All right! The second episode in my podcast series, and the first one in the actual narrative, went up today. This one covers what we know about Southeast Asia in prehistoric times. We look at Java Man, Solo Man, Wadjak Man, Meganthropus, Gigantopithecus, Homo floresiensis, the Negritos, and the amazing Ban Chiang village in northeast Thailand. Go directly to it by following this link:
Thanks in advance for listening!
(Transcript, added June 24, 2019)
Greetings, dear listeners. For this episode, we will be looking at the earliest physical evidence of human activity in Southeast Asia. History by definition is a collection of written records about the past, and because all the events in this episode happened long before anyone could read or write, it would be more accurate to call this a lesson in Southeast Asian pre-history. Many cultures have myths, legends – call them oral traditions if you wish – to explain how they got started, and in future episodes we will hear a few stories like this from the region, but what we are looking at now is even older than that. All we have to go on is what paleontologists, anthropologists and archaeologists have found, and instead of myths, you will be hearing guesswork based on that evidence.
If you have not yet listened to Episode 0, the table-setting episode in this podcast series, I recommend you do so now, in order to get a better idea of what this episode is about. If you have already listened, or if you don’t care for introductions, we are ready to begin, so away we go.
Whether you believe in evolution, catastrophism, or creationism, you have to admit that humanity has lived in Southeast Asia for an awfully long time. The root question is how long people have been in the region, since no one believes nowadays that the human race got started here. However, a little over a hundred years ago, there was a Southeast Asian candidate for the first human being.
This candidate was Java Man, also known as Pithecanthropus erectus, and he raised his flat beetle-browed head on the banks of Java’s Solo River in 1891. While I was launching this podcast, another podcast was launched, called “A History of Indonesia,” and it began to cover Indonesian history by talking about Java Man. That podcaster, Anthony Frisina, told me it is good to present the same story from more than one point of view, so we will be covering the same material from time to time. Along that line, I will now tell you what wasn’t said about Java Man in the History of Indonesia podcast. As the radio newscaster Paul Harvey used to say, you’re going to hear the rest of the story.
Java Man was discovered just a few years after the theory of evolution gained acceptance in much of the Western world. Charles Darwin believed that before true men existed, there was a creature that was not quite ape, not quite man – a “missing link.” Thus, a bit of competition developed among scientists to see who could find the missing link first. The first Neanderthal skullcap was found in Germany in 1856, and now other European countries wanted their own cave men. This included the Netherlands, but because half of the Netherlands is below sea level, and most of the country is covered with farms and cities, the Dutch homeland was not likely to have fossils of early man. So when a Dutchman, Eugene Dubois, went looking for the missing link, he went to the most important colony under Dutch rule at the time, namely Java. Twenty years later, the same European rivalry would cause somebody to present a fake fossil, the infamous Piltdown Man, as a candidate for the English missing link.
Dubois was the first person who deliberately went looking for human fossils and found them; all previous discoveries having to do with cave men were made by accident. For that reason, Dubois could not get funding from the usual sources, like universities, for his expedition to Java. Instead he joined the Dutch army as a surgeon, meaning the army paid for his travel expenses, and he looked for fossils in his off-duty time until he made his discoveries.
Personally, I don’t think Java Man should ever have been considered as a missing link. This is because Dubois did some very questionable things to stake his claim. First, there were only three bones: one tooth, the top part of a skull, and a thighbone. When it comes to establishing the existence of a new human species, three bones isn’t much to go on. Second, he insisted that all three bones belonged to the same individual, though the thighbone was found one year later and fifty feet away from the others. This ignited a storm of controversy, over whether the bones belonged together and whether they came from people or apes, because Indonesia also has gibbons and orangutans, after all. When many scientists refused to agree with Dubois, he put the bones in a suitcase and buried them under his house, making sure that nobody else would examine them. There they stayed for twenty years. Then in 1923, when nearly everyone had come to accept Java Man as the missing link, Dubois brought the bones out again. Shortly before his death in 1938, he changed his mind and confessed that Pithecanthropus was not a man after all, but merely a giant gibbon.
