3: A Linguistic View of Southeast Asia’s Prehistory


(Chapter 8 in the 1st book: completely rewritten with new title)

The prior article provided an introduction into the 5 primary language families of Southeast Asia. The following list shows the language family and the regions they inhabit:


1) Miao-Yao (the Hill Tribes of the northern mountains),

2) Mon-Khmer (Cambodia and Vietnam),

3) Thai-Kadai (Thailand and Laos),

4) Tibeto-Burman (Myanmar)

5) Austronesian (the southern islands).


As mentioned, these 5 language families are as different as Arabic and French. The number of language families spoken in this relatively small geographical area is especially remarkable when one considers that Indo-European is the primary language family of the entire Western Hemisphere and most of Europe. There are no others.

Due to modern linguistic pocketing, scholars assume that Miao-Yao and Austroasiatic were the indigenous language families of Southeast Asia. The Hill Tribes, speaking languages in the Miao-Yao family, were probably hunter-gatherers. It seems that they were one of the first inhabitants of the mainland. Austroasiatic speakers were the first food-producing culture to spread over Southeast Asian territory. As such, the language family is considered to be the indigenous language of the mainland. Humans speaking the remainder of the language families arrived much later.

The previous discussion was primarily based around a single map. Let us see what scholars have uncovered about Southeast Asian prehistory from their linguistic analysis. Although no one knows what really happened, scholars make educated guesses based upon a little logic applied to present day facts. And we know how reliable logic is. Because everyone applies logic a little bit differently, scholars have differing opinions about the nature of my ancestors. As their analysis is based upon a paucity of hard facts, their renditions of my prehistoric past are just educated guesses. Accordingly, we are going to tell you the story we like the best.

Austroasiatic: Southeast Asia’s Indigenous Language Family

Mon-Khmer speakers of the mainland Southeast Asia

Speakers of the Austroasiatic language family span from eastern India including Bangladesh to the islands off the western coast of the Malay peninsula, but are primarily found on Southeast Asia’s mainland. As the following map indicates, the Austroasiatic language distribution is disjunct with many other languages surrounding these language pockets. As mentioned, this pocketing suggests that Austroasiatic speakers were supplanted by cultures speaking languages in other families.


Austroasiatic from Eastern India

Genetic studies indicate that the Austroasiatic language family began in India and spread west to Southeast Asia tens of thousands of years ago from the Brahmaputra River Valley. But that was so long ago that events are quite fuzzy and hard to establish.

The Austroasiatic clan spread over Southeast Asia – from present day Burma in the west through the mainland to Vietnam in the east, then southward to Malaysia. Everything went fine for thousands of years. Due to geographic isolation, the language clan further divided into sub-groups. Humans on the mainland spoke languages in the Mon-Khmer family. Mon was spoken in the west, Khmer in the middle of the mainland, while the inhabitants of the eastern coast (Vietnam) spoke languages in the Vietic family (previously Viet-Muong). While these were the main clans, there were many variations in between. For instance, the Mon-Khmer language family further broke into 12 different sub families 3 to 4 thousand years ago.

India exerted a heavy influence on both the Mon and Khmer speakers of the mainland. Due to reasons we shall discuss, the Mon were more Buddhist in orientation, while the Khmer tended towards Hinduism. In contrast, the Chinese exerted a strong cultural influence on the residents of Vietnam. This influence of their huge neighbor was so strong that linguists originally thought that the Vietnamese languages were related to the Sinitic languages of China. Current scholarship has shown that Vietnamese instead belongs to the Mon-Khmer language family, a branch of the Austroasiatic family.

The current inhabitants of Cambodia still speak Khmer, just as the present-day inhabitants of Vietnam still speak Vietic. In contrast, the Mon language and culture is fading, supplanted by more aggressive cultures.

Austronesian islanders, another Ancestral language

Between 5 and 10 thousand years ago, a new language clan entered the Southeast Asian islands from the southeast. They spoke Austronesian, which means southern islands. They came from the sea. Their boats traveled everywhere safely and quickly. They were incredible fishermen. They inundated the islands, relatively rapidly.

It is pretty well established that Austronesian speakers pushed the Austroasiatic speakers into linguistic pockets. Currently a sea of Austronesian speakers surround over 100 linguistic pockets who speak dialects in the Austroasiatic language family. These small groupings are indigenous minority groups, not recent arrivals. Many are small tribes sprinkled from the mainland to the south. Because they are pocketed by Austronesian speakers, everyone agrees that Austroasiatic speakers were the original inhabitants of Southeast Asia.

