Bodies of Evidence in Southeast Asia

Excavations at a cemetery in a Thai village reveal a 4,000-year-old indigenous culture

Higham (at Ban Non Wat) says villagers "don't relate to the bones they find." (Charles Higham)
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At another nearby site, called Noen U-Loke, detailed analysis of bones found among 127 graves suggests high rates of infant mortality. One of the more poignant finds was the remains of a child who likely suffered from cerebral palsy and was adorned with ivory bangles—a sign the child was loved and valued by the community. Individuals who survived infancy appear to have lived relatively healthy lives, despite evidence of leprosy and tuberculosis. Wild pigs, deer, turtles, along with domesticated plants and animals, provided a diverse diet, and dental health was surprisingly good.

But there was violence, too. The skull of one woman was cleaved nearly in half by two blows with a sharp instrument. Forensic evidence suggests she was standing—and therefore alive—when attacked. She had not been an outcast; her skeleton was buried with jewelry. Another man died after an iron projectile pierced his spine.

Motioning me to follow him, Higham climbs back up the ladder and trudges across a muddy track past clucking chickens and mangy dogs. Soon we come to a slight rise. Beyond are several more small rises, separated by shallow water. These formations puzzled the archaeologists who first encountered them several decades ago. But we now know that villages ringed by moats a mile or more in circumference were a common feature once iron spades and shovels made construction of them possible in the Iron Age. In fact, aerial and satellite photographs reveal the ghostly rings of long-lost villages across huge swaths of Thailand and Cambodia.

The moats may have served several purposes beyond protecting settlements from invaders: they collected water during the dry season and channeled it during the rainy season. And the earthen berms ringing the moats provided foundations for palisades. Higham sees the moats and other defensive structures as further evidence that Khmer civilization did not originate abroad. "You already have social complexity here at 400 B.C.," he says, gesturing around. "This was not brought from India—it was indigenous."

Two-and-a-half millennia later, most of the wildlife is gone, burial practices are different and knowledge about the ancient beliefs of Southeast Asians is scarce. Higham nevertheless sees a thread stretching from the Bronze Age settlements to the present day. At least one connection is easy to spot. On a journey to Phimai, Thailand, I stop in a pleasant village, Ban Prasat, lazing in the afternoon heat. The village is dotted with excavated graves similar to those at Ban Non Wat, proof of its ancient heritage. In the yard of each dwelling is a small "spirit house," a shelter for local spirits that could otherwise cause mischief. Such spirit houses—reflecting an animistic tradition that predates the arrival of Hinduism or Buddhism—are found throughout Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, even in front of modern office buildings in trendy Bangkok. While archaeologists like Higham methodically excavate ancient settlements, tantalizing evidence of Southeast Asia's thriving indigenous culture remains hidden in plain sight.

Andrew Lawler wrote about Egypt's greatest temple in the November 2007 issue.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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