The next episode in my new podcast series went up today. This time the main topic is migrations. The Southeast Asians you are familiar with came originally from China, in at least five waves: the Austronesians or Malays, the Mon-Khmers, the Vietnamese, the Tibeto-Burmans and the Thais. In this episode we follow the course of the Malay and Mon-Khmer migrations. Then when the Mons make contact with India, we see Indian civilization introduced to nearly all of Southeast Asia, setting the stage for the rise of the first Southeast Asian states. Check it out at this link:
(Transcript, added July 29, 2019)
Greetings, dear listeners! Before I begin today’s narrative, I want to thank all of you for setting some time aside to hear what I have to say. Time is a valuable commodity in today’s fast-paced world, so that by itself is meaningful to me. If you have already listened to one or both of the other episodes, I am also glad I didn’t scare you away. The number of downloads this podcast has received so far tells me that not all of you are from my family; that is encouraging, too. You may remember the line from the movie “Field of Dreams” where they said, “If you build it, people will come,” and that is happening here. Finally, I want to thank those of you who encouraged me with kind comments about the podcast on Facebook. Maybe in the near future I will ask for reviews on iTunes, like the other podcasters are doing.
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And now, on with the story!
The Great Malay Migration
In the last episode we saw that at the end of the ice age, the Negritos, cousins of the Australian Aborigines, were the only people living in most of Southeast Asia. Because a lifestyle of hunting and gathering does not support many people, they were thinly spread throughout the region. Only where farming communities existed could you have more than ten people per square mile. Hunter-gatherers typically needed ten square miles to feed each person in their tribe, so you can say that a hunting-gathering economy is at least 100 times less efficient.
Around 2500 B.C., other peoples, the ancestors of the Southeast Asians we are familiar with, began to move into the region. All of them came from the north, out of the land we now call China. It was a gradual migration, that happened in waves. Most of the newcomers had arrived and found new homes by the second century A.D., but this process will not be complete until the last people to move, the Thais, set up their first kingdoms in the thirteenth century. In the process, all of these groups displaced the Negritos; that is why today the Negritos are only found in remote areas, like the jungles of the Philippines. We won’t we talking much about the Negritos after this.
The people who arrived in the first wave were the ancestors of those now settled in more than half the countries of the region: Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor. These peoples go by many names: Austronesians, Malays, and Malayo-Polynesians, to name a few. Here I will call them “Malays” after they settle down, and “Austronesians” when they are on the move, or outside of Southeast Asia, because they also explored and settled other places. The migrations of the Austronesians across both the Pacific and Indian Oceans make them one of the most successful people groups of all time; before Europeans learned how to cross the oceans, the Austronesians were the world’s boldest and best sailors.
Originally the Austronesians must have lived on the Asian mainland, presumably on the Amoy coast of south China; this is the area now called Fujian Province. However, five thousand years ago, when they began to leave evidence of their presence, they were already on the nearest large island, Taiwan. We don’t know how they got to Taiwan. During the ice age they could have followed a land bridge from the mainland that no longer exists. Or if they had invented the canoes that served as their first boats by this time, they could have made the crossing by mastering the techniques of sailing on the open sea, a skill that would serve them greatly from here on. With them they brought rice; remember what I said in the previous episode about Southeast Asians growing rice first. They were also making pottery by this time, so we can trace their steps from one island to the next by the pots they left behind. But don’t expect to see many Austronesians if you go to Taiwan today; in modern times waves of Chinese immigrants have come over from the mainland and overwhelmed the indigenous population. One of the largest groups of Chinese came in the 1660s, and an even larger group arrived in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government lost the Chinese Civil War, and they fled to Taiwan, taking two million of their followers and relatives with them. Today the Austronesian tribes, also called Formosans, have a little over half a million members, making up 2.3 percent of Taiwan’s present-day population, and they live mainly in the mountains and on the east coast, rather than in cities like Taipei.
On a map you can see there is about 100 miles of open water between the mainland and Taiwan. At some point between 2500 and 2000 B.C., some Austronesians left Taiwan to go exploring. It probably did not seem like an important event at the time, because only a few people went on the journeys, while the vast majority of the Austronesian population stayed at home. Even so, with their canoes they managed to reach the next islands: the Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands, 100 miles to the northeast, and the nearest of the Philippine Islands, 100 miles to the south; in both places they were able to proceed to more islands in a stepping-stone fashion.
