From the deep past to recent history, the archaeology of Southeast Asia reflects its diversity and dynamism
What we think of as Southeast Asia today is composed of 11 countries divided into two regions: Mainland Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Peninsular Malaysia), Island Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Timor Leste, and Bornean Malaysia). Beneath the boundaries of the modern nation-states are an interconnected network of people groups, languages, kingdoms and trade networks spanning into the Peripheral Areas of Southeast Asia (such as India, Sri Lanka, China, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia).
This page covers the archaeology of the Southeast Asian region as a whole, but you can find more details about the different countries in their respective pages, or explore the Resource Guide for thematic areas. There’s also the Virtual Archaeology page where you can visit archaeological sites online, learn something from the Online Lecture Library, or find recent academic papers for more up-to-date research. In this page:
Archaeological evidence suggets that anatomically modern humans have been in what is now Laos and Malaysian Borneo from at least 60,000 and 40,000 years respectively. This fits in with the fact that humans reached Australia by around 50,000 years ago. Early populations in Southeast Asia lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; by 10,000 years ago, there was a widespread stone tool industry, the Hoabinhian, characterised by flaked tools made from cobbles. Population movements beginning around 4,000 BCE brought more people into Southeast Asia, likely from southern China. People speaking Austroasiatic languages spread overland into Mainland Southeast Asia, while people speaking Austronesian languages migrated into Island Southeast Asia via Taiwan. These new settlers brought with them new cultural practices such as rice agriculture, pottery and permanent settlements. From around 1,000 BCE bronze artifacts and metallurgy emerged, and iron started to appear around 500 BCE; early rice agriculture gave way to wet-rice cultivation and the first cities appeared.
During the transition to the common era, we see more evidence of inter-regional trade, such as the dispersal of pottery forms within Mainland Southeast Asia and nephrite earrings from Taiwan showing up in Philippines, East Malaysia, southern Vietnam, and peninsular Thailand dating from 500 BCE to 500 CE. Local trading networks extended to China and India. In particular, prolonged contacts with traders and ideas from India led to the eventual adoption of Indian writing, religion, culture and administration in emerging polities.
An important centre in this diffusion of culture from 300 BCE onwards was Funan in southern Cambodia and the lower Mekong. Funan was one of the earliest Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia. It is generally accepted that Funan (along with its successor Chenla) was the predecessor state to the Khmer Empire, which formed around the Mekong delta after the 5th century CE. Funan would be the first Indianized kingdom and was also a religious link between India and other Southeast Asian countries.
From the 5th century CE to the middle of the second millennium the region was dominated by various Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms such as Srivijaya, Majapahit in Island Southeast Asia; and Bagan, Champa and Angkor in Mainland Southeast Asia. These empires built many of the ancient temples that are considered archaeological treasures today. Over centuries these kingdoms created a large network of roads and trade routes which connected India to China. By the end of this period, Mainland Southeast Asia became predominantly Buddhist, while Island Southeast Asia became predominantly Muslim.
The fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 CE marked the beginning of the European era in Southeast Asia. By this time, trade goods from China and Southeast Asia were in such high demand in the west that European states sough to establish direct trade links with the source regions. With their arrival, they began to claim control over the region by asserting economic, if not also political, dominance over local kingdoms. Many kingdoms were either destroyed or co-opted into the European colonial control. The territories that make up the modern nation-states of Southeast Asia are part of this colonial legacy, reflecting the interests of the European powers rather than the traditional reach of the previous rulers.
European colonialism brought into the region the seeds of nationalism and the weakening of Europe after World War II led to the independence of the modern nation-states that we know today. Today, Southeast Asia remains a region of enormous cultural and geographical diversity. Shared historical and cultural experiences frequently transcend borders, which can be both a source of unity or division.
The scholarly discipline of archaeology has its roots in colonialism. Many archaeological artifacts were taken from Southeast Asia, often without permission or regard to their cultural significance, and can be found in museums and private collections around the world today. Archaeology in postcolonial Southeast Asia is inherently nationalistic and used to build a narrative to support the idea of the modern nation. In this regard, archaeological practice is regulated by the government through the ministries of culture (or equivalent), or through local universities and foreigners who wish to conduct archaeological work in Southeast Asia must ultimately do so with the cooperation and permission of the government.
Archaeology in Southeast Asia reflects an interconnected web of people, languages, kingdoms and trade networks that span from the Peripheral Areas of Southeast Asia to all across the modern region. It is one of the most exciting and vibrant regions to study the archaeology of the world, with a rich cultural history and the promise of discoveries yet to be made.
There are a number of books relevant to the archaeology and history of Southeast Asia, and the list below is my personal recommendation based on what I have in my library or have read. Newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.