Apparently his colleagues did not pay much attention, for Java Man, now called Homo erectus, can still be seen in museums and textbooks today.
While Dubois was looking for fossils, he received two skulls that came from other sites on Java, which looked virtually the same as skulls from today’s Australian Aborigines. These skulls are now known as Wadjak Man, and because it was possible that Wadjak Man could be the same age, he kept Wadjak Man secret while promoting Java Man. This was an intellectually dishonest act if ever there was one! Later he proposed that Wadjak Man was the direct ancestor of the Aborigines, but today not everyone is convinced of this. Personally, I would like to see if it is possible to obtain a DNA sample from Wadjak Man, and have it compared with the DNA of Denisova Man, the cave man discovered in Siberia a few years ago. You may have heard that the people of New Guinea are the closest living relatives to Denisova Man, so I am wondering if Wadjak Man could be related; he might even be another example of Denisova Man. Unfortunately, we do not know the exact spot where Wadjak Man was found, so without that context, we cannot determine the age of the skulls.
Eleven more prehistoric skulls were found on the banks of the Solo River in 1931. These specimens are sometimes called Solo Man, and though they look enough like Java Man to be classified as another version of Homo erectus, they also look more like modern man. However, each skull had a hole in the back or in the base, so the brain could be removed and eaten. Apparently Solo Man was the victim of a feast, killed and eaten by somebody who considered monkey brains a delicacy. Did modern man do this?
Estimates of Solo Man’s age range from 27,000 to 500,000 years old, meaning that like Wadjak Man, nobody can know for sure how he is related to other cave men – or to us. As for Java Man’s age, the December 23, 1996 issue of Newsweek Magazine reported that Dr. Carl Swisher of the Berkeley Geochronology Center performed tests on the site where Java Man was found. Instead of the expected date of 300,000-500,000 years, he found that the bones cannot be more than 40,000 years old. Something about Java Man just isn’t right, and that will have to be fixed if he is going to stay on our family tree.
Gigantopithecus and Meganthropus
Early in the twentieth century, some unusually large teeth and jawbones turned up. They are so large that their owner’s size has been estimated at six to nine feet tall, or maybe even ten feet tall. Those found on Java were named Meganthropus, those found in south China became known as Gigantopithecus. Since 1990, Gigantopithecus remains have turned up in Vietnam and India as well.
Here everyone admits that we have too few remains to make any claims about them, and none will seriously suggest that this is our direct ancestor. That is why these giant apes almost never turn up in textbooks, and why you may not have heard of them. Some have suggested that the big teeth come from an elusive wild ape, the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) of the Himalayas, or its American relative, Bigfoot. If that is the case, we finally have the hard evidence we have been demanding from Bigfoot enthusiasts, after decades of them showing us tracks and fuzzy photos.
“Hobbits,” aka Homo Floresiensis
Now let us move from prehistoric giants to prehistoric midgets. The most exciting discovery concerning early man in recent years was made on Flores, a medium-sized island in eastern Indonesia. Here in 2004, Australian and Indonesian researchers found the skeletons of seven unusually small people, no more than three feet tall. With the exception of dwarves and midgets, this makes them more than a foot shorter than any other known human being. Even African Pygmies are four feet tall, so you can call these “Ultra-Pygmies.” The owners of the bones were immediately declared a new species, Homo floresiensis. Naturally they have also been nicknamed “hobbits,” after the little people in J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels. Charred bones and stone tools found on the site suggest they lived by hunting stegodons, a miniature breed of elephant that is now extinct. More remains, some teeth and part of a jaw, were found in 2014 and described just last month; they are considered older than the other specimens.
Nobody is suggesting that Homo floresiensis is any sort of missing link; attempts to date the tools and bones produced an age range from 95,000 to 13,000 years old, meaning he lived during the ice age. Most of the unique features of these little people can be explained through the form of natural selection caused by isolation on a small island. They are probably related to the Negritos, an ethnic group we will be talking about shortly. Once they arrived on Flores, they would have had no competition from other humans. On an island where food is in short supply, and no natural enemies exist, it isn’t worth it to be big. That also explains why the island had stegodons, instead of regular-sized elephants. Consequently, over the generations Homo floresiensis could have shrunken to a more economical size.
