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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Phung-nguyen Culture (Neolithic Farmers / Bronze Age) (South-East Asia)
c.2000 - 1400 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 Late Neolithic period in South-East Asia saw the rise of the region's first true farming cultures, following influence which reached the region from the rest of Asia, especially Early China. Around 2000 BC, ancient Chinese rice and millet farmers spread southwards into a region which stretched between today's Vietnam and Burma. There, they interbred with local hunter-gatherers. Those hunter-gatherers already had a tentative level of experience with early forms of farming.

In 2017 a team led by Harvard Medical School geneticist, Mark Lipson, concluded that these population movements brought true agriculture into the region and triggered the spread of Austroasiatic languages which are still spoken in parts of south and South-East Asia.

Archaeology has already accumulated increasing amounts of evidence to support the emergence of rice farming in South-East Asia between 2500-2000 BC, accompanied by tools and pottery which revealed links to southern China. Now the Phung-nguyen culture arose to replace the fading Da But culture (aside from the very limited reach of the contemporary Mai Pha culture), with it being centred on the Vinh Phu province of Vietnam.

The change seems to have occurred towards the end of the long practice of cave-dwelling, with living in coastal villages now becoming the norm (during the Da But period). Con Moong Cave in the central province of Thanh Hoa has provided a detailed glimpse of human life before this period, with traces of habitation which can be linked across many cultures going back as far as the Son Vi.

The archaeological type site of Phung Nguyen was discovered in 1958, eighteen kilometres to the east of Viet Tri. It, like other sites which have been discovered later, sits on a raised platform which is several metres higher than the surrounding land. The Dong Dau culture of about 1500 BC may be a late phase of the Phung-nguyen.

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 Vietnam pre-historic era (Inside Travel).)

c.1700 BC

Archaeology for the Phung-nguyen Bronze Age culture shows that burial customs change around this time, coinciding with the introduction of silk-making and legendary recordings of the appearance of the militaristic Xich Ty people in the north.

Their 'invasion' of the equally mythical Van Lang kingdom forces it to address its own recently-fading authority, and to reinvigorate itself in order to repulse this invasion, which it does.

Phung-nguyen culture pottery in Vietnam
Phung-nguyen culture pots were typically flat-bottomed, with the culture as a whole showing influences or links with southern China

Sophisticated rice cultivation has already begun to appear in the region thanks to a pulse of southwards migration by Chinese rice and millet farmers which sees them spread across South-East Asia.

c.1500 BC

The Neolithic Phung-nguyen farmer culture fades out by about 1400 BC in South-East Asia, but by then the Dong Dau has already become regionally-prominent (alongside the regional Mai Pha), possibly as a late phase of the Phung-nguyen culture (opinion is still divided).

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