History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Son Vi Culture (Palaeolithic) (Vietnam)
c.20,000 - 12,000 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 Son Vi was the earliest South-East Asian culture which was specific to the Vietnam region. It emerged during the later stage of Palaeolithic South-East Asia, during its last eight thousand years before it gave way to the Mesolithic.

Evidence of human habitation in caves in north-eastern Vietnam's Ba Be National Park were announced in 2020, having been dated to about 18,000 BC. With these finds belonging firmly to the early Son Vi, most of them came from Tham Kit Cave.

These included stone tools, traces of an oven, and animal teeth and bones. Importantly, this residential cave is near a lake - Ba Be lake (and fifty metres above it) - so early humans there would have had access to water. These hunter-gatherers harvested many local species, including wild boar, bison, monkey, and porcupine.

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.

The Son Vi was succeeded by the Hoabinhian culture, with people continuing to live in their various caves in the same area as before, although a tribal or clan-based structure seems to have emerged towards the end of the Palaeolithic period.

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.18,000 BC

Evidence of 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 of the region's Palaeolithic period - 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 - and fifty metres above it - so early humans 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

c.12,000 BC

The Son Vi culture of South-East Asia's Palaeolithic period now ends along with the regional Palaeolithic itself, to be succeeded by the Hoabinhian culture. Cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer humans now exhibit a tribal or clan-based structure.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.