- Coastal Shrines and Transnational Maritime Networks across India and Southeast Asia by Himanshu Prabha Ray
- Returning Southeast Asia’s Past: Objects, Museums, and Restitution by Louise Tythacott and Panggah Ardiyansyah (Eds.)
- Sea Nomads of Southeast Asia: From the Past to the Present by Bérénice Bellina, Roger Blench and Jean-Christophe Galipaud (Eds.)
- Advancing Southeast Asian Archaeology 2019: Selected Papers from the 3rd SEAMEO SPAFA International Conference on Southeast Asian Archaeology by Noel Hidalgo Tan (Ed) [Free Download]
- The Archaeology of Knowledge Traditions of the Indian Ocean World by Himanshu Prabha Ray (Ed.)
- Primary Sources and Asian Pasts by Peter C. Bisschop and Elizabeth Ann Cecil (Eds.) [Open Access here]
- Forts and Fortification in Wallacea: Archaeological and Ethnohistoric Investigations by Sue O’Connor, Andrew McWilliam and Sally Brockwell (Eds.) [Free Download]
- Heritage as Aid and Diplomacy in Asia by Philippe Peycam, Shu-Li Wang, Hui Yew-Foong and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao (Eds.)
- Revisiting Authenticity in the Asian Context by Gamini Wijesuriya and Jonathan Sweet (Eds.)
- Heritage Lawyer: Law for Cultural Heritage Protection by Chris Baker (Ed.) [Free Download]
- Prehistoric Maritime Cultures and Seafaring in East Asia by Chunming Wu and Barry Vladimir Rolett (Ed.)
- Ancient Sites of Southeast Asia: A Traveler’s Guide through History, Ruins, and Landscapes by William R. Chapman
- Handbook of East and Southeast Asian Archaeology by Junko Habu, Peter V. Lape and John W. Olsen (Eds.)
- First Islanders: Prehistory and Human Migration in Island Southeast Asia by Peter Bellwood
- New Perspectives in Southeast Asian and Pacific Prehistory by Philip J. Piper, Hirofumi Matsumura and David Bulbeck (Eds.)
- Spirits and Ships: Cultural Transfers in Early Monsoon Asia by Andrea Acri, Roger Blench and Alexandra Landmann (Eds.)
- Ancient Southeast Asia by John Norman Miksic and Goh Geok Yian
- A Heritage of Ruins: The Ancient Sites of Southeast Asia and Their Conservation by William R. Chapman
- Rethinking Cultural Resource Management in Southeast Asia: Preservation, Development, and Neglect by John N. Miksic, Geok Yian Goh, Sue O’Connor (Eds.)
- 50 Years of Archaeology in Southeast Asia: Essays in Honour of Ian Glover by Berenice Bellina (Ed.)
- Archaeology of Asia by Miriam T. Stark
- Early Southeast Asia: Selected Essays by Craig J. Reynolds (Ed)
- Surface Collection: Archaeological Travels in Southeast Asia by Denis Byrne
- Historical Dictionary of Ancient Southeast Asia by John N. Miksic
- Early Civilizations of Southeast Asia by Dougald J.W. O’Reilly
- Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by Peter Bellwood and Ian Glover (Eds.)
- Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia by Charles Higham
- The Indianized States of Southeast Asia by G. Coedes
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via Global Times, 20 March 2021 and other sources: The remarkable finds from the Sanxingdui site in Sichuan Province, China,...Read more
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- ASEAN – The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a regional inter-governmental organisation promoting economic and political cooperation among the 10 member nation states.
- H-SEASIA Discussion Network – H-SEASIA is a forum for discussion and communications regarding the history and study of Southeast Asia.
- ICCROM – International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.
- ICOM – The International Council of Museums.
- ICOMOS – non-governmental international organisation dedicated to the conservation of the world’s monuments and sites with national committees in Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
- Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association – Founded in 1929, the IPPA is dedicated to the study of prehistory of Eastern Asia (70 deg longitude) and the pacific region.
- Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology – ISEAA is a nonprofit organization, formed in late 2013, that builds upon a core of pioneering scholarship in Southeast Asian archaeology that began in the late 1960s at the Penn Museum.
- Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) – An intergovernmental organization based in Bangkok promoting cooperation in education, science and culture in the region. Two sub-centres deal specifically with culture:
- SEAMEO-CHAT – The Regional Centre for History and Tradition under the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, based in Yangon. (Facebook page.)
- SEAMEO-SPAFA – The Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts, under the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, based in Bangkok. [Disclosure: I work for SEAMEO SPAFA full-time as the Senior Specialist in Archaeology].
- UNESCO – The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization promotes international cooperation in education, science and culture.