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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Da But Culture (Neolithic) (South-East Asia)
c.5000 - 2000 BC

FeatureHuman history in Asia as a whole provides one of the earliest stories outside of the Near East and Africa. However, human history in South-East Asia is relatively obscure. Anatomically modern humans in the form of Homo sapiens reached the region around 60,000 BC, quickly expanding into Oceania and East Asia soon afterwards (see the Hominid Chronology feature link for more).

The South-East Asian Da But culture succeeded the Neolithic Quynh Van culture in Vietnam (aside from the very limited reach of the contemporary Mai Pha culture). Con Moong Cave in the central province of Thanh Hoa displays the late stages of prehistoric human cave dwelling in this period, with traces of long habitation which can be linked to the Son Vi, the Hoabinhian, the Bac Son, and the Da But.

This sequence seems to have ended by or before the arrival of dedicated rice farming as part of the Phung-nguyen culture, which could be a factor in some scholars framing the Bac Son and Da But as late periods of the Hoabinhian rather than as cultures in their own right.

However, the Da But did exhibit differences from the Hoabinhian and Bac Son. The type site was first excavated in 1926-1927 by the French geologist, E Patte, but by 2022 a total of eight Da But sites had been discovered. These included a series which displayed similar cultural components: at Go Trung, Con Co Ngua, Ban Thuy, and Lang Cong. Culture sites are recognisable through their distinctive pottery, polished stone tools, and a unique adaptation to coastal swamp and lake areas.

The Da But is also considered by many scholars to be unique due to its divergence from an inland Hoabinhian-type subsistence strategy in favour of a new, complex coastal strategy which took place in various and varied environmental niches: the aforementioned swamps and lakes, mainly at the bases of mountains, and deltas with embankments (listed in US-based works as 'levees') which extended to the sea.

Based on present knowledge, the distribution of the Da But culture is limited to the northern and southern sides of the Tam Diep limestone massif in Thanh Hoa and Ninh Binh provinces. In its later stages, stone tools became smaller and polished on all surfaces. This resulted in some of the earliest complete, polished quadrangular tools in Vietnam, at about 3500-3000 BC, shortly before the culture began to be succeeded by the Phung-nguyen.

Da But populations subsisted mainly by collecting plants and hunting. However, they were relatively sedentary, with long-term, permanent residences being established as open air settlements in place of cave dwellings. The best evidence for a sedentary existence for these people is the presence of cemeteries.

Traditional House, Vietnam

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Vietnam: A New History, Christopher Goscha, from Early Mainland Southeast Asia, C Higham (River Books Co, 2014), from Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopaedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Keat Gin Ooi (ABC-Clio, 2004), from The Macmillan Dictionary of Archaeology, Ruth D Whitehouse (Macmillan, 1983), and from External Links: Bradshaw Foundation, and Ancient Chinese farmers sowed literal seeds of change in south-east Asia (Science News), and Vietnam (Countrystudies), and Separated by a Common Language, and The Da But Culture (Semantic Scholar).)

c.3029 BC

Having succeeded the Quynh Van culture, the Da But witnesses the first, semi-mythical, stirrings of recorded history in the region. According to legend, the first ruler of the Vietnamese people is De Minh, a descendant of a mythical Chinese ruler.

That mythical ruler is the father of Chinese agriculture, which mirrors the gradual prehistoric southwards transference of early rice cultivation. De Minh and an immortal fairy of the mountains produce Kinh Duong, ruler of the 'Land of Red Demons'. He marries the daughter of the 'Dragon Lord of the Sea'.

Statue celebrating the Hung kings of myth and legend
In today's Vietnam, 'Hung Kings Commemoration Day' is determined by the lunar calendar so that, on 10 March, people enjoy a day off to commemorate the legendary Hung Kings

According to legend, their son (or grandson), Lac Long Quan ('Dragon Lord of Lac'), is the first truly Vietnamese king. Lac Long Quan's eldest son succeeds him as the first of the Hung (or Hong Bang) kings ('vuong') of Vietnam's first dynasty.

c.2500 - 1000 BC

In the centuries which form the tail end of Da But culture (which itself has a potentially movable end date) a vast trading network operates in Vietnam. A number of settlements along the Mekong delta region of southern Vietnam around Rach Nui are part of a significant network which manufactures and circulates large volumes of items over hundreds of kilometres of territory.

A 2017 study proves the existence of this previously unknown major trade network which also includes specialist tool-makers and technological knowledge. This network serves to import vital resources into the region.

Archaeologists work at the Rach Nui site in Vietnam
A new study, led by researcher Dr Catherine J Frieman of the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, revealed in 2017 findings showing a number of settlements along the Mekong delta region of southern Vietnam which were part of a significant trading network

The Rach Nui region has no stone resources, so its people must import the stone and work it to produce their tools. A quarry which is located over eighty kilometres away in the upper reaches of the Dong Nai river valley provides a perfect supply for this resource.

c.2000 BC

The later Da But culture has produced some of the earliest complete, polished quadrangular tools in all of South-East Asia, shortly before it begins to be succeeded by the arrival of the Phung-nguyen, the first true Neolithic farmer culture (which also influences the contemporary Mai Pha).

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