The Ryukyu Islands form a long chain going from Taiwan to Japan, so the group traveling up this chain eventually ran into the Japanese. The Japanese also had agriculture and pottery by this time, meaning they were at the same level of technology as the Austronesians, so they were able to stop and absorb them. Thus, the people living in the northern Ryukyus today are fully Japanese, while those living on Okinawa and the islands to the south, what we call the Ryukyuan people, are part Japanese, part Austronesian. We now believe the Japanese got rice from the Austronesians, and also added a few words to their vocabulary that are Austronesian in origin.
The Austronesians who went south to the Philippines enjoyed far more success. I will call them “Malays” after this, because they eventually settled in what is now called Malaysia. Anyway, from Taiwan they first came to the Batanes and Babuyan Islands, two tiny clusters of islands that became stepping stones to a much larger island, Luzon. If you’re not familiar with the geography of the Philippines, that country has more than 7,000 islands. Two of the islands, Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south, are larger than the rest; most of the other islands are between these two, and are collectively called the Visayas. Besides being the largest island, Luzon is also the most important; Manila is located here, along with the lion’s share of today’s Filipino people.
The islands of Southeast Asia proved to be an ideal place for growing rice on a large scale. Up to this point, rice hadn’t been very important in south China or Taiwan, since there were other grains available, but now it became a staple that allowed Malay communities to grow rapidly. By contrast, the Negritos remained few in number, because of their primitive lifestyle, so they could not compete with the newcomers.
The Philippine Islands are only a few miles apart; nowadays ferry boats travel between them every day. Thus, it was easy for the Malays to explore and colonize the whole Philippines. But while they had gone beyond sight of land to get here from Taiwan, dugout canoes are not recommended for travel on the open sea; they are unstable and easily capsized when they encounter waves. At some point, probably while the Malays were finding out what was in the Philippines, they learned to add side boards and outriggers to their canoes, turning them into much more seaworthy vessels. Now they were ready to take the next big step. By 1500 B.C., one group had sailed due east from Mindanao and discovered the Palau Islands; this was the first step in the colonization of Micronesia. Another group sailed due west around 1000 B.C., crossed the South China Sea, and landed on Vietnam’s central coast. Descendants of these explorers would found the kingdom of Champa, the future rival of the Vietnamese; but that’s a subject for another episode.
Just as the group which had gone south from Taiwan had been more successful than those that went in other directions, so the group of Malays that went south from the Philippines enjoyed the most success. From Mindanao they split into two waves, and these landed on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sulawesi. These islands were even larger than the largest Philippine islands, but they were completely covered by jungle, so they weren’t very inviting. However, the next islands to the south–Java, Bali and Lombok–were smaller and more fertile. Again the local Negritos proved to be no match, and were conquered or expelled. Finally, some westward-heading expeditions reached Sumatra, the huge island that marks Indonesia’s western limit, and they also reached the Malay peninsula; naturally both were quickly settled.
We think the Malays reached New Guinea by 1600 B.C., because an important South Pacific culture, now called the Lapita culture, began producing pottery not long after this, in the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. You may remember that in the last episode, I mentioned an archaeological site called Dongson in North Vietnam. Well, by 700 B.C. pottery from Dongson was ending up in places as far away as New Guinea. This tells us that the Malays were routinely traveling all the way to New Guinea at this date, and probably traded with New Guinea’s Melanesian tribes. From the Melanesians they acquired another crop, a root vegetable called taro. This would come in handy as a second staple; the Malays would grow taro on islands that did not have suitable places for growing rice.
During the next two thousand years the Malays covered astonishing distances, crossing both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and they did it by trusting in things like birds, ocean currents, and the stars to guide them. In the Pacific they became the Polynesian people, settling almost every island worth living on. We believe they reached Hawaii around 500 A.D., Easter Island between 700 and 1100, and New Zealand by 1280.
