EARLY HISTORY OF LAOS
Northeast Thailand and northwest Laos have a long history. People have been living here at least 50,000 years. Farming has been practiced for around 5,000 years and some of the oldest examples of Bronze Age culture were found here. The region is freckled with ancient burial grounds, tanks and weirs. In the A.D. first millennium powerful civilizations with advanced irrigation methods were found here. These died by the second millennium.
The original inhabitants of Laos were Austroasiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. Skilled at river navigation using canoes, Laotian traders used routes through the mountains, especially rivers, from earliest times. The most important river route was the Mekong because its many tributaries allowed traders to penetrate deep into the hinterland, where they bought products such as cardamom, gum benzoin, sticklac, and many foods. [Source: Library of Congress]
The first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) arrived in Southeast Asia around 50,000 years ago. Their stone-age technology remained little changed until a new Neolithic culture evolved about 10,000 years ago. Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. The Hoabinhian culture is named after an archaeological site in northern Vietnam. Hoabinhian hunter-gatherers spread throughout much of Southeast Asia, including Laos. Their descendants produced the first pottery in the region, and later bronze metallurgy. In time they supplemented their hunting, fishing and gathering by horticulture and eventually rice cultivation, introduced down the Mekong River valley from southern China.
Agriculturist society seemed to appear 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, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. [Source: Lonely Planet]
The early people that lived in Laos and migrated there belonged mostly to the Austro-Thai ethnolingustic family, particularly in the Thai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao) subgroups. Austro-Thai groups occupied a long swath of that extends from Assam area of northeastern India to the Red River valley in southern China and northern Vietnam.
Many aspects of Laotian history are fuzzy and misty. Before establishment of monarchy. Laos was occupied by slash-and-burn hill tribe farmers who live today pretty mush as they did back then. In Luang Prabang Province, archeologist have found large stone drum-shaped objects with engraved motifs similar to this of northern Vietnam’s Dong Son bronze drums, The Dongson culture was active between 500 B.C. and A.D. 100.
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.
Early History in the Plain of Jars Area of Laos
Xieng Khouang Province in Laos and the enigmatic Plain of Jars make up one of the most important sites for studying the late prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia. While the ancient civilization that constructed the jars was flourishing, advances in agricultural production, the manufacturing of metals, and the organization of long-distance overland trade between India and China were also rapidly transforming local society and setting the stage for urbanization across the region. Mortuary practices associated with the jars consisting of both cremation and secondary burial suggest a highly-evolved local tradition of ritual, symbolism and metaphysics which persisted through to the kingdoms of the Angkor Period, long after the arrival of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies into Southeast Asia.
Prehistoric material found at the Plain of Jars is still under study, and apparently spans a considerable period of time, with some dating from as early as 2000 BC. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, as well as the jars themselves appeared much later, dating to the early Iron Age between 500 BC and 500-800 AD. The closet archaeological parallels to the finds at the Plain of Jars appear to be Bronze and Iron Age materials from Dong Son in Viet Nam, Samrong Sen in Cambodia, and the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand. There are also similarities with the present-day city of Danang, as well as with sites in the North Cachar Hills of northeastern India where megalithic jar North exist. All of these similar sites date to approximately the same period-roughly 500 BC - 500 AD. Together they form a mosaic picture of a large area of upland Southeast Asia criss-crossed by traders, with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre.
Although little is known about the people that constructed the megalithic stone jars, an account of the area's history as it relates to the Tai Puan and the lands they settled in Xieng Khouang is recorded in the Pongsawadan Meuang Puan or the Muang Puan Chronicles. The Tai Puan are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated from what is today southern China and by the 13th century had formed an independent principality at the Plain of Jars that prospered from the overland trade in metals and forest products.
Lao Arrive in Laos
The Lao people are thought to have originated in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. They are related to other people that either live there now or originated there such as the Dai and settled mostly in river valleys.
The Lao are very similar ethnically to Thais. They speak a similar language and are members of the larger Tai family of ethnic groups. These groups began migrating southward from China in successive waves, beginning over 2,000 years ago. No one is sure exactly when they came or why.
