1: Southeast Asia's Tectonics


Greetings ladies and gentlemen. Welcome. I am what you humans call Southeast Asia. I am actually just a plot of ground on your planet Earth. Here is my picture.

I am the Mother of myriad human cultures. My dharma/duty is to provide nourishment, clothing, and shelter for countless people who’ve belonged to these collections of humans. They started out as families, grew into small tribes, then small kingdoms, and finally extensive Empires. This is the story of these human cultures that have inhabited me for so many millennia.

My Ancestral Tectonic Plates

I’m sure you’re interested in my background, who my mother and father were and so forth. Or maybe not. But I’m going to tell you anyway. I’m not going to bore you with details, but the process that gave birth to me was already under way about 320 million years ago. As a very thorough type of Being, I leave no stone unturned in the quest to identify my tectonic origins.

320 Million Years Ago

Let's start at the beginning. About 320 million years ago two super-continents, Laurussia and Gondwana, were moving slowly towards each other. The Eurasian Plate, of which I'm part, had not yet congealed. It still consisted of myriad smaller disconnected plates, one of which was mine. However, the distinctive geographic curl that determines my southeast border was already apparent during these most ancient of times. In other words, I go back a long way.

250 Million Years Ago

The 70-million year long collision of the two massive tectonic plates created an even larger continent, Panagaea. The remnants of this collision, a mountain range that eventually morphed into North America's Appalachians, divided the enormous boundaries of this landmass. The Tethys Sea encircled the globe and surrounded Panagaea. The many smaller plates of the northeast, including mine, had just begun to connect up. My southeastern curl was becoming better defined.

135 Million Years Ago

135 million years before the present, rifting and ocean spreading had split Panagaea into 2 tectonic plates, the North American Plate (NA) and the older Gondwana Plate. My plate joined with other plates to create the beginning of the Eurasion Plate (EA). The circling motion of these 3 landmasses had begun to surround the Tethys Sea. Instead of becoming absorbed by these tectonic interactions, my distinctive curl became even more pronounced. My personality was still intact. Further, I assumed my role as Eurasia's tail.

100 Million Years Ago

100 milllion years ago, continuing rifting split Gondwana into 4 major landmasses. South America (SA), Africa (A) and India (In) broke off from the remainder of Gondwana (G). The spiraling action of these tectonic plates sent Gondwana southward and the remainder of plates hurtling northward: South America towards North America; Africa towards the European side of the Eurasian Plate; and India towards the Asian side. This was the beginning of India's 5,000-mile, 80-million year fateful journey towards Asia.

Further, the Western and Eastern halves of our fair planet began the separation process that would eventually lead to the Atlantic Ocean. South America split from Africa and North America separated from Europe. The once grand Tethys Sea (T) that had encircled the Earth was now surrounded on all sides and shrinking every million years. Even though Eurasian (EA) was busy absorbing the smaller surrounding plates, my southeastern corner remained the same. My attractive curl was just getting more elegant as it matured. The beginning of Spain's Iberian peninsula is Eurasia’s northwestern head. I am her southeastern tail.

45 Million Years Ago

By 45 million years ago, Australia had split from Gondwana and had joined the others on their northward journey. What was left of Gondwana, the remnants of the once proud super-continent, settled on the South Pole and was renamed Antarctica. For millions of years, she reigned supreme. Gondwana thought, sometimes arrogantly, that this was the way it was meant to be – the innate nature of existence. But now she is just a frozen wasteland located at the bottom of the Earth – away from the action. Time, the great humbler, changes everything.

Simultaneous with the steady progression northward of the now 4 continents, the western and eastern halves of our fair Earth continued moving apart with the growing Atlantic Ocean acting as a moat between them. The east-west spreading also split Eurasia apart, but just slightly. The northward action of the southern continents soon melded her together again. This tectonic activity also further squeezed the once mighty Tethys Sea.

In terms of my story, notice the southern border of Eurasia. It extends all the way from what becomes the European Alps to my tiny corner of the planet. This is to become our southern barricade against the northward expansion from the African, Indian and now Australian Plates. Geologists have even given it a name –the Alpide Belt. The Alpide Belt was to become our geologically active battleground.

The Present

In the ensuing 45 million years until the present time, the four southern continents completed their northward journey, at least for our purposes. South America connected up with North America via the tiny isthmus of Panama As Africa sidled up to Europe, the Tethys Sea continued to shrink, and became what is now called the Mediterranean. The Australian Plate connected up with my part of the planet. Our fateful encounter fragmented my once magnificent curl into myriad islands.

Of equal importance, the India Plate crashed into the Eurasian Plate, becoming one of her subcontinents. The force of the impact, while slow in human terms - was inexorable. Because of the masses involved, the collision had so much momentum behind it that it crushed and rippled the land that was caught in the middle. This tectonic interaction created the Himalayan mountain range, which includes Mount Everest - the tallest spot on the planet. This ribboning of the Earth combined with the enormous uprising of land has created the ideal conditions for an amazing cultural soup - of which I’m part.

