5: Prehistoric Cultures of Southeast Asia


Austronesian & Austroasiatic speakers: Indigenous Inhabitants

Southeast Asia: “It seems that my wonderful children with all their cultural diversity entered my home at different times. First were the Hill Tribes. Then came the Austroasiatic speakers with the Mon-Khmer constituting their main branch. They seem to have migrated westward into my mainland from India. In ancient times, the Austroasiatic people constituted the dominant culture from Burma to Vietnam and to the Malay Peninsula. It must have seemed that it would remain this way forever. However, as is in the innate nature of existence, everything changes.

Disrupting the state of affairs, the Austronesian culture, being excellent seamen, entered my territory from the south, specifically the Pacific Ocean. With their superior fishing techniques and navigation skills, they inhabited the islands of present day Indonesia and even the Malay Peninsula. This migration pocketed or pushed the Austroasiatic speakers off my islands and onto the mainland. These cultural movements occurred between 5 to 10 millennia ago, thousands of years before the common era.

5000 BCE to Common Era:
Austronesian & Austroasiatic Speakers

(Note this diagram is for illustration only.)

Roughly speaking, Austronesians inhabited my islands and Austroasiatic speakers inhabited my mainland in prehistoric times. Due to the potentials of extensive sea trade in the area, these cultures certainly interacted. For the sake of brevity, let us refer to the merger of this millennia-long cultural interaction between the Austroasiatic and Austronesian speakers as my prehistoric culture.

Prehistoric Cultural Interaction between Southeast Asia, India & China

What does the scientific community have to say about my prehistoric culture?

Archaelogical and linguistic research indicates that there were already significant interactions occuring between the Neolithic cultures of Eastern Asia (China), Northeast India and my Southeast Asian mainland. We share three significant features in common: celt (stone axe) making traditions, cord-impressed pottery, and rice cultivation.

Stone tools, including celts, of similar design are also found in all three of these areas. The pottery in Eastern Asia is strikingly similar to that found in Southeast Asian territories. Both cultures have cord-impressed, combed, fingertip-impressed or incised vessels, often on tripods and pedestals.

Rice growing could have emerged spontaneously in our independent regions. Due to the enormous river valleys of the Himalayas, each of us, China, Northeast India and me, Southeast Asia, and are ideal locations for the cultivation of rice. Each of us has annual flooding and contains many varieties of wild rice. Indeed this method of food production allowed our Neolithic cultures to supplant the earlier hunter-gatherers in these regions.

The earliest evidence of pottery in China predates Southeast Asian pottery by thousands of years (21,000 BCE to 7000 BCE respectively). Similarly, current evidence indicates that a sophisticated rice-growing technology also emerged in China thousands of years before it appeared in Southeast Asia and Northeast India, (10,000 BCE and 7000 BCE). These cultures might have employed more primitive forms of rice growing, including ‘slash and burn’, i.e. ‘shifting cultivation’. Once exposed to China’s ‘settled rice’ agricultural technology, Southeast Asians and Northeast Indians could have easily borrowed these sophisticated techniques. Due to precedence, most scientists believe that the Neolithic technologies began in Eastern Asia and spread south and west.

Northeast India, also called the Indian Corridor, could have been a significant cultural nexus between the 3 regions. One author suggests that a proto Sino-Tibetan culture developed the Neolithic tools. They split into ‘Chinese’ and Tibetan. The Tibetan branch carried the rice technology west. Coming down the Brahmaputra River Valley into Northeast India, they interacted with the indigenous Austroasiatic speakers.

The proto Sino-Tibetan culture in the middle of China also passed on their sophisticated Neolithic technologies to the Austroasiatic and Austronesian speakers to their south. The Austroasiatic cultures then migrated into and spread over my Southeast Asian mainland with their rice growing technology. A bit later, Austronesian speakers sailed from Taiwan into the Pacific. Some of them moved into and took over my islands employing the same style of rice agriculture. Another branch of that family, the Tai-Kadai culture, remained in the Red River Valley in Southern China.