Occasionally a very large creature, like the Galapagos tortoise, is found in an island environment, and these can be explained by those situations where being big enough to hold a territory is required to get food. One such animal may have given the little people their main challenge; Flores is one of the four islands that is home to the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard.
Hmmm, real-life hobbits and dragons? Sometimes truth is stranger than fantasy!
Finally, there is the possibility that Homo floresiensis did not die out long ago. The same scientists who found Homo floresiensis looked into local legends which suggest that modern Indonesians used to encounter them. The November/December 2004 issue of Archaeology Magazine said this about the folklore. Quote:
“Villagers in Flores say that up until around 150 years ago, there were small, three-foot-tall hairy ‘people’ who used to steal food from them. Known as the ebu gogos (literally ‘the grandmothers who eat anything’), they were tolerated by islanders until they stole a baby and ate it. Whether the ebu gogo is pure myth or an accurate recollection of Homo floresiensis is at present unprovable. ‘The folklore material raises the real possibility that Homo floresiensis actually survived until sometime in the nineteenth century,’ said excavation member Bert Roberts, a geochronologist at the University of Wollongong who conducted interviews with the villagers earlier this month. ‘Indeed, there has to be a remote possibility that they still survive today in some remote jungle area of the island.’
On Flores, there have been no sightings of such creatures–at least, potentially, since the nineteenth century. However, in the same island chain, on the much larger island of Sumatra to the west, there have in recent years been brief, as yet unpublished sightings by a primatologist and others of a small, hairy four-foot-tall ape-like creature known to local tribesmen as orang pendek–literally ‘little person.’ Some zoologists suspect that a few hundred of them survive in the remote jungles of the Sumatran interior, but none have yet been captured or examined by scientists.” End quote.
During the ice age, Southeast Asia probably wasn’t much cooler than it is now, since it is on the equator. However, the world’s sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today, due to so much of the ocean’s water being frozen in glaciers. This meant that before the dawn of history, instead of being split into thousands of islands, the Philippines and Indonesia were joined to the Asian mainland by land bridges, forming a huge subcontinent which geologists sometimes call “Sunda-land.” While Sunda-land existed, people could go to almost every part of Southeast Asia without a boat. Then at the end of the ice age, the glaciers melted, the sea rose, the land bridges were submerged, and Southeast Asia’s geography took on its present-day appearance.
New Guinea and Australia remained separated from Asia by water; remember what I said about Wallace’s Line in the introduction episode. Still, the water barrier did not block human migration completely. At one point, there were only sixty miles of water between the island of Timor and Australia; the ancestors of the Australian Aborigines were able to cross this stretch with simple, dugout canoes.
Speaking of the Aborigines, the oldest living inhabitants of Southeast Asia belong to the Australoid race, the same race as the Aborigines. These people are short, hairy, and black-skinned; Spanish missionaries called them Negritos in the 16th century. Today Negritos are mainly found in remote areas of the Philippines, where they have thirty tribes. They also include the Andaman Islanders, a tribe in Thailand called the Mani, and a tribe in Malaysia called the Semang. One is tempted to believe the Negritos and Aborigines are related to Black Africans, the Dravidians of south India, and the Melanesians of New Guinea – because all these groups are dark-skinned — but the actual connection between them has not been found. At the beginning of history, before other ethnic groups arrived, the Negritos roamed the entire region, hunting, gathering and practicing slash-and-burn agriculture as far north as the Yangtze River.
By the way, you may have heard of a Filipino tribe called the Tasaday, if you are old enough to remember the headlines they made in the 1970s. Since we are talking about stone age tribes in this episode, we might as well get the Tasaday out of the way now. They are NOT Negritos, but speak a language related to other modern Philippine languages. In 1971, anthropologists announced that in a jungle on Mindanao, the big southern island of the Philippines, they had discovered the most primitive people on earth. These people, the Tasaday, wore only leaves, and did not grow crops or even go hunting; they lived by gathering local plants and eating whatever they could catch, like frogs. The National Geographic Society accepted this story wholeheartedly, and the Tasaday were the main story in the August 1972 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Supposedly the Tasaday thought they were the only people on earth before their discovery, and they were absolutely peaceful; they did not even have words for enemy or conflict. Celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and Gina Lollabrigida came to the Philippines to meet the Tasaday, until the government, currently ruled by Ferdinand Marcos, declared the Tasaday jungle a national park, and refused to allow any more visitors – to protect these indigenous people, of course.
