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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Dong Son Culture (Bronze Age) (Vietnam)
c.1200 - 1 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 Phung-nguyen culture of Vietnam faded in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC, gradually to be replaced in the north by the Bronze Age Go Mun culture which itself provided a basis for the Dong Son culture (or Dongson). In the south and centre the Phung-nguyen was succeeded by the longer-lasting Sa Huỳnh culture.

The development of the Dong Son was driven by the adoption of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Ma River and Red River plains and the further development of those industries. The culture was notable for its elaborate bronze drums. Bronze weapons, tools, and drums from archaeological sites for this culture show a South-East Asian influence which indicates an indigenous origin for this bronze-casting technology, rather than it being imported from elsewhere.

Many small, ancient copper mine sites have been found in northern Vietnam. Some similarities between Dong Sonian sites and other South-East Asian sites include the presence of boat-shaped coffins and burial jars, stilt dwellings, and evidence of customs which involve betel-nut-chewing and teeth-blackening.

Dong Son culture is associated with the Van Lang kingdom and its mythical ruling Hung dynasty of the third-to-first millennia BC. It inherited its bronze casting technology from the earlier Dong Dau culture. An important aspect of this culture by the sixth century BC was the tidal irrigation of rice fields through an elaborate system of canals and dikes. The fields were called 'Lac' fields, and 'Lac', mentioned in Chinese annals, is the earliest recorded name for the Vietnamese people.

The Hung kings ruled Van Lang in feudal fashion with the aid of the Lac lords, who controlled the communal settlements around each irrigated area, organised the construction and maintenance of the dykes, and regulated the supply of water.

Besides cultivating rice, the people of Van Lang grew other forms of grain and beans, and raised stock, mainly buffalo, chickens, and pigs. Pottery-making and bamboo-working were highly developed crafts, as were basketry, leather-working, and the weaving of hemp, jute, and silk. Both transport and communication were provided by dugout canoes, which plied the network of rivers and canals.

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 Vietnam (Countrystudies), and Vietnam pre-historic era (Inside Travel).)

c.600s BC

Having succeeded the Go Mun culture, Dong Son culture is now firmly based on wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting along the River Ma and in the Red River delta. This is the golden age for bronze tools in Vietnam.

Archaeological evidence comprises bronze weapons, tools, now-iconic bronze drums, and a copper mine. Locals have customs which include betel-nut-chewing and teeth-blackening.

Dong Son village life
The people of the Dong Son formed a loose confederation of societies which occupied northern Vietnam, with villages typically being located in the deltas of the Hong, Ma, and Ca rivers

The main form of subsistence is agriculture with the use of buffalo traction and irrigation. Besides this, breeding, fishing, and handicrafts are also being developed. Stone tools have completely disappeared from daily life.

c.550 BC

An important aspect of the Van Lang region's Dong Son culture by the sixth century BC is the tidal irrigation of rice fields through an elaborate system of canals and dikes. The fields are known as 'Lac' fields, and 'Lac', mentioned in Chinese annals, is the earliest recorded name for the Vietnamese people.

c.300 - 200 BC

The northern province of Bac Ninh is where a Dong Son bronze jar is discovered and preserved. Later recognised as a national treasure, it is a typical product of this culture, or at least its later stages.

Map of Early Han (Western) China c.200 BC
The Han conquest of Qin China had to wait until the great Qin emperor himself was dead and it still took a year of fighting to destroy the Qin armies. Once the victors had completed their own civil war, the Han set about expanding southwards, invading the Nam Viet kingdom in 111 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Based on its shape, the processing technique used to create it, and its decorative patterns, it is placed in the late Dong Son, one of two hundred-and-thirty-five jars (to date) to be found with decorative patterns of moving animals on its body.

c.1 BC

The Bronze Age in South-East Asia comes to an end with the termination of the Dong Son. Northern Vietnam now properly emerges into recorded history under the 'First Chinese Domination of Vietnam'.

In the south and centre of Vietnam the Sa Huỳnh continues to dominate, while in the Mekong delta of the far south, the Dong Nai gives way to the Óc Eo culture.

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