An example of the ancient Ban Chieng pottery from Thailand.
Thailand/New York (mea) Recent archaeological discoveries in the tiny, plateau hamlet of Ban Chieng, 500 kilometres northeast of Bangkok, provide compelling evidence of a civilization 600 years older than the ancient Tigris-Euphates valley settlements, hitherto regarded as mankind's first "Cradle of Culture".
Systematic excavation of burial mounds in Ban Chieng and surrounding areas has unearthed an 18-ton treasure of artifacts including an impressively wide range of bronze and iron tools and jewellery. Incised black pottery; handsome, hand-painted red-on-cream pots adomed with intricate fingerprint whorl pattems; ceramic figurines, and stone and glass beads abounded.
From archaeological evidence, it has been surmised that Ban Chieng hosted an agrarian society whose knowledge of metallurgy was so advanced it produced bronze artifacts sixcenturies befor anyone else-and married bronze and iron to fashion bi-metallic tools and utensils hundreds of years before the Chinese.
Ban Chieng artists and potters were equally accomplished. People dressed well and printed their own silk textiles using intricately-pattemed clay rollers. They lived in sturdy houses and used domesticated cattle to cultivate their rice paddies.
Easily accessible only from the southem Gulf-of-Thailand coast and the southeast (present-day Cambodia), the Menam Chao Phya basin was well protected from excessive outside influence and sudden, massive incursions of new settlers.
The widespread variety of pots and scarcity of offensive weapons strongly indicate a stable, peaceful society whose sophistication in metal technology, pottery crafting and plant and animal husbandry would have required at least 2,000 years of prior development.
The origins of the Ban Chieng people remain a mystery and have engendered a great deal of leamed speculation. Some scholars believe they may have come from present-day northem Vietnam, and discovered the bronze-making process after they arrived. Others contend that they were indigenous to the area.
What is certain is that they flourished in the Ban Chieng region because of its fertile soil and gigantic forests that contained abundant fuel and wildlife. Another factor was its gentle weather that both eliminated the need for elaborate housing and permitted year-round farming.
Unhappily, the Ban Chieng people's farming methods were considerably less sophisticated than their metallurgy. Using the primitive and ecologically rapacious method of slash-and-bum, eventual deforestation and resultant soil exhaustion forced them off the northeast plateau - which remains arid and relatively infertile to the present day--and down into the rich Menam Chao Phya Valley to the west.
There they encountered a Neolithic people who first produced bronze around 2,000 B.C. These valley people were most probably an indigenous proto-Malay tribe that later moved southward under pressure from the Ban Chieng people and sub-sequent southward migrations from China.
Verdant and abundantly stocked with fish and birds, the incredibly fertile Chao Phya river basin attracted several successive waves of immigrants.
The Menam ('Mother of Water' or 'River') Chao Phya basin covers most of modern central and northern Thailand and is bordered to the west by rugged Burmese mountains, to the north by lofty mountains separating southern China from the Southeast Asian mainland, and to the east by the high, sprawling plateau settled by the Ban Chieng people.
© PROMETHEUS 150/2009
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 150, December 2009