Affluent hunters

Ever since the redoubtable Madeleine Colani explored the wonderful karst country of Hoa Binh Province, west of Hanoi in northern Vietnam, a century ago, the hunter-gatherers of Southeast Asia have received rather a poor press. With a background in the superb stone technology of the Upper Palaeolithic of her native France, Madeleine Colani found the corresponding finds in the caves of Hoa Binh underwhelming. She and her sister explored and excavated many rock shelters, finding that a stone tool called a sumatralith dominated the assemblages. This is a large river cobble flaked on one side only, with a pointed end, probably used for multiple applications. Contrast that with a Solutrean laurel-leaf point and the gulf in technique is wide. The assemblages she documented in her seminal publications described these sites as Hoabinhian, after the name of the province where she worked.

Since then, similar sites have been identified over much of the limestone uplands of Southeast Asia. In 1970, I joined Chester Gorman at the remote site of Banyan Valley Cave, in Northeast Thailand, to spend a season excavating there. We found sumatraliths, many stone flakes, the fragmented bones of forest animals, and numerous hearths. This was one of several rock shelters he excavated, the best known being Spirit Cave. Since then, Rasmi Shoocondej has examined yet more, extending their chronology back 40,000 years at the site of Tham Lod. The habitat back then was a mixture of forest and grassland. The presence of wild cattle, water buffalo, and deer evidence a relatively open terrain rather than a canopied rainforest. With the onset of a warmer climate about 12,000 years ago, the forest began to spread and arboreal animals replaced those better adapted to the grasslands of late glacial chill.

Hunter-gatherers survive in the deep forests on the Thai-Malaysian border to this day. During the rainy season, they use rock shelters, but with the dry season they move through the forest, making temporary huts of stakes and banana leaves. The former are easy to find, and cultural remains survive well, but the latter are ephemeral and soon lose visibility. The result of this is that for decades since Madeleine Colani set the ball rolling, the hunter-gatherers of Southeast Asia have been portrayed as small-scale, mobile, and really rather tedious. Only with the arrival of the first farmers from the north did the pace of change quicken and the cultural sequence become much more interesting.

Extensive excavations at Beidaling in Guangxi have uncovered flexed human burials and a massive stone-tool workshop. Photo: courtesy of Xie Guangmao

Beyond the rock shelters

Now, that has all changed. For me it began with a chance meeting at a conference where I listened to a presentation by Xie Guangmao on the hunter-gatherer sites in Guangxi, the Chinese province that borders Vietnam. He referred to them as Neolithic. Coming from a Western European archaeological tradition, for me Neolithic means farmers. For Guangmao, Neolithic means a people who made pottery. We had a discussion after his talk and struck up an enduring friendship, as a result of which I have recently been able to provide a set of radiocarbon determinations for his most recent excavations that have been modelled with Bayesian statistics by son Tom, and are now being readied for publication.

While open, inland hunter-gatherer sites in Southeast Asia are virtually unknown, the environment of Guangxi, with its mix of karst outcrops and relatively small river courses, has led to their survival. We have dated two of these settlements, Jiangxi’an and Ganzao, to between 10,000 and 8,300 years ago. They present a sharp contrast when compared with what is found in Hoabinhian rock shelters. The sites are large and incorporate working floors, where the activities of individual stone knappers can be reconstructed. Artefacts include ground stone axes and adzes, bone chisels, awls, hooks and needles, and shell shovels. There was also decorated pottery. Faunal remains feature water buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, deer, wild pig, monkey, turtles, and fish.

These two sites belong to a swarm of similar open settlements in Guangxi named after Dingshishan, a site that comprised living areas, a cemetery, and midden dumps divided into four occupation phases, with pottery occurring from the initial settlement. This pottery was cord marked, or impressed with basketry patterns. Ground stone adzes were fashioned, and nearly half the shell artefacts were used as knives. The burial ground contained 133 graves where the dead were interred in a flexed or crouched position, but with few mortuary offerings of stone, bone or shell. The dead were dismembered prior to burial, with different parts of the corpse being carefully placed within the grave.