In other words, the scientific community believes that all four of my language families, originated in the middle and south of what is now China. Two of these families migrated into my territory in prehistoric times, the Mon-Khmer of the Austroasiatic family onto my mainland, and the Austronesians onto my islands. The other two language cultures continued to resided to the north of my boundaries, Tai-Kadai to my northeast and Sino-Tibetan, soon to become Tibeto-Burman, to my northwest.

Further many of these linguistic cultures shared Neolithic technologies in the Brahmaputra River Valley in Northeast India. The point is that there was a huge cultural exchange going on between India, China and Southeast Asians from the earliest times. We have a long-term friendship.

Ancient Connections between Southeast Asian Cultures

Although separated geographically by huge mountain ranges, enormous rivers, and bodies of water, there seems to have been a cultural affinity between my diverse peoples, even from prehistoric times. As early as the 3rd millennium BCE, highly polished axes of similar design are found from Malaya, to Indonesia, to my mainland. This ancient cultural spreading zone pretty much includes my entire territory.

Because their original art was probably woodcarving, nothing remains. However, the wood carving tradition seems to have been translated into metal and stonework, with common motifs throughout my land. As an example, archeologists have found proto-Neolithic cave paintings in Myanmar that are similar to modern wood post carvings of the Naga Hill Tribes on the border of India and Myanmar. For instance, a pair of painted hands, one holding a sun and the other holding a skull, appears in the ancient cave paintings. The modern-day Naga Hill Tribes frequently employ both of these motifs in their artwork. This striking parallel seems to indicate an unbroken artistic tradition.

An abundance of metals exist in my Southeast Asian hills, including gold, silver, copper and tin. The combination of the latter two creates bronze. Because of this natural resource, there has been a long tradition of metal work. The silver buttons, belts, bracelets and ornaments that the almost aboriginal Hill Tribes people still sell to tourists belong to this millennia long tradition. The same is true with their textiles. Both exhibit a high level of craft that is associated with millennia of experience.

The Bronze drums of the Dong Son culture

A bronze working culture, which created magnificent drums, seems to have existed in my territory during the second half of the first millennium BCE. It is called the Dong Son culture. This culture is named after a primary archaeological site, rather than a political center. Although the primary remains are found in Dong Son, a village in Vietnam, the high quality bronze art, which included drums, masks and axes, is spread around locations in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, including Bali.


The bronze drums are also found among many of the Hill Tribes. These high quality bronzes are decorated with human and animal etchings. Their motifs included spirals and even a ‘ship of the dead’ design. These designs are still utilized today. To create these, a type of lost wax casting is employed. Scientists originally assumed that this technique was learned from the Chinese. However, recent discoveries indicate that the bronze-making technology was indigenous.

Historically, the Bronze Age is associated with a particular political technology. A dominant military aristocracy conquers and enslaves an indigenous agricultural population. They  become their overlords through the use of a bronze military technology based in chariots and spears. This political system was in place in most, if not all, the nation/empires of the Eurasian super-continent: China, India, Persia, and the Mediterranean. (This topic is discussed in more detail in the Author’s Bronze Age Warrior Kings)

Our Bronze Age in Southeast Asia was not of this variety. My prehistoric society only employed bronze as a craft material for cermonial, decorative and musical purposes, not weaponry. In contrast, while China produced large bronze cauldrons, they doubled as weapon storage. As with most of Southeast Asia, the Dong Son culture was not a military civilization, but was instead a collection of tribes using similar art forms. There is no evidence of writing, big cities, a hierarchy or a dominant military aristocracy. The main emphasis of our Southeast Asian art and culture has always been on the celebration of life, not its domination. Gaiety and humor are stressed.

How refreshing. A culture based upon art rather than war. Although idealistic, a somewhat accurate, simplification.

