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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White, J. C., and V. C. Pigott
1996 From Community Craft to Regional Specialization: Intensification of Copper Production in Prestate Thailand. In Craft Specialization and Social Evolution: In Memory of V. Gordon Childe, edited by B. Wailes, pp. 151-175. University Museum Monograph No. 93. The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.