The Land and Its People
The Land and Its People
Positioned centrally in Southeast
Asia, equidistant from India to the west
and China to the east, Thailand has
since prehistoric times attracted diverse
peoples to its fertile plains and lush,
Archaeological discoveries in a
wide variety of locations, from Kanchanaburi province
west of Bangkok to Chiang Rai in the far north, have revealed settlers from the Palaeolithic period, some
500,000 years ago. Man continued to
thrive in the Kanchanaburi area during
the Mesolithic period, the Middle Stone
Age, and by the Neolithic period must
have been scattered all over Thailand.
The most significant Neolithic finds are
tripods having certain similarities with
those of the Lungshan culture in China.
||Prehistoric paintings at Phu Plara
hill in Uthai Thani province reflect the
mysterious beliefs of the primitive people in the area.|
Perhaps the most dramatic discovery has been the civilization that
flourished on the Khorat Plateau in
northeastern Thailand, first unearthed
in the tiny hamlet of Ban Chiang, 500
kilometers from Bangkok, Communities
of early farmers began to settle in this
area around 4,000 B.C. and flourished
into the beginning of the Christian era,
Systematic excavation of burial
mounds in Ban Chiang and surrounding
areas has revealed a remarkable treasure
of artefacts, including an impressively
wide range of bronze and iron tools and
ornaments. Incised black pottery; hand-
some. hand-painted red-on-cream pots
adorned with intricate fingerprint whorl
patterns, ceramic rollers, and stone and
glass beads abounded.
||Bronze bracelets and armiets from Don Ta Phet
in Kanchanaburi province were made in
the transitional period between the
prehistoric and historic periods.|
Archaeologists have surmised that
the Ban Chiang cultural tradition was
created by an agrarian society whose
knowledge of metallurgy was so advanced
that it possibly produced bronze artefacts
several centuries before anyone else in
the world-and married bronze and iron
to fashion bimetallic tools hundreds of
years before the Chinese.
The people of Ban Chiang printed
their own textiles, using intricately-
patterned clay rollers, lived in sturdy
houses, and used domesticated cattle
to cultivate their rice paddies.
||Painted pottery from Ban Chiang.
Each design painted in red on a cream background is unique. Archaeologists
have discovered numerous pieces of pottery from the area.
The widespread variety of pots
and scarcity of offensive weapons strongly
indicate a stable, peaceful society whose
sophistication in metal technology, pottery
craning and plant and animal husbandry
would have required at least 2,000 years
of prior development.
The origins of the Ban Chiang people
remain a mystery and have engendered
a great deal of learned speculation. Some
scholars believe they may have come
from present-day northern Vietnam,
and discovered the bronze-making pro-
cess after they arrived. Others contend
that they were indigenous to the area.
||Prehistoric beads jrom Don Ta Phet.|
The red ones are made oj cornelian.
What is certain is that they flourished
in the Ban Chiang region because of its
fertile soil and gigantic forests that con-
tained abundant fuel and wildlife. Another
factor was its gentle weather that both
eliminated the need for elaborate housing
and permitted year-round farming.
The fate of the Ban Chiang people
is also a subject of speculation. Some
experts believe that their primitive and
ecologically rapacious method of slash-and-burn to clear land eventually led to
deforestation and soil exhaustion,
which in turn drove them off the north-
east plateau and down into the rich Chao Phya river valley to the west.
||Fragment of bronze vessel
with incised designs from the same site.
There they encountered a Neolithic
people who first produced bronze around
2,000 B.C. These valley people were
most probably an indigenous proto-Malay
tribe that later moved southward under
pressure from the Ban Chiang people
and subsequent southward migrations
Verdant and abundantly stocked
with fish and birds, the incredibly fertile
Chao Phya river basin attracted several
successive waves of immigrants.
The Chao Phya river basin covers
most of modern central and northern
Thailand and is bordered to the west by
rugged Burmese mountains, to the north
by lofty mountains separating southern
China from the Southeast Asian main-
land, and to the east by the high, sprawl-
ing plateau settled by the Ban Chiang
Easily accessible only from the
southern Gulf-of-Thailand coast and the
southeast (present-day Kampuchea).
the Chao Phya river basin was well
protected from excessive outside influence
and sudden, massive incursions of new settlers.
||The Wheel of the Law of the Dvaravati period has the typical Gupta motifs of India.