After the Marcos dictatorship was toppled in 1986, the first reporters to see the Tasaday in a decade found them wearing jeans and T-shirts and tending farms. Their lifestyle remained simple, but it was not primitive. It turned out a local official had promised them money, and protection from anti-government rebels, if they would take off their clothes, abandon their farms, and sit in caves when foreigners came to visit. In other words, the whole idea that the Tasaday were a stone age tribe was a hoax, one that had the outside world fooled for fifteen years. Afterwards it turned out that the Tasaday were a separate tribe all right, but they broke off from the rest of the Filipino population less than 200 years ago, so while they were isolated enough to miss modern events like World War II, they weren’t totally isolated from humanity, as we had been led to believe.
On the other side of Southeast Asia from the Philippines, the story of the Negritos in the Andaman Islands has not been a happy one. After their ancestors crossed the Bay of Bengal to settle here, the Andaman Islanders lived in isolation until they came into regular contact with outsiders, in the eighteenth century A.D. At that point, there were an estimated 7,000 of them, divided into five tribes. Diseases and alcohol decimated their population; so did physical abuse at the hands of their rulers – first the British, then the Japanese, and finally the Indians. Two of the tribes are now extinct; among the other tribes, the number remaining is between 450 and 700.
One tribe, the one on North Sentinel Island, is probably the most isolated tribe in the world. This is not because they live on a small island in the Indian Ocean, nor is it a false isolation like we saw with the Tasaday; they are isolated because of their really bad attitude. Maybe they know that when indigenous people meet civilization, very bad things happen to them. The Sentinelese are hostile to anyone who visits their island, more so than other indigenous peoples who are hard to get along with, like New Guinea headhunters. And this is nothing new; seven hundred years ago, Marco Polo reported that the Andaman Islanders were [quote] “a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch.” End quote. The rest of the world decided to stay away from North Sentinel Island and its implacable inhabitants; today’s Indian government has declared the island and the waters surrounding it off-limits, to make sure the Sentinelese do not suffer the same fate as the other Andamanese tribes.
When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, waves washed all the way over North Sentinel Island, but somehow the Sentinelese survived. When a helicopter flew by a few days later, it snapped pictures of the natives aiming bows at it. This told the crew not only that the Sentinelese were still there, but also that they did not want any help. Then in 2006, two fishermen strayed too close to the island’s shore; the natives attacked and killed them, and buried their bodies in shallow graves. A coastguard helicopter was sent to recover the bodies, and the natives shot arrows at the great metal bird. Realizing that they would face a hail of arrows and poison darts if they persisted, the helicopter crew left without landing. In other words, this could have become a repeat of the “Blackhawk Down” incident, where rebels in Somalia overwhelmed the crew of an American helicopter. Thus, for the foreseeable future, it looks like the best way to keep the Sentinelese alive is to leave them alone.
But I digress. So while the Negritos had Southeast Asia to themselves, where were the people we associate with Southeast Asia now? Where were the Vietnamese, Thais, Burmese, Hmong, Malays, and others at this early date? They were in the middle of China. When the people we think of as Chinese built their civilization, they did not live in all of present-day China, but only on the middle-to-upper stretch of the Yellow River valley, the modern provinces of Shaanxi and Henan. Even so, as far back as 2000 B.C., when the Chinese claim their first government, the Xia dynasty, was in place, they also claim that these groups were their neighbors. The Vietnamese, for example, lived at the mouth of the Yangtze River; they called themselves Viet, while the Chinese name for them was Yue. It wasn’t until the end of the next dynasty, the Shang dynasty, that the Chinese state expanded far enough south to reach the Yangtze. Then after 1000 B.C., when the Chinese began settling the lands south of the Yangtze, those other groups were faced with staying put and becoming Chinese, or withdrawing southward, out of the Chinese state’s reach. Most of today’s Southeast Asians are descended from the tribes that chose to go south.
