Health and the Experience of Childhood in Late Neolithic Viet Nam

By Oxenham, Marc; Matsumura, Hirofumi et al. | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Health and the Experience of Childhood in Late Neolithic Viet Nam

Oxenham, Marc, Matsumura, Hirofumi, Domett, Kate, Thuy, Nguyen Kim, Dung, Nguyen Kim, Cuong, Nguyen Lan, Huffer, Damien, Muller, Sarah, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


KAMP (2001:1) ASKED "where have all the children gone?" in reference to a lack of archaeological studies that focused on children in the past. From a bioarchaeological perspective, the children have always been there and have formed an important, and highly visible, portion of the data set globally (Cohen and Armelagos 1984) and in Southeast Asia (Oxenham and Tayles 2006). Despite a recent increase in the number of volumes focusing on the archaeology of children (e.g., Sofaer Derevenski 2000; Wileman 2005; Ardren and Hutson 2006), the emphasis on mortuary studies in Southeast Asia has remained fixed on aspects of social organization (e.g., Higham and Kijngam 1984; Higham and Thosarat 1998, 2004; Talbot 2002). Bacus' (2007) analysis of gender in prehistoric Thailand, and this examination of childhood in Viet Nam offer alternative approaches to the study of human society in ancient Southeast Asia. Much is known of adult health and disease in Vietnamese antiquity (Oxenham 2006; Oxenham et al. 2005, 2006), but little is known of childhood health and well-being during this period of time. Excavations of a late Neolithic cemetery in northern Viet Nam provide the opportunity to learn more about a poorly sampled period of Vietnamese prehistory in the context of childhood behavior, attitudes toward children, and child health and well-being.

The aim of this paper is to: (1) examine aspects of mortuary behavior, particularly in terms of what this can tell us of the role of children and adult attitudes toward children in late Neolithic Man Bac, Viet Nam; and (2) discuss biological characteristics of the human sample, again focusing on the children, in order to explore aspects of childhood palaeohealth.



Man Bac is located next to Bach Lien Village, Yen Thanh Commune, Yen Mo District, 20[degrees]08'00" North and 109[degrees]59'017" East (Dung 2005). Man Bac was identified by Colani in 1916 (see Trinh 2004) and the approximately 2-m deep deposit was excavated by a Vietnamese archaeological team in 1999 (25 [m.sup.2], 6 burials), 2001 (30 [m.sup.2], 12 burials), and then 2004-2005 (36 m'-, 30 burials; see Fig. 1) with a consortium of Vietnamese, Japanese, and Australians. It is difficult to determine the extent of the site, primarily due to subsequent terracing and the development of a Catholic cemetery to the east of the site in the historic period, but it likely approximates 200-300 [m.sup.2]. Preliminary analyses suggest that two distinct cultural phases are associated with three stratigraphic levels, the upper two units being occupation phases and the third (bottom) layer being almost exclusively burials in otherwise sterile silt. Material cultural similarities between the occupation layers and grave inclusions in the third level suggest the burials are associated with the occupation level(s).

If the Hoabinhian, extending from the late Pleistocene into the mid-Holocene, can be considered the early Neolithic, this was followed by the development of riverine-, estuarine-, and later, marine-oriented foraging communities in the mid-Holocene of northern Viet Nam, most notably the Da But culture dated to between 6500 and 4700 B.P. (Nguyen et al. 2004). There is some tantalizing evidence for Da But material culture underlying the deepest layers at Man Bac (Trinh Hoang Hiep pers. comm.), but whether this suggests some form of cultural continuity is unclear at present. The late Neolithic in northern Viet Nam is characterized by a range of regional complexes with shared and unique material cultural assemblages, dated to between 5000 and 4000 B.P. (Nguyen et al. 2004). Some of these sites, such as the Ha Giang culture, include items such as T-cross-sectioned nephrite bracelets; items also seen at Man Bac.

Man Bac itself formally belongs to the early Bronze Age or Phung Nguyen culture, dated to between 3800 and 3400 B.P. (Nguyen et al.

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