Middle Mekong Archaeological Project Phase I: The Luang Prabang Survey
Joyce C. White

University of Pennsylvania Museum, USA



The paper will report on the first phase of the Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP), a reconnaissance survey of three left bank tributaries of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang province, Laos scheduled to occur in March and April 2005. The main objective of this initial survey is to find sites likely dating to the middle Holocene, roughly 6000-2000 BC calibrated, in order to begin acquiring data to test alternative models for the appearance of agriculture in mainland Southeast Asia. Models postulating migration mechanisms for the appearance of agriculture in this region suggest the Mekong as one highway for southward-migrating rice cultivators originating in southern China. One migration model favors the late 3rd millennium BC for this expansion based primarily on dates associated with a widespread ceramic decorative syntax (Higham 2001:8, 2002:110). Another model based on linguistics favors the 6th millennium BC for expansion of rice cultivators down the Mekong from Yunnan (Blust 1996:132). However, northern Vietnamese data show that an autochthonous transition from hunting and gathering to use of domesticated foodstuffs during the middle Holocene cannot be ruled out (Bui Vinh 1997). Existing data from the middle Holocene in mainland Southeast Asia are currently too poor in quantity and quality to scientifically evaluate these alternative scenarios.

Determination of the timing and nature of the development of early agriculture in Southeast Asia has implications not only for the culture history of one region, but also for the validity of the proposal that modern day global distributions of languages and populations represent expansions from a few well-defined regions where agriculture is proposed to have originated (Diamond and Bellwood 2003). In this view, Southeast Asian languages, populations, and agriculture derived from the Yangtze basin where the earliest domesticated rice has been found. However, assumptions of this model for demography, plant genetics, and human biology may not hold for mainland Southeast Asia. Knowing if the subsistence regime underlying Southeast Asiaís long-term socioeconomic development emerged from an extraregional expansion driven by the development of rice cultivation, an autochthonous development of plant cultivation perhaps of multiple crops, or some combination of processes is important not just for evaluation of the universality of the Diamond/Bellwood proposal. Knowing if a rice-focused cropping system as opposed to a multi-species horticultural cropping system characterized Southeast Asiaís original agricultural regime is fundamental to understanding the regionís distinctive social, economic, political, and environmental trajectories (White 1988, 1995a, 1995b; White and Pigott 1996; White et al. 2003).

The survey along three left bank tributaries to the Mekong in Luang Prabang province should identify sites that will allow evaluation of these alternative models for the emergence of plant cultivation in this core region. Luang Prabang is upstream from Ban Chiang cultural tradition sites in northern northeast Thailand where the earliest agricultural societies so far identified in the middle Mekong basin lie. Luang Prabang province is also on the western side of a divide whose eastern side witnessed subsistence changes during the middle Holocene that the Vietnamese claim involved exploitation of domesticated livestock. These two geographic factors indicate that there is no better location in all of Southeast Asia to seek evidence for changes in middle Holocene subsistence regimes than Luang Prabang province.

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