The Prehistory of Southeast Asia: A Retrospective View of 40 Years Research

By Higham, Charles | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Prehistory of Southeast Asia: A Retrospective View of 40 Years Research


Higham, Charles, Antiquity


Introduction

When David Clark asked me in 1970 to contribute a chapter on Southeast Asia for his new book, Models in archaeology, I faced a dilemma. What could one say about an area the size of Western Europe of which virtually nothing was known? So I entitled my chapter 'Initial model formulation in terra incognita' and speculated on the basis of the handful of sites that had been excavated (Higham 1972). Nor was the prognosis for the area at all promising. The war in Vietnam was spilling over into Laos and Cambodia. China remained a looming void to the north, Burma was not receptive and Malaysia did not welcome foreign archaeologists. Only Thailand shone like a welcoming beacon.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I had come to Southeast Asia by a circuitous route. Before going up to Cambridge in 1959, a decision by the government to end conscription into the army meant that I had two years to fill. My parents discovered that the Institute of Archaeology in London offered a two-year postgraduate diploma. Peter Grimes, who had just succeeded Gordon Childe as director, could see no reason why I should not enrol, so I studied Roman archaeology under Sheppard Frere. At Verulamium he taught me how to dig, and instilled in me the vital importance of publishing one's findings. And when be finished with excavating, he gave me his trowel, ground to a fine edge through continuous use. At Cambridge, I took the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age option, and my PhD was on the prehistoric economies of Switzerland and Denmark. In 1966 I joined the diaspora to the Antipodes, following in the footsteps of Jack Golson, Peter Gathercole and Rhys Jones, and arriving at the University of Otago in New Zealand at the same time that Peter Bellwood joined the University of Auckland. We had in common a coveted job, a gigantic area to explore and a complete ignorance of its prehistory.

Quite by chance, I was soon invited by Chester (Chet) Gorman, a graduate student at the University of Hawai'i, to report on some animal bones he had uncovered at a small rockshelter in northern Thailand called Spirit Cave. So I flew to Hawai'i and met Gorman, his contemporary Donn Bayard and their supervisor Bill Solheim, who invited me to join his major research project in Thailand. In the same year of 1968, I was appointed the Foundation Professor of Anthropology at Otago and invited Donn Bayard to accept the lectureship that went with it. This proposal fell flat when Solheim's application for an NSF grant was declined, but with shoestring funding from New Zealand, I began my fieldwork in Roi et Province in 1970 (Figures 1 & 2).

Bill Solheim had a mission: Southeast Asian prehistory had to be earlier, bigger and better than that of China. So as I turned to write my chapter for David Clark, I could refer to two sites opened by his graduate students. Gorman's excavation at Spirit Cave was held to have yielded the earliest Neolithic Revolution known, and Bayard's 1966 and 1968 excavations at Non Nok Tha, a cemetery site in north-east Thailand, had provided the earliest evidence in the world for bronze metallurgy (Solheim 1968, 1970, 1972). Both claims engendered widespread scepticism. Writing of the Bronze Age in the third edition of World Prehistory, Clark (1977: 345) succinctly noted that:

'The published evidence is unimpressive. The radiocarbon dates from the layers containing metal objects.... at Non Nok Tha is as anomalous as one might expect of a sequence which to judge by the published section of the 1968 excavations was so heavily disturbed by burials, rootholes, termites and washouts.'

To these sites, I could add the results of Per Sorensen's research at the Neolithic cemetery of Ban Kao (Sorensen & Hatting 1967), William Watson and Helmut Loofs-Wissowa's excavation of a second Neolithic site at Khok Charoen (Loofs-Wissowa 1997) and the accumulated but highly dated results of research by French colonial archaeologists stretching back to the 1860s.

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