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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor by Charles Higham

The Khmer Empire was the major player in the South East Asia of the Middle Ages.  Their major rivals were the Cham, who mostly occupied the coast.

Book Review
Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor
by Charles Higham
Published July 25th, 2014
by River Press Books

    South East Asia is one of those areas where investigations into early human history have been thwarted by a combination of circumstances including lack of interest, war and difficult terrain.  Fortunately, the 21st century have seen advances on all three fronts.  Most importantly the new technique of using "LIDAR" ground imaging technology to map areas covered by dense forest and jungle has been instrumental in advancing historical-archeological investigations in this area.
The Funan polity was an early proto-state centered in the Mekong delta area.

   The historical narrative surrounding South East Asia traditionally runs something like this: Stone age people living in the area were raised up from ignorance by Indian Sanskrit speaking traders and holy men, then Chinese traders and armies advanced from the North and this combination produced state-lets that eventually solidified into the Khmer empire, which lasted until the 14th century, after which the civilization of South East Asia was more or less "set."  

     Higham makes the (convincing) case that the existing civilization was more advanced than what historians have traditionally though.   Advances in metallurgy and agriculture were indigenous, not brought by Indian/Sanskrit speaking traders.  Rather, the Sanskritization of South East Asia was more likely the adoption of a state-centered ideology by a local elite, who adopted Sanskrit names and Indian methods to support early state building exercises in the area.

   The Chinese sent traders and armies south and most importantly, they sent writers who provide most of the factual early descriptions of this area.  In fact, any serious treatment of this period and place require that the author have a comprehensive grasp of Chinese historical documents AND archeological findings, typically written in Sanskrit.
Photograph of a "Negrito" woman from the Philippines
      South East Asia is also interesting from a pre-historical standpoint, as a major pathway for human migration.  Fun fact: African type people called "Negritos" by the locals still exist in South East Asia in remote hunter-gatherer societies, providing a modern link to a historical migration stretching back to Africa.

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