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Reviewed by:
  • Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia
  • Sawang Lertrit
Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia. Charles Higham. Bangkok: River Books, 2002. 375 pp., photographs, maps, bibliography, index. ISBN 974-8225-70-4.

Popular archaeological books that synthesize archaeological information from mainland Southeast Asia into a readable volume are surprisingly rare, whether in native languages or in English, given that research in archaeology in the area has long been conducted. Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia represents such a volume, and the author of the book, Charles Higham, deserves high praise. This book is similar in several ways (e.g., chronological span of the text, archaeological conception framework, organization of the book, and same publisher) to one of Higham's previous books, Prehistoric Thailand: From Early Settlement to Sukhothai (1998), which he coauthored with Ratchanie Thosarat. Significant differences between the two books are that the new volume has larger geographical coverage and more new data from recent research, especially from Thailand.

The book is composed of eight chapters. Each chapter is abundantly illustrated with excellent color and black-and-white photographs, line drawings, maps, and plans. The 558 color images are particularly magnificent—the majority of them are not easily accessible in other books and media of similar subject. The book is structured in the manner of culture history and evolution of society, starting from hunting-gathering society to early civilization. Chapter 1 briefly introduces natural characteristics, history of archaeological study, and culture history of mainland Southeast Asia. Higham goes on to begin his cultural [End Page 395] framework (chapter 2) by summarizing archaeological evidence dating between 40,000 B.P. and 3,000 B.C.E., which he assigns to the time of "hunters and gatherers." Higham uses data derived principally from Vietnam and Thailand, with much emphasis on a coastal site of Khok Phanom Di in eastern Thailand where the author carried out excavations. I was surprised that Higham does not include Lang Kamnan, a stratified (late Pleistocene-middle Holocene), well-defined site located in Kanchanaburi, western Thailand, in this chapter (see Shoocongdej 2000).

Chapter 3 revolves around Neolithic rice cultivation tradition. The emergence of agriculture, especially rice cultivation, becomes the central theme of the chapter. Higham argues that rice was introduced to mainland Southeast Asia from China (replacement), rather than local development (continuity). However, it is unclear how the "intrusion" of rice agriculture occurred and proceeded and how the indigenous people (hunters-gatherers) interacted with newcomers (agriculturalists). The major sources of his data came from sites in Thailand (northeast and central), although he refers to sites in Vietnam and Cambodia. In northern Thailand, the 3000-year-old rockshelter site of Pratoo Pha was excavated. It is probably thus far the best-preserved site in Southeast Asia—even fiber, hair, basketry, whole wooden artifacts, and complete rice grains were preserved. Notable artifacts include polished stone adzes, incised pottery vessels, wooden red painted ladles, a textile head band, and stone bracelet fragments, all of which were found in association with human graves (see more details and figures in Saengchan 2002). Recently, the Thai Fine Arts Department archaeologists had excavated a site named Nong Ratchawat in Suphanburi. The site relatively dates to Neolithic period on the basis of pottery tradition similar to those from Ban Kao, including tripod pottery (Supamas Duangsakul, pers. comm.). It is hoped that when more Neolithic sites are identified, we will have a better picture of Neolithic settlement and people in the region.

Higham moves on to the Bronze Age (chapter 4). In this chapter, we see the increasing number of surveyed and excavated sites, and again the majority of the sites mentioned in the text are from Thailand. Higham provides succinct description and synthesis of archaeological data with reference to changes in some cultural traditions (e.g., pottery tradition, burial rite, and settlement system). It is a pity that the sections that deal with the Bronze Age sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma are not richly illustrated when compared to the text on the Bronze Age in Thailand. Note that even though several of the Bronze Age sites mentioned were previously occupied by Neolithic people, the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age is still poorly...


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pp. 395-397
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