The Earliest Achievements
Archaeology in much of mainland Southeast Asia has been a challenge, due to the wars of the twentieth century. As we will see in a future episode, Laos is littered with unexploded bombs, dropped from American planes, and Cambodia has millions of landmines. Still, excavations were conducted at Ong Ba Cave, Lopburi and Non Nok Tha in Thailand, and at Dongson and Hoabinh in northern Vietnam. These revealed a major surprise; Southeast Asians had agriculture and pottery around the same time as the oldest communities in the Middle East. In fact, evidence now suggests that rice was grown here a long time before it was grown anywhere else. It is hard to imagine the Chinese without rice, but that was indeed the case at the beginning of their long history. Because the climate of the North China Plain is too cold for growing rice, the Chinese originally grew other grains, mainly millet and wheat. It was not until they moved into the warmer lands south of the Yellow River that rice became the staple of their diet.
Chickens and their eggs also came from Southeast Asia, and were introduced to the rest of the world relatively late, when you consider how important they are to our diet today. If you had mentioned poultry to an ancient Egyptian, he probably would have thought you were talking about Egyptian geese, which are really ducks. In the Nile valley it was baboons, not roosters, that announced each sunrise. No hen or rooster is mentioned in the Old Testament, except for an egg in the Book of Job, Chapter 6, verse 6, while just about every animal native to the Holy Land is mentioned; Homer does not mention chickens either. The first chickens were red jungle fowl, living wild in south China and Burma. After they were domesticated, they were spread to India before 1500 B.C., and got to China no later than 1000 B.C. Traders brought them from India to the Middle East, sometime between 1000 and 600 B.C. We know they reached Greece by 400 B.C., because of the famous last words of Socrates, after he drank the hemlock. Quote: “Crito, I owe a cock to Asklepios–be sure to see that it is paid.” End quote. Asklepios was the Greek god of healing, so he was probably talking about some kind of temple offering. In the New Testament, a rooster appears at a critical moment to remind Peter that he has denied his Master.
The most important prehistoric settlement found in Southeast Asia so far is Ban Chiang, a village on the Khorat Plateau, in northeast Thailand. It was stumbled upon, literally, by accident. One day in 1966, a visiting Harvard anthropology student named Steve Young tripped on a tree root, fell face first into the dirt, and noticed pottery in it, which he immediately recognized as an important discovery involving Thailand’s unknown past. What subsequent excavations found caused the United Nations to declare Ban Chiang a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, and a museum was built near the diggings to display the bones and artifacts.
Ban Chiang was settled continuously, from 2100 B.C. to 200 A.D. 126 skeletons were found intact, buried with attractive red pottery and metal tools it was thought they would need in the afterlife. One of the skeletons was nicknamed “Nimrod” because he showed all the marks of a mighty hunter; he was unusually tall, and buried with deer antlers, hunting weapons, and a necklace of tiger claws. Most amazing of all, even the oldest graves contained bronze bracelets, bells and spearheads.
The main excavations on the site, in 1974 and 1975, were led by two archaeologists, Dr. Chester Gorman from the United States, and Pisit Charoenwongsa from Thailand. They reported that the bronzework was made between 4220 and 3400 B.C. If those dates were true, it would have meant that Ban Chiang was the oldest bronze age community anywhere! However, they had used thermoluminescence dating, then a new technique, to determine the age of the site, and Dr. Joyce White, the American archaeologist in charge of later excavations, found out that the tests conducted were inaccurate. When carbon-14 tests were conducted, these gave a date of 2000 B.C. for the parts of the site containing the oldest bronze; we now believe that date is more likely to be correct. Still, the achievement is impressive; it means people in Thailand were making bronze 500 years before the Chinese learned how to do it.
