Ban Chiang Culture Flourishes in Thailand Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the late 1960’s, a series of archaeological sites was discovered near the village of Ban Chiang, in northeastern Thailand, revealing what some scientists now refer to as Thailand’s cradle of civilization.

Summary of Event

The Ban Chiang culture of northeastern Thailand probably emerged when early hunting and gathering people belonging to the Hoabin-hian migrated from northern Vietnam to Malaysia. The neolithic people of the Hoabin-hian are believed to be among the first people to have systematically gathered and later to have cultivated the wild forms of rice found naturally in northern Southeast Asia and southern China. Finding the Khorat Plateau and surrounding lowlands a rich environment, some Hoabin-hian remained in the area and eventually began cultivation of various wild forms of rice until several varieties were domesticated. This process allowed them to create settlements that further encouraged the development of more sophisticated material culture. The development of the Ban Chiang culture parallels that of the Shang culture of China at about the same time. A key difference, though, is that the Ban Chiang culture remained relatively peaceful and rural, while the Shang culture of China evolved into a more urbanized and aggressive culture.

The discovery of the Ban Chiang culture was accidental. Steven Young, a young student from Harvard University who was spending the summer of 1966 in Thailand studying politics, was taking a walk near the village of Ban Chiang when he tripped over a tree root and fell. Through this accident, he found a piece of pottery sticking out of the ground. It took several years to organize excavation of the 62-acre (25-hectare) mound, with archaeologists from Thailand and the United States. In the meantime, it was difficult to protect the site from looters. Despite losing an unknown number of objects, to their amazement, the archaeologists found thousands of shards of pottery, hundreds of burials, countless examples of bronze and ironwork in the form of tools and jewelry, and much evidence of agricultural activity. It is extraordinary not only that they found such a rich site for an early Southeast Asian culture but also that the culture it represented was of great sophistication. The ceramics were among the most elegant in the world, and the jewelry was of such fine quality that its creation required difficult and expensive techniques. There is evidence that advancements in metallurgy for the Ban Chiang probably had more to do with the desire to create more beautiful jewelry and implements than with the desire to create stronger materials for practical uses. This, among other evidence from the site, indicates that the Ban Chiang people were peaceful, unlike their counterparts in China and the Middle East, where metallurgy was developed primarily for making weapons and only secondarily for beautiful, functional items. Among the most famous of the Ban Chiang artifacts are its pottery, bracelets, anklets, pendants, and beads.

The Ban Chiang culture most likely declined because of incursions from the north by the Chinese as their civilization expanded during the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). Given the historic peacefulness of the Ban Chiang people and the extraordinary sophistication and wealth of their civilization, they would have been a prime target and would have lacked the weaponry to defend themselves against such a strong outside force.

Significance

In 1992, Ban Chiang was added to the World Heritage Site list. This places it among the most significant historic sites in the world. This significance can be measured in a number of ways. First and foremost, it provides Thailand with a well-documented illustration of its prehistoric culture. Second, the rich treasure of artifacts meant that many theories of human prehistory and the early formation of agriculture had to be rewritten. Until the discovery of Ban Chiang, most social scientists and historians could point only to the Middle East, India, and China as the places of earliest agricultural activity and metallurgy. Despite debates on the exact dating of artifacts and activity at the Ban Chiang sites, scholars have come to the conclusion that Ban Chiang ranks with the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and the Huang He Valley as a center of innovation. It is likely that people of Ban Chiang were exposed to metallurgy by the Chinese to the north, but they went on to develop their own sophisticated techniques in production and usage of both bronze and iron. Apparently they strove for unusual coloring of the finished product; thus aesthetics played a primary role in their innovations. Moreover, they are credited with the earliest socketed tools. Finally, it is clear that Ban Chiang was connected to India, China, and the rest of Southeast Asia through trade networks. Because of its innovations in technology and aesthetics, its culture diffused outward rather than borrowing from other cultures. Thus Ban Chiang has been a major influence at least twice: once, while it was at the height of its development, and in modern times, as revelations about its culture affect current scholarship on the development of early civilizations.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bayard, D. “Bones of Contention: The Non Nok Tha Burials and the Chronology and Context of Early Southeast Asian Bronze.” In Ancient Chinese and Southeast Asian Bronze Cultures, Vol. 2, edited by N. Barnard and F. Bulbeck. Taiwan: Taipei Southern Material Center, 1996. An essay examining the chronology of bronze work in Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, C. F. W. The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Higham examines the development of bronze work in ancient Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Labbe, A. J. Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeastern Thailand. Santa Ana, Calif.: Bowers Museum, 1985. An exhibition catalog showing the art of Ban Chiang.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Reilly, D. “From the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Thailand: Applying the Heterarchial Approach.” Asian Perspectives 39, nos. 1/2 (2001). A look at the development of metallurgy in Thailand.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Theunissen, R., P. Grave, and G. Bailey. “Doubts on Diffusion: Challenging the Assumed Indian Origin of Iron Age Agate and Carnelian Beads in Southeast Asia.” Archaeology in Southeast Asia 32, no. 1 (2000): 84-105. This essay questions traditional beliefs about the origins of metallurgy in Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, J. C. Ban Chiang: Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. An examination of the archaeological finds at Ban Chiang and an analysis of the culture.

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