While the Austroasiatic speakers were the first to arrive, Austronesian speakers quickly dominated the islands. They are the greatest fishing culture the world has ever known. Their clan spread by boat. They started in Taiwan and spread south into the South China Sea. From there some of the clan sailed east, colonizing islands as they went. They eventually reached Easter Island off the west coast of South America. Another part of the clan sailed west. They colonized most of the islands of Southeast Asia. Some of the more adventurous ones kept on going past the Indian Ocean, eventually reaching Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.

Cultural technology of the Austro-Tai

Some lingusits believe that the Austronesian language family belongs to a larger family called Austro-Tai. The Tai-Kadai language family is the other branch of this family. As evidence, the Tai-Kadai language family has many words in common with Austronesian. For instance, they have similar words for ‘rice’, ‘dog', and 'pig'.

One author suggests that the Austro-Tai culture originally coexisted in southern China and Taiwan. From Taiwan they migrated to the neighboring islands. The Austro-Tai language bifurcated at this point into Austronesian and Tai-Kadai. Roughly speaking, we can say that the islanders from this culture speak Austronesian and the mainlanders speak Tai-Kadai.

Why did this bifurcation occur?

One possible scenario is that the ending of the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago split this prehistoric culture of southern China. The very shallow South China Sea might have not even existed in the last Ice Age, as all of the water might have been sucked up into the polar ice caps. Evidence suggests that the water level of the oceans may have been as much as 200 feet lower during the peak of the last Ice Age. This factoid suggests the possibility that a common culture could easily have populated the land between Taiwan and South China. When the Ice Age ended, the waters of the ice caps melted. This raised the ocean to its current level, thereby separating Taiwan from the mainland. As the waters were rising and habitable land was receding, the culture learned how to navigate the ocean in order to maintain contact between the mainland and Taiwan. These boating skills eventually allowed the Taiwanese to set out on longer voyages across the ocean. These voyagers eventually colonized all the islands of the Pacific with their culture. While initially belonging to a common culture with a common language, the islanders and mainlanders inevitably differentiated.

Based upon linguistic analysis, it seems that the prehistoric culture that spoke the mother language, Austro-Tai, developed a dominant cultural technology. This technology was based upon the cultivation of rice, superior fishing techniques, and the domestication of pigs and dogs.1 Consequently, the Austro-Tai speakers had a more stable and diverse food supply. This allowed them to survive and thrive in locations of their choosing.

This cultural technology also allowed them to supplant the indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures wherever they went. The Tai-Kadai culture replaced the indigenous speakers of the Miao-Yao language group all throughout Southern China and Southeast Asia. The Austronesian culture spread their traditions over most of the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Due to prolonged geographic separation, these island cultures currently speak over 1000 mutually unintelligible dialects. However, linguists have demonstrated that all of these island languages belong to a common group – the sub-family called Austronesian. There are a few Austronesian speaking groups on the mainland (mainly the Cham of South Vietnam and southern Cambodia). However, there are no Tai-Kadai speakers on the islands. The original Tai-Kadai speakers tended to live on and around rivers – an indication of their watery beginnings in the south of China.

Tai-Kadai culture of Southern China is not Chinese.

Let it be stressed that the Tai-Kadai culture, while inhabiting Southern China, was not the least bit Chinese. The Tai-Kadai language group was once thought to be in the Sino-Tibetan family. However with deeper study, it became clear that it was more linked with the Austronesian language family. In prehistoric times, the society that was to become Chinese culture had not yet moved this far south. Classic Chinese culture began in the Yellow River Valley in the far north of China. When the First Emperor of China unified the north and south about 200 BCE, the 'south' of China still only included the Yangtze River Valley, which is in the middle.

The real south of China, where the Tai-Kadai speakers lived, was not truly Sinofied until the 13th century CE. It was at this time that the Mongols took control of the country and drove the Thai speakers into Thailand. Up to that time, they had their own nation in southern China. In fact, this massive exodus of the Thai people from southern China was probably instrumental in forming the kingdom of Thailand.

In summary, linguistic evidence indicates that the Austro-Tai speakers began in the south of China. They relied upon fishing as well as the cultivation of rice and the domestication of pigs and dogs to survive and thrive. Because of the ending of the last Ice Age, the Austro-Tai culture might have bifurcated into the island-dwelling Austronesian speakers and the Tai-Kadai speakers of the mainland.

Due in part to the Mongol invasions, Tai-Kadai speakers spread south to become a major language family of Southeast Asia. The dominant culture, of Thailand and Laos speak Tai-Kadai languages. This water-based culture supplanted both the indigenous mountain dwelling Hill Tribes (the Miao-Yao speakers) and the Mon-Khmer speakers of Southeast Asia’s mainland.

1 Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond, 1999, p. 344


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