In the west, at an uncertain date, one or more outrigger canoes left Indonesia, crossed the Indian Ocean and made landfall on Madagascar. They brought with them several valuable crops, and introduced them to Africa: rice, mung beans, taro, bananas, plantains, coconuts and sugar cane. That was all that could be said on the subject until the twenty-first century, when language and DNA analysis entered the picture. We now believe the boats were launched from Borneo, because the language and DNA of the Malagasy most resembles that of Borneo’s southeastern tribes. A recent comparison of mitochrondrial DNA samples from 266 modern Malagasy indicated that they were descended from just thirty women. Because ancient Indonesian kingdoms like Srivijaya could build vessels big enough to carry 500 people, this means only one boatload of Malays was needed to colonize Madagascar. Of course the boat must have also carried men, and there could have been some women who did not have any children, but because mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, evidence for them will not show up in such tests. We used to think the crossing happened between 1 and 500 A.D., but the DNA tests also suggested that the settlers arrived much later than that, most likely around 830.
Because the settlers were sailing through uncharted waters, it is unlikely they knew where they were going; they may have been blown off course, and decided it was safer to keep sailing west than to try returning. Or they could have been refugees, fleeing after an enemy tribe or kingdom conquered their homeland. After 1000, their descendants did some trading with the African mainland, and members of some African tribes came to Madagascar, so today’s Malagasy are half Asian and half black. To get an idea of how impressive the Malay achievement is, just measure the distance across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from Easter Island to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. It is 13,966 miles, or 203 degrees of longitude. The Malays sailed more than halfway around the world!
Meanwhile back in Vietnam, the Dongson culture enjoyed its best years. Around 500 B.C., craftsmen began making large bronze drums covered with various scenes, pictures of people riding in boats, fighting battles, or conducting important ceremonies. These remarkable examples of metallurgy were buried with the dead, or served as urns to hold cremated remains. They probably had some sort of religious significance, because many of the tribes living in the region today believe that a person needs a drum to contact his ancestral spirits. To the northwest, around Lake Dian in China’s Yunnan province, another bronzeworking culture sprang up after 1000 B.C. The Dian people produced not only drums but also drum-shaped containers to hold the local form of money, cowrie shells. The lids of the containers are even more elaborate than the drums; they have miniature figures of people and their surroundings on top, a complete diorama. One of the fanciest displays shows 127 people gathered around a platform bearing 16 drums, with a thatched roof stretched over the platform and a giant bronze drum standing nearby. Both cultures were eventually conquered by the Chinese: the Dongson in 111 B.C., the Dian in 109 B.C.
One more achievement deserves to be mentioned here. Two thousand years ago, at Banawe, in the northern Philippines, somebody left an amazing work of engineering; they carved the mountains surrounding a huge valley into terraces so that rice and other crops may be grown on the slopes. Each terrace has a small wall to hold in the water needed for wet-rice agriculture; some claim that if you laid those walls end-to-end, they would go all the way around the world. Other places in China and Southeast Asia have land that has been terraced to permit agriculture in rugged terrain, but Banawe is one of the largest, and certainly the oldest. Moreover, the project was done using stone age tools, and it must have taken years, maybe more than one generation, to complete the job. Today’s residents in the district, a tribe called the Ifugao, still maintain and use the terraces, and the terraces are considered the “eighth wonder of the world” by Filipinos. But Banawe and the journeys across the oceans mark the end of the time when Southeast Asia was a technological leader; for most of the two thousand years since then, Southeast Asia has borrowed most of its culture from other nations, rather than inventing its own. Which leads us to our next topic.
Behind the Malays came the Mon-Khmers, the Vietnamese, the Tibeto-Burmans and the Thais, all forced to move by Chinese expansion. At an unknown date (no later than 300 B.C.), the Mon-Khmers separated into two tribes: the Khmers, ancestors of today’s Cambodians, and the Mons. We also believe the Vietnamese are distantly related to the Mon-Khmers, because the Vietnamese language shares a few common words with the Mon and Khmer languages. If this is correct, the Vietnamese split off from the other groups at an earlier date, before any of them left China.
The Khmers followed the Mekong River downstream, but because the Malays got to Cambodia first, the Khmers had to pause in Laos. They would have to wait until the seventh century before they could move into Cambodia. As for the Mons, they left the Mekong valley and went west, eventually settling in Thailand, southern Burma, and part of Malaya. You may not have heard of the Mons, because today they are an insignificant group. Most of the Mons now live in a Burmese province, just east of the Irrawaddy delta; estimates of their numbers range from 800,000 to 8 million, with 1.1 million the most likely figure. In ancient times, though, they were an important conduit of civilization.