By the A.D. 8th century Tai groups had established themselves in much of northern Southeast Asia, in the process displacing Mon-Khmer people that were already there. Many lived in semi-independent principalities known as “muang” under local lords. This period of history was marked the rise and fall and break up and creation of small kingdoms and shifting alliances. Southern Laos came under the influence of the Khmer Empire.
The early Tai-Lao groups were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. Other Lao Thoeng tribes live in southern Laos, including the Brao and the Katang. Like their northern cousins, they speak Austro-Asiatic languages, a group which includes Khmer. In fact southern Laos is believed to be the birthplace of the Cambodian people, from where they spread further south to establish the kingdom of Funan by the 2nd century CE. The earliest kingdom in southern Laos was identified in Chinese texts as Chenla, dating from the 5th century. Its capital was close to Champasak, near the later Khmer temple of Wat Phu. A little later Mon people (speaking another Austro-Asiatic language) established kingdoms on the middle Mekong – Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong in Lao) with its capital near Tha Khaek, and Chanthaburi in the vicinity of Viang Chan (Vientiane). [Source: Lonely Planet]
Tai peoples probably began migrating out of southern China about the 8th century. They included the Tai-Lao of Laos, the Tai-Syam and Tai-Yuan of central and northern Thailand, and the Tai-Shan of northeast Burma. They are called Tai to distinguish them from the citizens (Thai) of modern Thailand, though the word is the same. All spoke closely related Tai languages, practised wet-rice cultivation along river valleys, and organised themselves into small principalities, known as meuang, each presided over by an hereditary ruler, or chao meuang (lord of the meuang). The Tai-Lao, or Lao for short, moved slowly down the rivers of northern Laos, like the Nam Ou and the Nam Khan, running roughly from northeast to southwest, until they arrived at the Mekong, the Great River. They worshipped the ngeuk, powerful snake deities believed to inhabit these rivers, which if not propitiated could so easily tip frail canoes and drown their occupants. Most Lao peasants still believe that ngeuk exist. [Source: Lonely Planet =]
“The early Lao text known as the Nithan (story of) Khun Borom recounts the myth of creation of the Lao peoples, their interaction, and the establishment of the first Lao kingdom in the vicinity of Luang Prabang. The creation myth tells how two great gourds grew at Meuang Thaeng (Dien Bien Phu, now in Vietnam) from inside which sounds could be heard. Divine rulers, known as khun, pierced one of the gourds with a hot poker, and out of the charred hole poured the dark-skinned Lao Thoeng. The khun used a knife to cut a hole in the other gourd, through which escaped the lighter-skinned Tai-Lao (or Lao Loum, Lowland Lao). The gods then sent Khun Borom to rule over both Lao Loum and Lao Thoeng. He had seven sons, whom he sent out to found seven new kingdoms in the regions where Tai peoples settled (in the Tai highlands of Vietnam, the Xishuangbanna of southern China, Shan state in Burma, and in Thailand and Laos). While the youngest son founded the kingdom of Xieng Khuang on the Plain of Jars, the oldest son, Khun Lo, descended the Nam Ou, seized the principality of Meuang Sua from its Lao Thoeng ruler, and named it Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (later renamed Luang Prabang). =
Legend of Khun Boron
Immortalized in a glass mosaic located in the Throne Room of the former Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, the legend of Khun Borom parallels historical accounts of the migration of the Tai people, of which the Lao are considered to be a main branch. According to this popular legend, the heavenly kingdoms were once ruled by powerful Gods, which, as a gesture of goodwill, would occasionally send someone to reign over the lesser earthly realms. [Source: seasite.niu.edu ~ ]
“It was for this purpose that Khun Borom, the son of the Heavenly God Phaya Then, descended to the earthly realm on a royal elephant distinguished by its crossed tusks. Upon landing at an uninhabited place known as Na Noi Oi Nu (small rice field) in the vicinity of Muang Then (City of Gods), believed to be located in present day northwestern Vietnam, Phaya Then provided Khun Borom with an axe and a buffalo as a means to initiate agriculture. Upon traveling to Xieng Dong-Xieng Thong, a former settlement on the present day site of Luang Prabang, the local inhabitants accepted Khun Borom's offering of the buffalo and agriculture subsequently commenced. ~
