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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Mai Pha Culture (Neolithic / Iron Age) (Vietnam)
c.8000? - 600? 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 Mai Pha culture is a recent concept, one which has been formulated to highlight specific archaeological details in the Lang Son area on modern Vietnam's northern border with China, approximately two hundred kilometres to the north-east of Hanoi. Its dates are still highly speculative.

The culture was only found in Lang Son, but it is classed as being an important phase in the formation of the northern Vietnamese identity, with this later emerging as part of the late first millennium BC kingdom of Annam. The culture succeeded the Bac Son in this area alone. Elsewhere the broader Quynh Van culture did that job, to be succeeded by the Da But and then the Phung-nguyen with which the Mai Pha bore a close relationship.

The first vestiges of Mai Pha were discovered by the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani, who was also responsible for the first work on uncovering the Quynh Van culture. Since then work to explore the Mai Pha has been continued with the support of the Vietnamese Institute of Archaeology and the Lang Son Museum.

This could be seen to be long-lasting and very local cultural expression, progressing through the Neolithic into the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age. However, precise details of finds remain, to date, thin on the ground, presumably as archaeologists work out a firmer timeline and a precise outline for this newly-designated culture.

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), and Vietnam Online, and Vietnam National Museum of History.)

c.8000 BC

As the Bac Son culture fades, it is broadly succeeded by the Quynh Van culture in northern Vietnam. However, in the Lang Son area alone, close to the modern border with China, the Mai Pha culture emerges to exhibit very specific regional differences from this and later generalised cultures.

Lang Son in northern Vietnam
The Lang Son region of the northernmost area of north-eastern Vietnam was home to a very localised culture called the Mai Pha, which interacted with external, broader cultures but still maintained its own local identity

c.1700 BC

Archaeology for the Phung-nguyen Bronze Age culture shows that burial customs change around this time. This coincides with the introduction of silk-making and legendary recordings of the appearance of the militaristic Xich Ty people in the north. The Mai Pha bears a close relationship with this culture.

c.600 BC

The late Bronze Age Go Mun culture of South-East Asia has provided a framework for the mythical Van Lang kingdom. Now it fades - potentially alongside the Mai Pha - in preference for the already-extant Dong Son culture of the north.

The Sa Huỳnh continues to dominate in the south and centre of Vietnam, while in the far south, around the Mekong delta region, the Dong Nai culture soon emerges.

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