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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Sa Huỳnh Culture (Bronze Age / Iron Age) (Vietnam)
c.1000 BC - AD 200

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 Bronze Age Dong Dau culture of Vietnam faded towards the end of the second millennium BC. It was replaced in the south and centre of Vietnam by the Sa Huỳnh culture, and in the north first by the Go Mun culture and then by the Dong Son culture. The development of both of the latter two was driven by the adoption of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting.

For the Sa Huỳnh the focus of its spread lay between Quảng Bnh province in central Vietnam and the Mekong delta in the south. This was the archaeological cultural representation of the emergence of the Austronesian Cham people up until the founding of the Cham-dominated Lâm Ấp kingdom. They were seafaring settlers who reached the region from Borneo in continuous waves between about 1000 BC and AD 200, precisely matching the dating boundaries given for the culture itself.

The type site site at Sa Huỳnh was discovered in 1909. This and other sites of the culture have generally been found to be rich in locally-worked iron artefacts which are typified by finds of axes, swords, spearheads, knives, and sickles. The people of this culture were much more heavily invested in iron-working than were those of the Dong Son.

Internments involved cremation and then burial of the ashes in jars which were covered by a lid. Ritually-broken offerings usually accompanied the jar burials. This culture is also typified by its unique ear ornaments which feature two-headed animals, with some scholarly opinion classifying the animals as saola, a regionally-unique animal which is something of a cross between a deer and a cow. Cultural ornaments were commonly made using jade or glass. Bead ornaments have also commonly been found in Sa Huỳnh burials, with these usually being made from glass.

By the time the culture faded around the beginning of the third century AD, early historical Vietnam had already emerged. Kingdoms such as Annam and Nam Viet in the north had been ended by a phase of Han Chinese dominance, but the kings of a renewed Nam Viet took Vietnam out of the fading Iron Age and into the medieval period. To the south of the Sa Huỳnh, the Óc Eo culture flourished as the archaeological expression of the kingdom of Funan.

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), and from External Links: Bradshaw Foundation, and Vietnam (Countrystudies), and Pre-Dong Son cultures (Vietnam National Museum of History), and The Dongson Culture and Cultural Centers in the Metal Age in Vietnam, Hoang Xuan Chinh & Bui Van Tien (Asian Perspectives, Vol 23, No 1, 1980, pp 55-65, and available via JSTOR).)

c.1000 BC

Southern-central Vietnam provides a home for the Sa Huỳnh culture as it emerges around this time. Its area of influence stretches down towards the Mekong delta where it provides the initial influence for later cultures there.

The culture's most common characteristic is the jar burial. While not all the various distributions of groups within this culture bury their dead in jars, the abundance of jar burials indicates the popularity of the practice.

San Huynh pottery
One of the most notable features of Sa Huỳnh culture was its artefacts, a plethora of which have been found in many related excavation sites across Vietnam and which include iron axes, swords, spearheads, knives, and sickles

c.500 BC

The Sa Huỳnh culture of the Cham people has a wide distribution across central and also southern Vietnam towards the Mekong delta. Around this time the Dong Nai culture emerges out of this, initially being centred along the river of the same name. This is located a little to the north of today's Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong delta.

AD 200

The Sa Huỳnh is the South-East Asian archaeological culture of the emergent Cham people of central Vietnam. This cultural period now comes to an end as the historical Lâm Ấp kingdom replaces it.

Farther south, around the Mekong delta, the Dong Nai culture has already given way to the Óc Eo culture as the archaeological expression of the kingdom of Funan.

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