Vietnam’s Role in Understanding Social and Economic Change in Mainland Southeast Asia from c. 5000 – 3500 BP

Global Pasts lecture
Prof Philip Piper (Australian National University)
Prof Piper sitting by a large pot and bone


The earliest rice agriculturalists in East Asia emerged in the Yangzi River region between 9000 and 6000 BP, before eventually spreading into MSEA (and Island SE Asia) from southern China. It is commonly believed that the first sedentary agricultural communities arrived in Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA) between 4500 – 4000 BP. This led to a reshaping of economic strategies, and a marked transformation in the types and diversity of pottery and stone tools being produced, the appearance of a variety of new ornaments manufactured from a range of raw materials, and new ways of burying the deceased. However, our understanding of the timing and nature of the transition from foraging to farming in MSEA is limited by the existence of a significant gap in the archaeological record in the crucial millennium between 5000 and 4000 BP, a period during which indigenous societies exclusively hunted and foraged in most of MSEA began to give way to open-air sedentary settlement and new modes of living that included agriculture.

Vietnam possesses some of the best-preserved early 5th to mid- 3rd millennium BP archaeological sites anywhere in Southeast Asia. They are often deeply stratified open air settlements and/or shell mounds with evidence of singular or multiple occupations with varying lengths of residency. Combined, these sites not only provide the foundations for constructing a robust long sequence chronology that records economic and social change through time, but also enable investigation into similarities and variability in material culture attributes between contemporaneous prehistoric communities across the region.

In this presentation I will discuss recent research on archaeological settlement sites in Vietnam that have provided important new insights into the emergence of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Neolithic’ in Vietnam. The research has demonstrated that before 5000 cal. BP (or even slightly earlier) we observe the early arrival of new aspects of material culture being introduced and incorporated into existing local MSEA community repertoires. From c. 5000 BP onwards the first open-air (probably sedentary) settlements emerge, initially along the coastlines of MSEA before establishment on inland riverine terraces. By 4000 BP sedentary settlements were located from the mountainous interior to the coastal plains. Variability in material culture suggests cultural and social diversification had occurred, craft specialisation had developed, and complex trading networks were already well-established.