Bioarchaeological Evidence for Conflict in Iron Age North-West Cambodia

Article excerpt



There is considerable evidence for conflict and the imposition of hegemony by one group over another in Southeast Asia from earliest times. From the Angkor period (after AD 800), there is ample evidence of conflict, both from inscriptions (Finot 1925; Jacques 1986) and bas-reliefs (Coedes 1932; Le Bonheur & Poncar 1993; Chetwin 2001; Clark 2007; Jacq-Hergoualc'h 2007). Accounts from Chinese histories also provide indirect evidence of conflict in the earlier period. One indicates that settlements in the polity of Funan, located in the Mekong delta, were fortified. Another reveals that missions were sent to China by a number of polities conquered by Chenla, the power that superseded Funan in Cambodia, after AD 650-56 (Tuan-Lin 1876).

A number of interpretations for the locations of these polities have been proposed (Aymonier 1904; Gerini 1909; Briggs 1951; Wheatley 1961; Coedes 1968). Wolters (1974), using inscriptions from Coedes (1937-66), argues that north-west Cambodia is the most likely. He hypothesises that the natural environment of north-west Cambodia would have encouraged the formation of independent polities, centred, perhaps, on small hills. Given the evidence at hand it would seem that north-west Cambodia may have witnessed a considerable degree of political friction, and this has now been endorsed by a detailed bioarchaeological examination of human remains found at Phum Snay, which is reported here. Modern bioarchaeological studies from Cambodia have been advanced recently by virtue of new large-scale archaeological projects (Stark 2004; O'Reilly et al 2006b; Pietrusewsky et al 2006; Evans et al 2007; Domett & O'Reilly 2009). The present study has provided an opportunity to significantly increase our understanding of the lifestyle of a pre-Angkorian Cambodian population and assess the level of social tension at the time.

The site

Phum Snay is located approximately 80km to the north-west of Angkor (Figure 1). Excavations there were led by O'Reilly and carried out in collaboration with the Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh from 2001 to 2003. Archaeological and general skeletal analyses on this material have been reported previously (O'Reilly & Pheng 2001; O'Reilly et al 2004, 2006a & b; Domett & O'Reilly 2009). A large collection of unprovenanced skeletal material was also identified, the by-product of looting as burials were disturbed during the search for valuable artefacts. Although stratigraphically unprovenanced and anatomically dislocated these remains come from Phum Snay and are likely to be from a similar time period (c. 350 BC-AD 200) as the prehistoric cemetery appears to have had a brief span of use (O'Reilly et al 2006b).

The excavation of Phum Snay also yielded evidence of military paraphernalia (swords, daggers, spearheads, projectile points, epaulettes) in the prehistoric graves. This fact, in conjunction with the site's proximity to the later Angkorian capital, may be suggestive of increased competition over resources driving the development of strongly hierarchical societies that eventually led to state rule in the region (O'Reilly et al 2006b). This study tests whether there was also evidence of interpersonal violence ?n the human skeletal remains.


Research at Phum Snay yielded 21 excavated burials containing human bone (Domett & O'Reilly 2009) and an extensive collection of stratigraphically unprovenanced skeletal material from Phum Snay. The minimum number of individuals (MNI) was 134: 124 adults and 10 sub-adults. The latter remains were collected from pits produced by looting around the village and are now stored at Wat Leu in Phum Snay and Wat Rajabo in Siem Reap.

Age-at-death estimation was obtained using standard methods prioritising late fusing epiphyses, pubic symphysis morphology and dental wear in the adult remains (no trauma was evident in sub-adults) (Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994; Domett & O'Reilly 2009). …