These are the geological processes that gave birth to my current geography. In actuality, I am still being born, as these tectonic processes are ongoing. This is why my part of the planet is so turbulent geologically.

The Geography of my Mainland Countries: Himalayan Fingers & Mighty Rivers

My unique Southeast Asian geography provides an amazing earthly home for you humans. Our interaction spawned some amazingly diverse cultures. Let's see what my geography consists of.

The Himalayas are so tall that they have given birth to five of the biggest rivers in the world. Along with these rivers came great collections of humans, called civilizations. The Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in the East gave birth to the human culture called China, while the Indus and Ganges Rivers in the south gave birth to the culture called India. The Mekong River in the southeast is my river. While, perhaps not as dramatic as the others, it is my favorite because it is mine.

Besides the Mekong, I contain 2 other mighty rivers that are highly significant to me – the Irrawaddy and the Chao Phraya. Along with the Mekong, they help define my character – the geography of my mainland. These 3 turbulent Himalayan rivers have provided the dramatic tension that has inspired my humans to transcend themselves. Annual flooding from the snowmelt has presented challenges that have required ingenuity and cooperation.

The regular snowmelt from the enormous uplifts has also sculpted the earth to create fertile river valleys that have provided nourishment for my children. Surrounded by the gigantic fingers of the Himalayas, these valleys have provided homes for a wide range of diverse cultures. The Himalayan fingers are so large that they are mini-mountain ranges in their own right. In fact, they are so tall that they create a geographical separation that has isolated my humans from one another. This geographical isolation has given birth to several of my unique cultures. These independent human societies eventually morphed into political groupings that inevitably evolved into first kingdoms, then empires, and now countries.

My mainland contains 5 of these countries – Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. My geography defines their political boundaries. The Irrawaddy River Valley is home to the Burmese people of current day Myanmar. The Chao Phraya River Valley provides sustenance and living quarters for the Thai people of Thailand. And the Mekong River Valley feeds and houses the Khmer people of Cambodia.

One of the Himalayas’ gigantic fingers separates the Khmer, you might call them Cambodians, from the Pacific Ocean. The Vietnamese people developed their own unique culture on this ocean front property that eventually became Vietnam. This political organization eventually spread to the Mekong delta. The upper reaches of the mighty Mekong separates the Thai from their cousins to the east in Laos. The Himalayas separate Laos from the ocean and Vietnam. A geographical uplift separates Laos from Cambodia.

Tectonic Interactions determine my other Borders

Besides these 5 countries, my territory also includes 4 other countries that are equally diverse – Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Here is a picture of me with my countries. Notice how much water my territory contains. As we shall see, this did not provide a barrier to my people. Instead, the shallow waters were well traveled, as well as supplying an abundance of fish to feed my ever-growing population.

The Himalayas’ stratospheric ridges determine my northern boundary, while his gigantic fingers and mighty rivers determine the political boundaries of my mainland cultures. In contrast, slow-moving tectonic plates have been instrumental in determining my other borders. There is one exception: a relatively small area in my northeast, which is defined by deep ocean water.

The Philippine Plate pins me in on the east, specifically the Philippine Islands. These islands are the remnants of my ancient curl, Eurasia's tail. The India Plate corrals my western border. As it moves up from the south, the Australian Plate is colliding with my southeast corner. With the Himalayas in the north, my borders are well defined geologically. There is nothing amorphous about my location on our fair Earth. I am distinct from the rest. This is why I consider myself a subcontinent, just like India.

Even though Europe likes to refer to herself as ‘the Continent’, she blends into Asia. As a seamless part of the Eurasian Plate, she is actually not a continent at all. However, her ethno-centric historians have tried to turn her into one. Sorry for the jab, but I don't feel that they have treated me with proper respect. That is one of the reasons for my story.

The island nation of Indonesia is on my southern border. It is part of the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire. Consisting of a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and/or plate movements, the Ring of Fire is responsible for about 81% of the largest earthquakes and contains 75% of the volcanoes on the planet. As we shall see, these Indonesian volcanoes have had a particularly significant effect upon my island cultures.

If this geologic turbulence is not enough, my southern and western borders are also part of the aforementioned Alpide belt. With 6% of earthquakes and 17% of the world's largest earthquakes, the Alpide belt is the 2nd most seismic region on the planet. The Alpide belt extends along the southern margin of Eurasia. "The Alpide belt is being created by ongoing plate tectonics, namely the process of collision between the northward-moving African, Arabian and Indian plates and the Eurasian plate." Stretching from Java to Sumatra through the Himalayas, the Mediterranean, and out into the Atlantic, the Alpide belt includes the Alps, the Carpathians, the mountains of Anatolia and Iran, the Hindu Kush, and my Southeast Asian mountains. In our earlier discussion, we mentioned that this boundary provides a barricade against the invading continents from the south. As such, it is the frontline of the geologic war zone. This is why it is so active.

