Overview of Archaeological Periods

Hunter-Gatherers

The first inhabitants of Vietnam were hunter-gatherers and there has been much research in Vietnam at many ancient hunter-gatherer sites at both coastal and inland areas, especially cave sites.  Some of the oldest sites date to approximately 30,000 BP.  Excavations at these sites have revealed stone tools and remains of mammals, fish, and shellfish that were hunted and eaten by these ancient people. While Vietnamese archaeologists have identified several different hunter-gatherer cultures, the Hoabinhian culture is perhaps the most famous and have been found at sites across Southeast Asia.

The Hoabinhian culture was first identified by Madeliene Colani while she was excavating rock shelters in Hoa Binh province.  This culture is marked by flaked stone tools that were made from river cobbles, especially a specific type of unifacially worked disc called a Sumatrlith. Most Hoabinhian sites have been found in rock shelters, and show that Hoabinhian people were exploiting both resources form nearby streams, including fish and shellfish, as well as mammals such as wild cattle, buffalo, and rhinoceros. It is likely that Hoabinhian people were living in coastal areas as well, however these sites have likely been lost due to changing sea levels.

Example of a Sumatralith stone tool. Adapted from Bowdler 2008.

The Arrival of Farmers

There are still several competing theories regarding the movement of rice-farmers and farming technology in to Southeast Asia, however many archaeologists believe that rice farmers moved into Southeast Asia from southern China along coastal and riverine networks around 2500 BC. Some of the earliest Neolithic sites are in the Red River Valley in the Bac Bo region  of northern Vietnam.  Archaeologists say that these sites belong to the Phung Nguyen culture, named after one of the early Neolithic sites investigated in this region. Several scholars consider the Phung Nguyen culture to be a precursor to the Dongson culture.  These sites are small and found on small mounds near the intersection of several streams.  Artifacts from these sites include stone tools, bone harpoons, spindle whorls that were likely used in weaving, and ceramics.  These people also made jewelry out of nephrite. Ceramics from these sites are incised with many beautiful designs.

 The Metal Age Cultures

Around 1500 BC, bronze technology was introduced to Southeast Asia. Although people were still continuing their lifeways from the previous period, we now see the addition of bronze tools and jewelry, and evidence for bronze casting in the forms of molds, furnaces, and waste products. Bronze technology evolved over time until reaching an apex with the Dongson culture.

The Dongson Culture (600 BC – AD 200) is concentrated in northern Vietnam, in the Red, Ma, and Ca River Valleys.  The Dongson culture is notable for an increase in the intensity of agriculture, evidence for growing status differentiation in graves, the appearance of major habitation sites, including those that were fortified, and an increase in military and ritual activities from the previous period. Dongson sites have been found in a wide range of areas from the coast, to deltas, and mountain regions .  Dongson bronze technology appears to have been undertaken at an enormous scale and produced complicated and beautifully decorated tools, weapons, and drums.  The Dongson drum is perhaps the most famous artifact of this period and they were widely traded across mainland and island Southeast Asia.

Dongson Drum from the Musee Guimet. Photo by PGHCOM from Wikimedia Commons.

In central and Southern Vietnam, a different culture was emerging during the mid-first millennium BC called the Sa Huynh Culture. Sa Huynh culture sites are widely identified by their unusual jar burials, in which the dead were buried in large jars with a variety of grave goods. Although Sa Huynh people also used bronze technology, they did not make large objects out of bronze as the Dongson people did in northern Vietnam.  However, Sa Huynh people appear to have traveled extensively in the South China Sea and there is evidence for connections between Sa Huynh people in Vietnam with sites in the Philippines and peninsular Thailand.

During the mid-first millennium AD, sites in northern Vietnam fell under the control of the Chinese, while in central and southern Vietnam we see the emergence of complex polities influenced by India.