The Megalithic culture & Gunung Padang

In the late Neolithic, a megalithic culture seems to have flourished in Cambodia, Borneo, Java and Sumatra. Megalithic refers to giant stones. A monolith is a single giant stone. To indicate the interconnectedness of the Eurasian super-continent, evidence of this megalithic culture is seen in England, the Mediterranean, India, and Southeast Asia. Common elements include menhirs (single upright monoliths arranged in patterns, of which Stonehenge is an example) and dolmens (menhirs supporting a horizontal slab in a type of doorway or chamber). Whether these diverse regions are connected culturally is unknown, but they seem to have coexisted simultaneously from about 2000 BCE to 500 BCE.

Gunung Padang is arguably the most spectacular of these megalithic sites. Recent archealogical discoveries at Gunung Padang suggest that a relatively sophisticated culture developed in Western Java over 10,000 years ago. Archaelogists have known about the site for a long time. It was first mentioned in a scholarly report in 1914.

Gunung Padang covers a hill in a series of terraces. The terraces are bordered by stone retaining walls. The walls are reached by about 400 andesite steps that rise about 100 yards. The site is covered with enormous stones of volcanic origin. The hill itself is about 2700 feet above sea level. Some say that the structure has a geomantic and astrological orientation.

Scientists say that the construction was finished circa 5000 BCE. As the largest megalithic site in my entire territory of Southeast Asia, and perhaps the world, Gunung Padang is certainly remarkable in and of itself.

However, a reputable research team headed by Dr. Danny Hilman has found indications that the hill site may itself be an ancient pyramid construction. In other words, humans may have constructed Gunung Panang on top of a site with even more ancient origins. Using carbon dating, they have established that this earlier pyramid that is inside the mountain is between 11,000 and 22,000 years old. If verified, this dating makes it the oldest known human structure in the world.

This finding provides verification for Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer’s claim that there was an ancient civilization located in the Java Sea before the end of the last Ice Age. Because the Poles absorbed the ocean water into their ice, the ocean levels were much lower then. Deemed the Sundaland Civilization, Oppenheimer theorizes that it was the first human culture that practiced agriculture, animal husbandry and even developed a sophisticated language.

Modern Indonesians still treat the area with great respect. The Sundanese people of Java consider it a sacred site. Local legend has it that an ancient king attempted to build it in one day. Further the Balinese continue to make pilgrimages to Gunung Panang and leave eggs. Whether any of the wilder claims are true, it is evident that a sophisticated human culture has existed in and around the island of Java since prehistoric times. Further the residents seem to have engaged in monumental architecture that foreshadows Angkor and Borobudur.

Timeless traditions & the Spirit of Art

Archaeologists have also discovered cist graves lined with stone slabs, and terraced burial mounds on Southeast Asian land. Further large stones have been found which have symbols and images of animals and humans chiseled into their surface. Amongst the remains, there are also shaped stone sarcophagi and skull troughs (containers for the skulls of ancestors and enemies). All of these findings suggest highly developed cults of the spirit world connected with the remains of the dead.

Some things never change. The spirit houses of the Cambodians and the Thai people indicate that reverence for spirits has never left Indochina, despite the overlays of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also easy to see the continuity between the terraced burial mounds and the terraced shrines of Angkor. The main difference is intent, not structure. The Indian influence only shifted the emphasis from the spirits of the ancestors to the gods. However, the differentiation blurs with the Khmer and Javanese, who identify their kings with the gods. Indeed, for the average person there might have been no difference whatsoever. The great temples of Angkor might just have been perceived as enormous spirit houses for the royalty. The terraced burial mounds of prehistoric times merely morphed into terraced shrines for the gods, who also happened to be their king and queen.

Those of us from the ‘scientific’ West tend to think of these beliefs as superstitious. However, the truth is that the spirit of the creators of these monuments remains in the stonework, just as the spirit of the authors of the Bible or any other literary work remains in the words; or just as the spirit of the composer remains in the music; or the spirit of the artist remains in the painting. Perhaps our honored Reader might prefer to choose a word other than spirit, if the word ‘spirit’ conjures up seances and haunted houses.