When the Mons reached the Bay of Bengal, some of them took to the sea and settled the Nicobar Islands. However, they left the neighboring Andaman Islands to their Negrito inhabitants; we saw them in the previous episode. Eventually, Mon seafarers made contact with India, which was ruled by an outstanding king named Asoka (also known as Ashoke). If you want to hear a podcast about India at this time, I recommend the four-episode series on the Maruyan Empire by the Lesser Bonapartes, which they recorded in January 2015. Anyway, around 260 B.C. Asoka became a Buddhist, and to convert as many people as possible to his new faith, he sent Buddhist missionaries to the lands surrounding India: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. All of these missionaries enjoyed success; the ones in Southeast Asia converted the Mons completely, thereby beginning Burma’s preoccupation with Buddhism that lasts to this day. By 200 B.C. there was a small Mon state in southern Burma, with its capital at Thaton, and it enjoyed regular commerce with India and Sri Lanka.
Indian interest in Southeast Asia increased when India and China began to trade with each other, around 125 B.C. The trip between India and China was not easy; the direct route was over the Tibetan Plateau, a grueling hike only the hardiest traders were willing to try. Alternatives by land were not much better: either a trek through the mountainous jungles of Burma, Yunnan and Sichuan, or a long, roundabout path through barbarian-infested Central Asia. Indian merchants searched for a water route, and they found it in Southeast Asia’s seas. Most of those ships traveled through the Malacca Strait, between Malaya and Sumatra, and that strait has been the world’s busiest waterway ever since. Soon the Malacca Strait developed a problem in the form of local pirates, but overall this was the quickest and easiest way to travel between Asia’s two main centers of civilization. An alternative to Malacca was the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, that meant sailing for an extra 90 days on the west coast of Sumatra, with no port to stop in on the way; few sailors or passengers looked forward to such a trip.
Although India was already a multi-religious land, Buddhists led the way in exploring the outside world for a while, because Hindu priests, the Brahmans, forbade their followers to travel overseas. This prohibition seems to have been caused by many fears the stay-at-home Brahmans had. First and foremost, there was the fear that a Hindu riding on the sea would lose his caste; in other words, he would become one of the lowest-ranked people in Hindu society, the so-called Untouchables. There were also concerns that Hindus might not be able to perform their daily rituals in a foreign land, or they might not reincarnate if they died abroad. On top of all that, because Hindus were not allowed to marry someone outside their caste, any potential spouse who wasn’t a Hindu was off-limits. However, word came back to India that Southeast Asians were friendly, and they had some valuable commodities, like rubies, hardwoods and spices. Because the Buddhists had success trading with the natives, eventually some Hindus tried their luck in overseas ventures, and because they were successful, too, they were forgiven for violating the prohibitions of the priests. After that, Hindu merchants were allowed to travel too, provided they performed the proper purification rituals when they returned. Now there were no restrictions on the introduction of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.
The monsoon cycle helped in the spreading of that culture. The currents and winds of the Indian Ocean change with the seasons, so ships would often have to wait in a Southeast Asian port for months until favorable winds came. While they were waiting, the crews of those ships had plenty of time to meet the natives. Indian missionaries converted the natives to both Buddhism and Hinduism, and soon the local rulers were calling themselves maharajahs and imitating the courts of India down to the smallest details.
The only places in the region that did not see regular visits from the Indians were the Philippines, which were too far from the India-China trade route, and northern Vietnam, where Chinese influence was too strong. Still, Indonesian merchants would eventually bring some aspects of Indian culture to the Philippines, and while the form of Buddhism practiced in northern Vietnam, Mahayana, came from China, even that had gotten started in India. By the time the first century arrived, the coasts of Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam were dotted with Indian-style city-states.
Join me next time when we look at the kingdoms founded by the Malays and Mons in the first century and afterwards, the first Southeast Asian states we know anything about. Then if we still have time, we will cover the next migration, that of the Tibeto-Burmans. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!