. Before Solheim it was thought that the knowledge of bronze working was introduced to Southeast Asia from China during the Chou dynasty (1122-771 B.C.). Solheim is sometimes called "Mr. Southeast Asia” for his role in putting ancient Southeast Asia on the cultural and historical map.

Ban Chiang Archeological Site

Ban Chiang is an archeological site located on he Khorat Plateau in northeastern Thailand. Among the discoveries made at a 124-acre mound site there were bracelets and bronze pellets (used for hunting with splits-string bows), and lovely painted ceramics first dated to 3500 B.C. [Source: John Pfeiffer, Smithsonian magazine]

The Ban Chiang site was discovered in 1966 by Steve Young, an anthropology and government student at Harvard College who was living in the village conducting interviews for his senior honors thesis. Young, a speaker of Thai, was familiar with Solheim’s work and his theory of possible ancient origins of civilization in Southeast Asia. One day while walking down a path in Ban Chiang with his assistant, an art teacher in the village school, Young tripped over a root of a Kapok tree and fell on his face in the dirt path. Under him were the exposed tops of pottery jars of small and medium sizes. Young recognized that the firing techniques used to make the pots were very rudimentary but that the designs applied to the surface of the vessels were unique. He took samples of pots to Princess Phanthip Chumbote who had the private museum of Suan Pakkad in Bangkok and to Chin Yu Di of the Thai Government's Fine Arts Department Later, Elisabeth Lyons, an art historian on the staff of the Ford Foundation, sent sherds from Ban Chiang to the University of Pennsylvania for dating. [Source: Wikipedia]

During the first formal scientific excavation in 1967, several skeletons, together with bronze grave gifts, were unearthed. Rice fragments have also been found, leading to the belief that the Bronze Age settlers were probably farmers. The site's oldest graves do not include bronze artifacts and are therefore from a Neolithic culture; the most recent graves date to the Iron Age.

Most of the bronze made Ban Chiang is ten percent tin and 90 percent copper. This it turns out is an ideal proportion. Any less tin, the metal fails to reach maximum hardness. Any more, the metal becomes too brittle and there is more of a chance it will break during forging. The Ban Chiang culture also developed bronze jewelry with a silvery sheen by adding 25 percent tin to the surface layers of the bronze at a heat of 1000°F and plunging it quickly into water.

Iron was developed at Ban Chiang around 500 B.C. Ceramic funerary vessels dating between 3600 B.C. and 1000 B.C. contained the remains infants between one month and two years old. Others contain remains of rice, fish and turtles. The vessels come in a number of different styles and sizes. The largest are three feet tall. Some are painted with human, animal and plant figures as well as abstract circular and linear designs. Others have chord makings made by placing chord in wet clay.

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars (near Phonsavan in Xieng Khoung Province in northeast, central Laos) is one the most unique places in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by dense tropical forests and limestone peaks, this windy, grassy plateau is home to hundreds of one-meter to three-meter urns. The vast majority are carved from sandstone and limestone. A few have been chiseled from red granite. The oldest ones are believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Thus far 300 jar fields have been discovered, with a total of 3,000 jars. Some of the ones below ground were discovered using sateliite imagery. More site are being found all the time.There may be more than 10,000 of them out there, many hidden in the jungle.

The sites, archeologists say, were cemeteries and the jars were funerary urn to store corpses until they decomposed and the bones were ready for burial or cremation (a practice common the Bronze Age and still done on parts of Laos today) . No skeletons have been found inside the urns but human remains have been found in a few and skeletons have been unearthed nearby. Most of the sites are on grassy knolls, many with impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Sometimes cows graze among the urns.

Nobody is quite sure of what the jars were used for. According to one legend they were built by giants to store grain and make alcohol. Many Laotians believe they were built by a 6th century chief, Khun Jeuam, to make wine for a huge celebration to mark the the victory over an evil king. They say the jars were originally made of sand, sugar came and buffalo skin.

On average, the jars are ten feet high, nine feet wide and weigh between 1,300 and 2,000 pounds. The largest one, known as Jeuam’s “Victory Cup,” weighs seven tons, has a 26-foot circumference and is eight feet tall. The smallest ones are about three feet tall. Many are covered in lichens. At one time it is believed they all had lids but most have been pilfered. Some of the remaining lids are adorned with concentric rings.

The Plain of Jars is located on the XiengKhouang Plateau in north-central Laos. Due to its strategic location, the Plain of Jars played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War and was the site of many ground battles and intense aerial bombardment. Based on the Plain of Jars' extraordinary heritage, the Lao Government has applied to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Plain of Jars via Phonsavan is accessible by air from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Overland travel is possible from northern and central Laos and north-central Vietnam.

Dong Son Civilization

The sophisticated Bronze Age Dong Son culture—famous for its bronze drums—thrived in the Hong (Red) River valley from the seventh century B.C. to the A.D. second century.The People from the Dong Son (Dongson) era, also known as the Lac Viet, are regarded as the ancestors of modern Vietnamese. Dong Son is named after a village south of Hanoi, where their artifacts were first discovered.

The Dong Son have been called Southeast Asia's most distinctive early civilization. The Dong Son survived by hunting, fishing and growing rice. They were also skilled metalworkers, producing unique bronze drums. The Dong Son civilization ended when the Chinese invaded present-day Vietnam in the 2nd century B.C.