The word ‘memory’ is certainly an unacceptable substitution for ‘spirit’. We certainly don’t remember the author, painter, sculptor, or composer when we view their works. The word ‘idea’ is also of limited use as a way of understanding our response to the ruins at Angkor. Although we might experience the ideas of a philosopher, we certainly don’t experience the verbal ideas of the ancient sculptors that carved the 4-headed Buddhas at Angkor Thom. The word ‘emotions’ is perhaps closer to the notion of the ‘spirit of the artist’. We certainly experience an emotional response from musical compositions and literary works. However, is the word ‘emotion’ sufficient to also include our response to beauty – the aesthetics of an artistic creation?

Perhaps in the non-emotional scientific world, we could call this the fingerprint of the artist. However, fingerprints are boring and uninspiring, except maybe to a select few who specialize in the subject. Fingerprints don’t cause us to cry, laugh, or bow down and pray. Our jaws don’t drop in awe at the magnificence of a fingerprint.

Because none of the usual words seem to properly convey the meaning we intend, we will revert back to the word ‘spirit’. But this time, in order to prune away inappropriate connotations, we shall define our word to mean any intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or physical response that we might have to any work of art, whatever the medium. That was easy.

But was it really? What are we responding to? During the artist’s life, he creates his or her art. The creator infuses what we call a spirit into his medium. The spirit of the art includes, but is more than artist's emotions, religious ideas, intellectual concepts or aesthetic vision.

At a later date, someone experiences the art. What does this mean? As we’ve defined it, the individual experiences the spirit of the art or the artistic community. Indeed if the artist successfully transmits his vision into a medium, the viewer is able to have an integrated experience that includes all of the above feelings - perhaps even including a feel for the history of the culture from which the art emerged. The more limited or fragmented the artistic vision, the less complete the viewer’s experience. In this case, it is probable that the Fire of Time will consume the artist’s work.

Ghosts are quite different from the spirit of the art. Ghosts, if they exist, are not attached to or generated by an object. Further ghosts are considered to be disembodied humans. In contrast, the art must be present to experience its spirit, even though it reaches across time to influence us. Also, the spirit of the art is independent of the human that created it. Although the Artist infuses his spirit into a painting, for instance, the painting has a life and spirit of its own. No matter what the Artist intended, once he gives birth to his masterpiece, it begins to exist as an independent entity. The masterpiece acquires a history that influences its spirit. And this enhanced spirit influences those who experience the Art.

The art's independence from the artist can be seen in the ruins at Angkor. Nature adds a surreal effect that was unanticipated by the original artists, as giant trees grow from the stonework. Further, Time herself has become part of the artwork, crumbling spires and rounding edges. Even subsequent humans have played a part, stealing relics and removing the gold leaf for other projects. The Viewer doesn't just see the original artistic vision when viewing Angkor Wat. She might also envision all the humans that have come and gone. More importantly, the Viewer is struck by the transitory nature of existence. The Khmer Empire, once so high and mighty, now reduced to crumbling ruins. Time changes everything.

The actual Art, like a genie in a bottle, is neutral until opened up. For instance, the black and white patterns on this paper are just kindling for a fire unless read and comprehended by another human being. However, if the conditions are ripe, the Reader might be infected with the vision of an independent Spirit of Art that transcends time. The Reader might even experience a mini enlightenment to the eternal suchness of things, when he or she realizes that the Artistic Experience behind the art is relatively immortal. At least, it has the potential to become so - depending on the universality, subtlety, sophistication, and depth of expression.

The temples of Angkor reached this stage. Hence, the spirit of the artistic community that produced them still exists, although the actual physical bodies that produced them are long gone. Similarly it is the intention of my Author to produce something that will be experienced and passed on. When his physical body is long gone, the Spirit of his Art will live on as long as these chicken scratches are comprehended by anyone.

Actually, the immortality of the Artist is derived from the power of the Universe, which he channels. The idea of an independent personality is an illusion. Keep personal ego out of the way. Let the divine force flow and nobody will get hurt.

Enough speculation. Let's return to the narrative. Entering the Christian era, my peoples had a tribal society based upon trade and crafts. Further their art indicates that they had an obsession with the spirits of the dead. How does this translate into my next phase?"


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