History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

Far East Kingdoms

South East Asia Cultures


Early Vietnam (South-East Asia)

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

FeatureHuman history in Asia as a whole provides one of the earliest stories outside of the Near East and Africa, However, framed to the north by East Asia and to the west by South Asia, human history in South-East Asia is relatively obscure. It was South Asia which witnessed the earliest presence of anatomically modern humans in the form of Homo sapiens - between about 70,000-60,000 BC. From there they either drifted into South-East Asia and Oceania or, around 60,000 BC, entered East Asia (see the Hominid Chronology feature link for more).

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 to the Son Vi culture of Palaeolithic South-East Asia, Vietnam's earliest named culture, most of the finds were found in Tham Kit Cave, including stone tools and animal teeth and bones, and with a nearby lake to provide water.

Relatively little is known about Vietnamese origins. They first appeared in history as the so-called 'Lac' peoples who lived in the Red River delta region in what is now northern Vietnam. Some scholars have suggested that the Lac were closely related to other peoples, known as the Viet (referred to as the Yue by the Chinese, and somewhat questionable according to some modern scholars), who inhabited the coastal region of East Asia from the Yangtze River to the Red River delta during the 1st millennium BC.

Around 2000 BC, Chinese rice and millet farmers spread southwards into a region which stretched between Vietnam and Burma. There, they interbred with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, this being the first with the second taking place around the end of the first century BC. In 2017 a team led by Mark Lipson, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, concluded that these population movements brought agriculture into the region and triggered the spread of Austroasiatic languages which are still spoken in parts of south and South-East Asia.

Over the preceding twenty years, archaeology had already accumulated increasing amounts of evidence to support the emergence of rice farming in South-East Asia between 2500-2000 BC (in the gap between the decline of the Da But culture and the rise of the Phung-nguyen culture), accompanied by tools and pottery which revealed links to southern China (see 2500 BC, below).

The Mekong Delta region was originally occupied with people who would form the basis of modern Cambodia, which is where the proto-Khmer-dominated Óc Eo culture appeared at the start of the first millennium AD. The area has a long history of other groups occupying parts of modern Vietnam.

In the highlands of western Vietnam were dozens of non-Vietnamese ethnic groups such as the Rhadé, the Jorai, and the Tai, and in the southern coastal towns, such as Hoi An, near Danang, there were vibrant communities of Japanese and Chinese traders. Today's Vietnamese are a blending of several ancient lineages which came together over a span of about ten thousand years.

Traditional House, Vietnam

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Vietnam: A New History, Christopher Goscha, 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 Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

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 Palaeolithic South-East Asia - the first local culture - 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.3029 BC

According to legend, the first ruler of the Vietnamese people is De Minh, a descendant of a mythical Chinese ruler who is the father of Chinese agriculture. De Minh and an immortal fairy of the mountains produce Kinh Duong, ruler of the 'Land of Red Demons', who marries the daughter of the 'Dragon Lord of the Sea'.

According to legend, their son (or grandson), Lac Long Quan ('Dragon Lord of Lac'), is the first truly Vietnamese king. Lac Long Quan's eldest son succeeds him as the first of the Hung (or Hong Bang) kings ('vuong') of Vietnam's first dynasty.

c.2500 - 1000 BC

A vast trading network operates in Vietnam during this period. A number of settlements along the Mekong delta region of southern Vietnam around Rach Nui are part of a significant network which manufactures and circulates large volumes of items over hundreds of kilometres of territory.

Archaeologists work at the Rach Nui site in Vietnam
A new study, led by researcher Dr Catherine J Frieman of the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, revealed in 2017 findings showing a number of settlements along the Mekong delta region of southern Vietnam which were part of a significant trading network

A 2017 study proves the existence of this previously unknown major trade network which also includes specialist tool-makers and technological knowledge. This falls within the ascendancy of the Da But culture

The Rach Nui region has no stone resources, so its people must import the stone and work it to produce their tools. A quarry located over eighty kilometres away in the upper reaches of the Dong Nai river valley provides a perfect supplier for this resource.

c.1700 BC

Archaeology for the Phung-nguyen 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

c.1300 BC

The Middle Bronze Age Dong Dau culture provides the historical people of the mythical Van Lang kingdom with strong influences when it comes to ceramics production. Pottery which forms part of this culture includes parallel markings which are absent on pottery from the recently-faded Phung-nguyen culture, although the Dong Dau is sometimes classified as a late phase of the Phung-nguyen.

c.600s BC

Dong Son culture is now firmly based on wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting along the River Ma and in the Red River delta. This is the golden age for bronze tools in Vietnam. Archaeological evidence comprises bronze weapons, tools, now-iconic bronze drums, and a copper mine.

The main form of subsistence is agriculture with the use of buffalo traction and irrigation. Besides this, breeding, fishing, and handicrafts are also being developed. Stone tools have completely disappeared from daily life.

Dong Son village life
The people of the Dong Son formed a loose confederation of societies which occupied northern Vietnam, with villages typically being located in the deltas of the Hong, Ma, and Ca rivers

c.550 BC

An important aspect of the Van Lang region's Dong Son culture by the sixth century BC is the tidal irrigation of rice fields through an elaborate system of canals and dikes. The fields are known as 'Lac' fields and 'Lac', mentioned in Chinese annals, is the earliest recorded name for the Vietnamese people.

c.300 - 200 BC

The northern province of Bac Ninh is where a Dong Son bronze jar is discovered and preserved. Later recognised as a national treasure, it is a typical product of this culture, or at least its later stages.

Based on its shape, the processing technique used to create it, and its decorative patterns, it is placed in the late Dong Son, one of two hundred-and-thirty-five jars (to date) to be found with decorative patterns of moving animals on its body.

Statue celebrating the Hung kings of myth and legend
In today's Vietnam, 'Hung Kings Commemoration Day' is determined by the lunar calendar so that, on 10 March, people enjoy a day off to commemorate the legendary Hung Kings

late 1st century AD

According to inscriptions and later tradition, a trader by the name of Kaupdinya founds a kingdom in the Mekong delta by the name of Funan. (now in southernmost Vietnam). He marries the regional queen, Liu-ye (Liǔyè), and the couple rule over an Indianised population in the region.

The Cham inscription states that Liǔyè is known as Soma, the daughter of the king of the Nagas tribal grouping. Their new kingdom is represented in the archaeological record by the Óc Eo culture.

The area in which the type-site of Óc Eo lies presents a feature which is common to the entire Mekong delta region. It is an alluvial plain from which emerge scattered mounds, often of insignificant height, and recognisable by the presence of piles of blocks, slabs of granite, and also bricks.

Oc Eo culture
Óc Eo culture sites display a range of items, including pottery, tools, jewellery, jewellery production casts, coins, and religious statues like the one shown here

The centre of this plain is occupied by the Phnom Bathe, a granitic massif which dominates the entire western part of the Transbassac. Judging from remains which have been recovered from this massif, it is clear that it is intensively populated in the first millennium AD and is probably one of the most ancient sacred places in the area.

550 - 627

Funan has been the dominating power in the southern region of South-East Asia for five centuries. After 550 it had been eclipsed by Chen-La, perhaps surviving as a vassal state.

North-eastern Funan territory is gradually absorbed into the growing Cham domains so that the language or dialect of Funan is lost in preference to Cham tongues. The remainder is absorbed into Chen-La (by 627) and then the Khmer empire.

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