The Dong Son culture produced a wealth of bronze items, including tools, vessels, ornaments, weapons, arrowheads, axes, and bells, as well as ceramics and beads. The most impressive group of objects they made were large, decorated gongs, or "drums" or "kettle drums" as they are often called. The broad distribution of Dong Son bronze drums is one of the strongest indicators that trade between Viet Nam and Southeast Asia was widespread during this period. Early Chinese texts indicate Chinese commercial interest in the region and detail the objects of trade that they sought, such as rhino horns, elephant tusks, medicinal plants, and forest products. The Chinese held sway in northern Viet Nam for a thousand years, and their influence is evident in later Dong Son artifacts.

Artifacts from the Dong Son were first excavated in the 1920s. It is now generally thought that it was not the actual political center of the culture, but merely one of the Dong Son principalities loosely linked to each other. The center of the Dong Son culture was the central region of the Red River basin.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

The Dong Son society was an agricultural one based on the wet rice cultivation. The images on of the Dong Son drums vividly described the activities associated with rice production such as people carrying plows, buffaloes and oxen working the fields and farmers milling rice with hand pestles. Water rituals were well depicted on the face and body of the drums. Scenes of boat race are believed to represent village festivals to celebrate the supreme role of water in agriculture. Images of Dong Son warriors and their weapons are found carved on many drums. Many types of weapon were represented: cross-bow, javelin, hatchet, spear, dagger and body shield. These images confirm the historical setting of the Dong Son time as its people was in constant fighting for survival against the people from the North. [Source: Viettouch]

Social events were well depicted on the drums through images of dancers, musicians and musical instruments. There were bronze drums, bells, castanets, the senhs (rattlers made of bamboo cylinders taped to the arm or leg to make sound when dancing) and the khens (instruments with 4 to 6 long pipes attached to a resonance box). On the Ngoc Lu and Hoang Ha drums, images of Dong Son people sit in line on the floor beating the bronze drums with drumsticks. Dancers in ceremonial garments processing in a counter clockwise direction, each dancer holding an instrument or a weapon with one hand while the other hand forms some sort of rhythmic gesture.

Dong Son Drums

Dong Son drums (also called Heger Type I drums) are bronze drums fabricated by the Dong Son culture, in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. The drums were produced from about 600 BC or earlier until the third century AD, and are one of the culture's finest examples of metalworking. The drums, cast in bronze using the lost wax method, are up to a meter in height and weigh up to 100 kg. Dong Son drums were apparently both musical instruments and cult objects. They are decorated with geometric patterns, scenes of daily life and war, animals and birds, and boats. More than 200 have been found, across an area from eastern Indonesia to Vietnam and parts of Southern China. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote:The Dong Son produced “large bronze "kettle drums" or gongs, in which dancers and processional performances are also depicted. Together with some cave paintings they give the earliest existing information about the theatrical arts in Southeast Asia. Working with bronze was practiced in Vietnam probably from the second millennium B.C. onward and it reached its technical and artistic peak around 500 BC–100 AD. The earliest examples were cast in one piece. Later, when gong manufacturing spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, as far as Bali, the gongs were also cast in two pieces, utilising the so-called lost wax method. The basic design of Dong Son gongs consists of a flat tympanum and sides that narrow in the middle. Dancers are often portrayed within the middle section of the tympanum decorations. They are shown in line formations in identical, energetic poses. In their hands they hold different kinds of weapons such as spears, sticks and axes. The dancers wear extremely large feathered headdresses and their lower bodies are covered with long, skirt-like costumes. Similar kinds of dances are still performed in some remote areas in Southeast Asia. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Describing a Bronze Drum from the 5th–3rd century B.C., Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Bronze drums are the characteristic artifact of the Dong Son culture. Hundreds of drums, some weighing up to 440 pounds (two hundred kilograms), have been found in Viet Nam, southern China, and throughout Southeast Asia. This drum has the rounded shoulders and large size that typify the earliest Dong Son drums. The drums served as regalia, ritual instruments, and burial objects. When played, they were suspended from a crossbar, supported by sticks, over a hole in the ground, which served to enhance their resonance. Craftsmen cast the drums in one piece using the lost-wax technique. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society; the piece is from Hoang (Mieu Mon) Village, My Duc District, Ha Tay Province; now in the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 5724]

Many bronze drums of the Dong Son period have been reported in South and Southwest China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. In Viet Nam, approximately 140 drums were discovered in many locations throughout Viet Nam from the high land region of the north to the plains of the south and as far as to the Phu Quoc island.

In 2003, Sapa-DPA reported: A farmer unearthed a 2 000-year-old, bronze drum in northern Vietnam, officials said. "We are still evaluating the drum but I can say it is valuable," said Nguyen Manh Cuong, a worker from Lao Cai provincial museum. Pham Van Hien dug up the 22 kilogram drum while excavating land in Vo Lao commune, said Tay Lu Xuan Dang, an official from the commune 170 kilometers northwest of Hanoi. [Source: Sapa-DPA, May 9, 2003]

"It is beautiful. The surface is rusty, but otherwise, the piece is in good condition," said Cuong. The farmer's reward for turning the drum over to local authorities has not yet been decided, but will be hundreds of dollars, the museum official said. Previously, stone axes, bronze arrow heads and other rudimentary tools have been found in the commune, but never a musical instrument, said Dang, the commune official from the Tay ethnic minority group. "Because 96 percent of our commune's population is ethnic Tay, we don't tend to know the value of these things. So we just threw them away," Dang said. The drum is believed to be from the Dong Son period, which makes it between 2,000 and 2,500 years old, the museum official said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, 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, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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