The settlement flourished, however, as a result of numerous adverse deeds committed by the inhabitants, the buffalo died and a giant liana (Kheua Khao Kaat) grew from its nostrils. Eventually it grew so high that it reached the sky and blocked out all sunlight to the earthly realm threatening the survival of all life forms. Two deeply loyal servants of Khun Borom, affectionately known as grandfather (Phou Nheu) and grandmother (Nha Nheu), selflessly undertook the heroic deed of chopping down the liana with the axe. Knowing that by undertaking this dangerous task that they would be killed in the process, they requested only that they be remembered for their bravery. Upon chopping the liana down, sunlight streamed into the earthly realm once again and humankind was saved. Phou Nheu and Nha Nheu were subsequently honored as the settlement's Devata Luang, a tradition of reverence that continues to this day. ~
Power Centers in the Middle Mekong Valley
A number of princely fiefdoms based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang developed in the middle Mekong Valley from the first century A.D. These fiefdoms exercised power over their neighbors, in circumstances of generally sparse populations, through expanding and contracting spheres of influence best described by the term mandala. Commerce, marriage contracts, and warfare served to expand a mandala. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *] Thus, a plurality of power centers occupied the middle Mekong Valley in early times. Sikhôttabong was a mandala whose capital was located on the left bank of the Mekong at the mouth of the Xé Bangfai and then moved westward as a result of the expansion of Champa, an Indianized state on the coast of Vietnam founded in 192 A.D. Cham, descendants of Champa, were present at Champasak (Bassac) in the fifth century. The Mon kingdom of Candapuri, the earliest name of present-day Vientiane, (Viangchan) was another mandala. The social structure of Sikhôttabong and Candapuri appears to have been strongly hierarchical, with an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a slave class. The fact that some kings came from the commoner class appears to indicate the presence of some sort of consensus in effecting royal succession. At its peak, another important regional power, Funan, had its mandala incorporate parts of central Laos. The smaller but also important Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (through which Theravada Buddhism reached Laos in the seventh and eighth centuries) was centered in the lower Menam Valley beginning in the fifth century. *
In the seventh century, a northwesterly migration of Thais from their region of origin in northwestern Tonkin brought to the Ta-li region in what is present-day Yunnan, China, a successor state to the Ai Lao kingdom. This new kingdom, Nan-chao, expanded its power by controlling major trading routes, notably the southern Silk Road. Culturally, this polyethnic, hierarchical, and militarized state was to have a great influence on later societies in Indochina, transmitting the Tantric Buddhism of Bengal to Laos, Thailand, and the Shan state, and possibly Cambodia, and the political ideology of the maharaja (protector of Buddhism). Nan-chao was organized administratively into ten prefectures called kien. This term seems to be the origin of place-names keng (for example, Kengtung), chiang (for example, Chiang Mai), and xiang (for example, Xiangkhoang). Moreover, the population and army of Nan-chao were organized in units of 100, 1,000, and 10,000, a form later found in Indochina. Also, the title chao (prince), appears to have been of Nan-chao origin. Another branch of this same migration began at the headwaters of the Nam Ou and followed it downstream to Louangphrabang and continued on through Xaignabouri to Chiang Mai. *
As a result of the expansion and contraction of mandala, places of importance were known by more than one name. Muang Sua was the name of Louangphrabang following its conquest in 698 A.D. by a Thai prince, Khun Lo, who seized his opportunity when Nan-chao was engaged elsewhere. Khun Lo had been awarded the town by his father, Khun Borom, who is associated with the Lao legend of the creation of the world, which the Lao share with the Shan and other peoples of the region. Khun Lo established a dynasty whose fifteen rulers reigned over an independent Muang Sua for the better part of a century. *
In the second half of the eighth century, Nan-chao intervened frequently in the affairs of the principalities of the middle Mekong Valley, resulting in the occupation of Muang Sua in 709. Nan-chao princes or administrators replaced the aristocracy of Thai overlords. Dates of the occupation are not known, but it probably ended well before the northward expansion of the Khmer Empire under Indravarman I (r. 877-89) and extended as far as the territories of Sipsong Panna on the upper Mekong. *
