From the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Thailand: Applying the Heterarchical Approach

Article excerpt

THERE HAS, OF LATE, BEEN INCREASING interest in the social organization of prehistoric Southeast Asia (Bayard 1992; Higham and Thosarat 2000; O'Reilly 1999; White 1995; White and Pigott 1996). Most of this discussion has focused on Bronze Age Thailand, which is often perceived to follow an unusual trajectory of social development (Bronson 1979; White 1995). These authors have noted that Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, does not follow the same trajectory that other areas of the world did after the introduction of bronze. Recent excavations at Iron Age sites in northeast Thailand provide fascinating insight into social organization after 500 B.C. The evidence from these excavations lends support to the proposition that the sociopolitical climate during the Iron Age was considerably different from that of the Bronze Age (c. 1500-500 B.C.). It would appear that there was a shift in the organization of society, and hierarchies seem to have become entrenched. This is not a revelation: indeed, these differences are the foundation of the chronological division of Southeast Asia. The Bronze Age is subsumed by General period B and the Iron Age falls within General period C (Bayard 1984) (see Table 1). It should be noted that there is considerable disagreement over the dating of the Bronze Age in Thailand, which has polarized into those who support a long chronology (Bayard 1996; White 1982) and those who propose a short chronology (Higham 1994). It is the purpose of this paper to examine the social and political changes apparent in the archaeological record and to advance some possible causative factors for the perceived differences between General periods B and C.

This paper explores the meaning of heterarchy and the application of this theoretical model to the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. It examines current interpretations of the Iron Age social milieu. New evidence from recently excavated sites in northeast Thailand are also introduced. Models of social organization are evaluated considering this evidence, and alternative explanations are proposed for developments in Southeast Asia from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age.


Definitive evidence of a hierarchical social structure has not been produced for sites ascribed to General period B in Thailand. The data from these sites, such as Nong Nor, Khok Phanom DJ, Ban Na DJ, and Non Nok Tha, contain none of the hallmarks of highly ranked or stratified society (Bayard 1976; Higham and Bannanurag 1990; Higham and Kijngam 1984; Higham and Thosarat 1998), nor are there any differences in the number and form of artifacts in burials across age and sex categories (Wilen 1992:105). Some have argued that the lack of weaponry in graves may indicate a low incidence of intercommunity conflict during the Bronze Age (White 1982:48). Production seems to have occurred at the household level, including the mining of copper and bronze casting, both of which require significant expertise (Bennett 1988:133; Weiss 1992; White 1995:107; White and Pigott 1996:165). There is no evidence that large labor forces were marshaled or controlled by a central authority, nor is there any convincing evidence of restricted access to resources during the Bronze Age in Thailand (White 1995:107).


The anomaly presented by General period B data has long been cited "for patterns which fail to fit anyone's models for normal sociocultural development" (Bronson 1979:321). The models described are those devised by Fried (1967), Sahlins (1958), and others (Friedman and Rowlands 1977; Service 1962). These theories, which have contributed significantly to the understanding of many cultures, have been widely applied. It is often assumed that the cultures these theories are based upon are similar to many archaeologically defined societies (Trigger 1990:13). Clearly, the conception of normal sociocultural development needs to be revised, in an attempt to avoid teleological models of social development, heterarchy may be employed as an alternative interpretive tool. …