My island nation of "Indonesia lies between the Pacific Ring of Fire along the northeastern islands adjacent to and including New Guinea and the Alpide belt along the south and west from Sumatra, Java, Bali, Flores, and Timor. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake just off the coast of Sumatra was located within the Alpide belt." (Wikipedia) Needless to say, the southern part of my territory is incredibly turbulent geologically.

But that's enough about me and how my geology generated my geography. My geography only provides a home, sustenance, and challenges for the love of my life – the humans who inhabit my lands. And this is their story.

Java Man

Humans, or at least hominids, have existed in my territory since the beginning of your species. Armed with only a hunch, a young Dutch doctor by the name of Dubois came to the island of Sumatra with some workers in search of ancient human-like bones. Inspired by Darwin’s Origin of the Species, he and his team were searching for the missing link between ape and man. He intuited correctly, it turns out, that the Indonesian islands would be an ideal place to find ancient hominid remains due to the many caves.

When Sumatra proved barren of ancient remains, Dubois shifted his attention to the caves on the island of Java. In 1891, his team uncovered ancient bones, actually just a skullcap, a femur and 3 teeth to be specific. Dubois immediately noted distinctive similarities and differences between these bones and human bones. He believed his ‘Java Man’ to be the missing link. Armed with these distinctive, albeit scanty, remains, he returned to Europe to present his findings.

Unfortunately for Dubois, Darwin’s theories were still controversial. The academic community, in particular, was quite skeptical. They had yet to find a mechanism for evolution. Even those that supported the theory had no idea how the ‘fittest’ attributes would be passed along. Genes and genetics were not yet part of the scientific tool set. Instead of being greeted with the acclaim he anticipated, Dubois was met with skeptism and scorn. Discouraged by this response, he withdrew himself and his bones from the world of scholarship.

Many decades later, the academic community uncovered Mendel’s findings regarding dominant and recessive genes. This was the evolutionary mechanism that evolutionists had been searching for. After Darwin’s theory of evolution became mainstream, Dubois’ ancient hominid bones were re-analyzed by specialists. Despite the scorn that he received, it seems that Dubois was correct.

The current belief is that these are the bones of homo erectus, a precursor to modern humans. In fact, homo erectus is the first in the homo series to exhibit truly human characteristics. They hunted in groups, employed fire and tools, had campsites, and looked after the weak and frail. Further they were travelers, spreading all over the globe at about 25 miles/year.

Carbon dating suggests that homo erectus could have walked the island of Java up to 1.7 million years ago. Their evolutionary offspring, homo sapiens (modern humans) reached my island of Java 60,000 years ago. Genetic evidence indicates that they wandered from Africa via Southern India to reach my homeland. Even back then, we had a connection with India. The point of this discussion is that human-like creatures have found my part of the planet to be appealing for a very long time.

My unique Southeast Asian Children

I love the pesky humans, who inhabit my lands. Although they regularly get in trouble, frequently due to their own devices, they provide me with endless amusement. Just when I think I've seen everything they do, they come up with something new. For most of the flora and fauna, my primary function is to provide a home and sustenance. In contrast, these fascinating creatures spend an inordinate amount of time arranging my materials in an arousingly intriguing fashion. Their delicate hands with their opposable thumb caress such interesting forms from my substance. They employ my wood, stone, metals, and anything else they can lay their supple hands on to erect monuments to the glory of existence. I am very grateful for them, even though I feel so much pain due to my compassion for the suffering they inflict upon themselves.

I am exceedingly proud of my children. They have a unique perspective on life, that combines art, music, dance, and food in joyous celebration, mixed with humor, of course. Unfortunately, the serious cultures of southern and eastern Asia – namely India and China, have overshadowed my Southeast Asian culture. China’s humans are so family and duty oriented that they have little time for fun, while the peoples of India reject this world as illusion. Our message of play, art, fun and celebration has been lost in the constant turmoil of our planet. It seems that you humans are constantly attempting to ‘get ahead’ by forming nations and fortunes, pursuing power and prestige. Unfortunately, these misguided goals are at the expense of enjoying the moment in harmonious relation with your neighbors.

While our overblown neighbors have their own names, we don’t even have a name of our own. The world seems to think of us as the space in-between. As such we are referred to as Indochina – a blending of my neighbor’s names. Blechh! Most simply, I am called Southeast Asia, referring to my physical location on the continent.

Because of the unique cultural perspective of our part of the planet, I felt that our story should be told. Hopefully, it will inspire a few of you humans to snap out of your verbal trance to embrace the Art of Life. Many of you are so serious about doing things that you have forgotten how to relax and just be.

While I am very big, housing millions of humans, I have no fingers. Hence, much to my dismay, I can’t really write my own biography. I need an Author to tell my story.

Now that I have given you this Frame, I’ll let my Author tell my tale of romance, intrigue, adventure, and excitement – with Empires rising and falling as regularly as the tides. Open your Mind and empty it of Thoughts to allow your Being to be purified and then transformed by these chicken scratches upon this wood pulp.


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