History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Hoabinhian Culture (Palaeolithic / Mesolithic) (South-East Asia)
c.12,000 - 10,000 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 Hoabinhian culture (or Hoa Binh 'industry', the latter term being used following a reassessment) succeeded the Son Vi culture of Vietnam in Palaeolithic South-East Asia, and also much farther afield across the region (including south-western China). For at least part of its duration it existed alongside the Anyathian complex. The latter was to be found in areas of Upper Burma, while details of the the Hoabinhian bear similarities with finds in eastern Burma.

Excavators have found stone artefacts from this culture in Vietnam's Tham Mya Cave (close to Tham Kit Cave which was inhabited during the Son Vi), along with ceramic objects of the later Bronze Age. In fact a large number of finds were found almost simultaneously in this series of cave complexes, and covering a period of several thousands of years of habitation.

Con Moong Cave in the central province of Thanh Hoa provides another detailed glimpse of prehistoric human life here, 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 with the arrival of dedicated rice farming as part of the Phung-nguyen culture.

Finds for this hunter-gatherer culture show improvements over finds for the preceding culture, including stone axes and other tools which were created using animal bones, plus shells, and also showing wood and bamboo use. In addition to hunting game, its people also showed signs of coming into contact with seeds and pollen, indicators of the early commencement of basic farming methods.

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 Traces of early humans found in Ba Be National Park (Vietnam Plus), and Vietnam (Countrystudies), and Vietnam pre-historic era (Inside Travel).)

c.12,000 BC

A swathe of items are recovered from north-eastern Vietnam's Ba Be National Park to confirm human habitation here. The oldest findings belong to the earlier Son Vi culture, but more than enough can be dated to the Hoabinhian which witnesses the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic for early Vietnam and surrounding countries.

Many finds come from Tham Mya Cave. Other sites across the region include Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sumatra, Terengganu, Thailand, and also south-western China. The quality and quantity of item descriptions vary, and a precise relationship with the Hoabinhian can be hard to determine.

Hoabinhian stone tools
The upper valley of the Lancang-Mekong river system in south-western China is regarded as a typical Hoabinhian site, albeit with dating which pushes back the industry's upper boundary to at least 22,000 BC, well before even the start of the Son Vi culture

c.10,000 BC

With the tools of South-East Asia's now-ended Palaeolithic period continuing to evolve and improve into the Mesolithic, the Hoabinhian segues into the Bac Son culture as a direct archaeological progression rather than a replacement.

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