In the meantime, the Khmers founded an outpost at Xay Fong near Vientiane, and Champa expanded again in southern Laos, maintaining its presence on the banks of the Mekong until 1070. Canthaphanit, the local ruler of Xay Fong, moved north to Muang Sua and was accepted peacefully as ruler after the departure of the Nan-chao administrators. Canthaphanit and his son had long reigns, during which the town became known by the Thai name Xieng Dong Xieng Thong. The dynasty eventually became involved in the squabbles of a number of principalities. Khun Cuang, a warlike ruler who may have been a Kammu (alternate spellings include Khamu and Khmu) tribesman, extended his territory as a result of the warring of these principalities and probably ruled from 1128 to 1169. Under Khun Cuang, a single family ruled over a far-flung territory and reinstituted the Siamese administrative system of the seventh century. Muang Sua next became the Kingdom of Sri Sattanak, a name connected with the legend of the naga (mythical snake or water dragon) who was said to have dug the Mekong riverbed. At this time, Theravada Buddhism was subsumed by Mahayana Buddhism. Muang Sua experienced a brief period of Khmer suzerainty under Jayavarman VII from 1185 to 1191. By 1180 the Sipsong Panna had regained their independence from the Khmers, however, and in 1238 an internal uprising in the Khmer outpost of Sukhodaya expelled the Khmer overlords. *
The Champasak area of southern Laos was part of Funan and Chenli empires between A.D. 1st century and 9th century and then was part of the Khmer Angkor empire from A.D. 10th century to 13th century. When Angkor declined it was absorbed into the Lao kingdom.
Wat Phu and the Champasak
Wat Phu and the Champasak Cultural Landscape Area (8 kilometers south of Champasak, near the Cambodian border) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Wat Phu [Vat Wat Phou or Vat Phou] temple complex is a major example of both early and classic Khmer architecture of the 7th-12th centuries. Around Wat Phu are well preserved remains of a sophisticated ancient city. Human sacrifices may have been conducted here. Recent research has shown that this complex is the focal point of a sophisticated cultural landscape centred on the Champasak Plain, taking in the Phou Kao (mountain) to the west and the banks of the Mekong River to the east. Between them are temples, shrines, water tanks, water channels, quarries, historic field systems, settlement sites and an ancient road to Angkor.
In the early 1990s archeologists began excavating around Wat Phu in Champasak, near the border of present-day Cambodia in southern Laos, and unearthed the well preserved remains of two sophisticated ancient cities: 1) Shrestrapura, which dates back to the 5th century and is regarded as a cradle of the Angkorian empire of Cambodia; and 2) Lingapura, which thrived from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the ancient city of Shestrapura and many little known but interesting archeological sites along the banks of the Mekong River .
Shrestrapura had a rectangular plan and measures 2.3-by-1.8 kilometers and was surrounded by double earthen walls on three sides and the Mekong River on the other side. Other remains include circular foundations, traces of an irrigation system, Hindu statuary, stone tools and ceramics. The site was dated to 5th century by stelae with Sanskrit inscriptions, the oldest of their kind in Southeast Asia. There is evidence of a Hindu shrine that may date to A.D. 3rd century.
The site is being studied by a team lead by Italian archeologist Patrizia Zolese of the Lerici Foundation. Interesting finds include beautiful and well-preserved stone reliefs, ancient ramparts, irrigation canals and a road leading to Angkor. The site is very fragile and preservationist worry about the effects of nature and tourism on it. Major restoration work has yet to be done but there are concerns it might be done in a shoddy, haphzard way. The site welcomed 50,000 visitors in 2000.
According to UNESCO: The Champasak cultural landscape, including the Vat Phou [Wat Phu] Temple complex, is a remarkably well-preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old. It was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 kilometers. Two planned cities on the banks of the Mekong River are also part of the site, as well as Phou Kao mountain. The whole represents a development ranging from the 5th to 15th centuries, mainly associated with the Khmer Empire. [Source: UNESCO]
The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of Southeast Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire which dominated the region in the 10th–14th centuries. The site is also an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings. Contrived to express the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity, Vat Phou exhibits a remarkable complex of monuments and other structures over an extensive area between river and mountain, some of outstanding architecture, many containing great works of art, and all expressing intense religious conviction and commitment.
Laos - Library of Congress Bibliography
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Martin Stuart Fox, a professor of history at the University of Queensland, wrote a history of Laos. Grant Evans is an expert on Laos at the University of Hong Kong.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, 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, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020