Only when the sea level rose, as warm conditions returned from about 10,000 years ago, do we have any chance of investigating how hunter-gatherers also adapted to life along the rich estuaries and shorelines. Con Co Ngua in northern Vietnam is a key site, where recent excavations have greatly enlarged our knowledge of coastal settlement. This almost certainly had a long ancestry on parts of the continental shelves that are now underwater, as the sea was over 100m lower than it is today. Marc Oxenham’s excavations at Con Co Ngua from 2013 have documented a complex, large, sedentary hunter-gatherer community dated to about 6,900 years ago, which is a period of the Holocene thermal maximum when the sea rose higher than today. Although Con Co Ngua is now 30km from the shore, the site would then have been close to the sea, with its rich coastal resources reflected in the remains of estuarine and marine creatures, as well as freshwater fish, turtles, and otters. The inhabitants collected nutritious canarium nuts and probably many other plant foods that have not survived. They also hunted water buffalo and deer, and in doing so probably exposed themselves to injuries seen in a number of healed fractures of the arm and leg bones. The sedentary nature of this settlement favoured the manufacture of pottery vessels. They also made shell and bone tools from deer long bones, including points and fishhooks.

The excavation of Con Co Ngua has revealed a long-term settlement and cemetery of affluent coastal hunter-gatherers. Photo: courtesy of Marc Oxenham

Of the 272 individuals in the cemetery there, 26% died when under the age of 15 years, a far smaller ratio than in later Neolithic to Iron Age settlements. A remarkable number of adults lived into old age, with 33 of 275 individuals surviving beyond 75 years. We also know a great deal about the health of this community. The presence of honeycombed skull bones has been ascribed, most probably, to a genetic predisposition to a nasty condition known as thalassaemia. While providing resistance to malaria, it induces anaemia and reduced life expectancy. Cystic lesions on many bones also reveal that the community suffered from hydatids. This is caused by the transmission of tapeworms due to close proximity with the cuon, a wild dog, and other animals, including water buffalo and deer. The dead were interred either flexed or in a squatting position looking to the east. Mortuary offerings were virtually absent save for one individual, wearing a bracelet of porcupine teeth.

Instead of the rather unimpressive Hoabinhian rock shelters, we now have widespread evidence for large and permanent communities of hunter-gatherers, who managed herds of wild water buffalo and made pottery vessels and polished stone tools. Some lived to over 70 years of age, and were ceremonially buried in the village cemeteries. Thanks to DNA and the analysis of skull shapes, we can also distinguish between these hunter-gatherers and their successors who infiltrated Southeast Asia from the north, bringing their domestic rice, millet, cattle, dogs, and pigs. One of the leading issues to emerge is, quite simply: how did they get on with each other? Man Bac, located near Con Co Ngua, is your typical Neolithic farming settlement, with its finely decorated ceramics, jade ornaments, and evidence for rice and domestic animals. It, too, has a cemetery of well-preserved skeletons, and the results of DNA and cranial shape have revealed two groups of individuals, one being incoming farmers, the other indigenous hunters. The two clearly mixed harmoniously into one community. This same pattern is found at several other sites. Moreover, a significant fraction of the DNA in modern Southeast Asians reveals hunter-gatherer ancestry. No evidence has been found anywhere for friction or killing, a situation that contrasts with the situation in Neolithic Europe, with its evidence for mass burials of butchered men, women, and children.

Thus, an entirely new view of hunter-gatherers is emerging. Anatomically Modern Humans originated in Africa, and began to arrive into Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago. Their descendants still hunt and gather in the Andaman Islands, the Philippines, Thailand, and, of course, in Australia. They were resilient and innovative people, capable of crossing the open sea to colonise new lands, and adaptive to a wide range of habitats. They were well able to deal with the first intrusive farmers who began to invade their ancestral lands about 5,000 years ago, integrating and adapting to the new lives that then eventuated.

Charles Higham is a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand, and an authority on Cambodia's Angkor civilisation and Ban Non Wat in Thailand