We should also note that from the start, these prehistoric metallurgists were doing better work than their counterparts elsewhere. It did not take them long to figure out that the strongest bronze alloy is made by mixing one part of tin with nine parts of copper. They were probably helped by a geographical advantage: Southeast Asia is the world’s richest source of tin. Tin is uncommon in the West; in the Middle East, tin is so rare that we did not know where those metallurgists got it until an ancient tin mine was discovered in Turkey in 1994. Before the people of Mesopotamia discovered tin, they made bronze by mixing copper and arsenic, with brittle and sometimes hazardous results. Remember that in ancient times, there wasn’t an organization like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, what Americans call OSHA, to warn workers about hazards like this!
As you might expect, the archaeological excavations in Southeast Asia have caused considerable controversy. Traditionally it was believed that the Middle East is the only cradle of civilization, and distant centers of civilization like India, China and Central America somehow learned all technology above the stone age level from their elder brothers in Egypt and Iraq. The discoveries at Ban Chiang brought this theory into question. Did the Middle East invent everything first? Or did the Far East get started on its own, without help from the West? Part of the controversy stems from the fact that in Iraq we can trace the development of metalworking from its earliest stages. First we have the stone age. Then when people started making things out of copper, we have what we call the chalcolithic age, where people used copper and stone tools together, because copper by itself is not a strong metal. After that came the bronze age, and finally the iron age. However, there doesn’t appear to have been any chalcolithic stage in Thailand; the bronze works we have tell us they went straight from the stone age to a fully developed bronze age. Some pro-Thai advocates have even argued that if there was any transfer of metals and ideas, it was from east to west, not the other way around.
And that’s not all. The oldest iron artifacts found in Thailand are spearheads, knives and bracelets, dated to about 300 B.C. By then, Southeast Asian farmers had also switched from dry cultivation to the wet-cultivation of rice in flooded fields that is still practiced today; that greatly increased the total food supply. The water buffalo, or carabao, was domesticated to pull plows, and the discovery of spindles and bits of thread suggest that they already knew how to make cloth from silk. The silk production may have been learned from the Chinese.
Ban Chiang’s achievements were limited to agriculture and metallurgy; they had no cities, no writing, no temples and no kings. Warfare seems to have been unknown as well; nobody was buried with any shield or weapon of war, no skeleton found to date shows signs of a violent death, and no settlement shows evidence of having been destroyed by fire or force of arms. They lived simply, turning out their pottery and bronzes, and vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. But by that time they had left their mark on their neighbors. We used to think that China learned how to make bronze from some civilization in the West, because they also went from the stone age to the bronze age without a chalcolithic period in-between. However, the discoveries in Thailand have made Southeast Asia a better candidate for the place where China learned this technology, for the Chinese word for copper, tong, is the same word used in the oldest Southeast Asian languages. In other words, the Chinese could have taught silk to the Southeast Asians, and the Southeast Asians taught the Chinese bronzemaking in return.
There are hundreds of circular mounds–some as much as twenty feet high–that still await investigation in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They are spaced an average of 18 miles apart, and most of them are probably villages. Now that peace has come to most of the region, it may be possible to excavate them to see if they can answer the questions raised by the artifacts found so far. Perhaps these hide the cities and temples and kings that we said are missing.
Unfortunately, when the natives living near Ban Chiang found out that the potsherds in their ground were worth something to foreigners, they dug up and smuggled thousands of pieces out of the country before scholars had a chance to study them. Furthermore, when the villagers ran out of authentic pots to sell, they started making convincing-looking forgeries. Headlines were made in 2008, when the Thai government declared that thousands of artifacts had been illegally smuggled from Ban Chiang, and many of them were bought by museums in California. Whatever lies in those other mounds may again revolutionize our knowledge of ancient history, if the archaeologists can beat the looters to them.
Well! I said in my introductory episode that I planned to make each episode around 30 minutes in length, and now I have gone over 30 minutes in the very first episode after that! Fortunately, going overtime is not a big problem in podcasting, the way it is in radio or TV; a podcast doesn’t take away time from another show when it runs too long. Join me next time, when we will look at the migrations that brought today’s Southeast Asians into the region, and the part India played in giving them a fully developed civilization. Thank you for listening, and I will see you again in a couple of weeks!