Originalli, the wheel was made as an aniconic symbol of the Buddha representing his teachings.
A natural, self-contained geopolitical
unit, this river basin was destined to p!ay
a central role in Thailand's development,
becoming historically and agriculturally
as important to the Thais as the Nile is to
the Egyptians. Later, it would become
the Thai heartland and contain future
Thai capitals and for centuries remain
the major means of transport and communications, Eventually, it would be
transformed into an intricately terraced,
irrigated rice bowl figuring among the
most fertile areas on earth.
The influx of immigrants into the
area took hundreds of years. They came
in successive waves, each moving slowly
along paradisical river valleys content to
settle rather than move on. Those following moved past them to hew out homes
and fields from virgin forest. Traveling
in compact groups, under separate
chieftains, escaping famine, despotism
or misfortune, all sought a degree of
autonomy and shared a common desire
tor a better, independent life.
A number of independent states
rose and flourished for a time. Among
these was Suvannabhumi in central Thai-
land, to which the Indian King Asoka
sent Buddhist missionaries in the second
century B.C., while others were established
in the southern and northern parts of
the present-day country.
Two of the most important immigrant
groups were Khmers and Mons who
arrived around the first century B.C.,
probably from southern China. Their
culture would have a major impact on
the subsequent development of Thai
culture. The Khmers settled an area
south of the northeast plateau deep into
present-day Kampuchea where their
culture culminated in the magnificent
llth and 12th century Angkorian civilization.
||The Buddha image enshrined in
the ordination ha!l of Wat Na Phra Men
in Ayutthaya, is seated in the European fashion. The image was made during the Dvarauati period 16th-11th centuries A.D.)
The Mons settled the western half
of the lush Chao Phya river valley and
founded the Dvaravati kingdom which,
besides being a major producer of rice,
became an important religious center.
The Mon seat of power was in the Nakhon
Pathom area where various Buddhist
artefacts have been discovered, and the
remains of Buddhist monuments abound,
Lop Buri, another Mon city, would
remain a religious center after Thai king-
doms became Buddhist during the 13lh
century. Another migration wave during
the Dvaravati period brought Tibeto-
Burmese people into the area where,
today, they form the itinerant hilltribes
inhabiting the northern Thai mountains.
In the 11th and 12th centuries the
people who would eventually create the
Thai nation began arriving in norlhern
Thailand, The actual background of the
Thai people themselves is a subject of
academic dispute. One theory holds
that the Thais originated in China and
moved southward. According to this
theory, the Thais, had for centuries
engaged principally In rice farming and
silk textile manufacture. In 651 A.D.
they united their tribes and lived together
in the independent kingdom of Nanchao
In the southernmost Chinese province
ofYunnan. Mainly an agrarian kingdom,
Nanchao's relationship with China lurched
from crisis to crisis, from extreme amity
to equally extreme enmity.
Cherishing personal independence,
and seeking to escape the Chinese yoke,
compact groups of Thais had migrated
southward and settled in northern Thai
land centuries before Kublai Khan's 1253
conquest of Nanchao.
The counter-theory holds that the
Thais originated In Thailand and were
driven northward by numerically superior
Khmers and Mons. There, in Yunnan.
the Thais developed their own distinctive
culture. Later, under pressure from
China's llth and 12th century Mongolian
conquerors, the Thais moved steadily
southward again. Half of them, the Thai
Yai (greater Thai) traveled across southern
China to settle on Hainan island. The
rest, the Thai Noi (lesser Thai) slowly
moved directly southward to fill the
vacuum left by the Khmer and Mon
Prasat Hin Phimai in the northeast was
constructed in the early 12th century.
The monument has recently been
restored by the Fine Arts Department.
Certainly by the 13th century, the
Thais, in the fourth and final major immigration tide into Thailand, had
successfully established themselves among the
Khmers and Mons and had a firm foothold in the north. Bringing with them
the advanced rice technology they had
developed in Nanchao. the Thais industriously bulh extensive dikes and
irrigation systems to transform fetid
marshes into green rice fields. Their
Chinese connections provided markets
for surplus rice and enabled them to
import Chinese inventions and implements to strengthen their own culture.
Thus by the earli; 1200s, several
small, independent Thai states were
firmly ensconced in what is today northern Thailand thereby setting the scene
for that most momentous of Thai historical
events, the creation of the first truly independent Thai kingdom of Sukholhai.
Thailand's Early Inhabitants