History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Palaeolithic South-East Asia
c.60,000 - 12,000 BC
Incorporating the Anyathian Complex, Fingnoian Culture, Ngandongian Complex, Patjitanian Industry, South-East Asian Upper Palaeolithic, & Tampanian Culture

FeatureAsia's Palaeolithic period is one of gradually encroaching human activity from the coastal regions towards the vast inland areas. India was reached around 70,000 BC, although that specific date is contested. Anatomically modern humans filtered from there into South-East Asia and Oceania by about 60,000 BC, reaching Australia at some point around or shortly after 50,000 BC (see feature link).

The early history of modern human infiltration into and habitation of South-East Asia remains vague, although various southwards migrations are largely responsible. The initial arrivals came from the continental Asian interior. Successive later movements displaced those initial settlers and created a complex ethnic pattern.

When looking at specific countries, relatively little is known about Vietnamese origins. The Vietnamese people first appeared in history as the so-called 'Lac' peoples who lived in the Red River delta region in what is now northern Vietnam. Evidence of human habitation in caves in north-eastern Vietnam's Ba Be National Park have been dated to about 18,000 BC. This places them in the Palaeolithic Son Vi culture of Early Vietnam, the region's earliest.

Pebble tools, including choppers and chopping tools, are found in terrace deposits along the Irrawaddy river valley of northern Burma (Upper Burma). This complex is known as the Anyathian (circa 11,000-10,000 BC). It seemingly existed alongside the Hoabinhian which had a reach across Vietnam and into eastern Burma.

More pebble tools have been reported from deposits in western Thailand which were datable to the Middle Pleistocene. The name Fingnoian has been proposed for this culture. In northern Malaysia a large series of choppers and chopping tools which were made on quartzite pebbles and which were found in Middle Pleistocene tin-bearing gravels have been referred to collectively as the Tampanian, since they come from a place called Kota Tampan in Perak.

Another late Middle Pleistocene assemblage, one which has been referred to as the Patjitanian industry, is known from a very prolific site in southern-central Java. In both the Tampanian and Patjitanian the main types of implement consist of single-edged choppers and chopping tools which occur in association with flakes which have unprepared, high-angle striking platforms.

Also, both assemblages contain an interesting series of pointed, bifacial implements which have been described as hand axes. Since these tools are very rare in each instance and are absent in Burma, it is probable that they were developed in south-eastern Asia independently of influences from the west.

Several sites from the Upper Pleistocene in central Java have produced artefacts which were produced on small to medium-sized flakes and flake blades. Antler and bone implements belong to this complex, known as the Ngandongian, which has also been reported from the Celebes and from the Philippines.

Chin house, Burma

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), from Palaeo-Anthropology 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: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Stone Age Asia (Encyclopaedia Britannica), 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).)

c.18,000 BC

Evidence of South-East Asian Palaeolithic human habitation in caves in north-eastern Vietnam's Ba Be National Park are announced in 2020. With these finds belonging to the Son Vi culture - the first local culture in early Vietnam - most of the finds are found in Tham Kit Cave.

They include stone tools, traces of an oven, and animal teeth and bones. Importantly, the cave is near a lake, so that the early modern human settlers there have access to water.

Tham Kit Cave in Vietnam
Tham Kit Cave in Vietnam yielded many tools which had been knapped from stones, and one single layer of culture which was fifty centimetres thick which had been formed by clay inside the cave and which contained ancient objects, bones, and the teeth of animals

12,000 BC

By the end of South-East Asia's Palaeolithic period, the Son Vi culture of Early Vietnam is also fading. This is succeeded by the broader Hoabinhian culture.

The Anyathian complex is also soon to start in Burma (circa 11,000 BC). The Akha and Hmong natives of today's Laos and other areas predate the first millennium AD arrival of Thai settlers, although the Akha's southwards migration comes later.

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