Hoabinhian

Hoabinhian

[hoh-uh-bin-ee-uhn]
The term Hoabinhian (Vietnamese: Văn hóa Hòa Bình) was first used by French archaeologists working in Northern Vietnam to describe Holocene period archaeological assemblages excavated from rock shelters. It has become a common term to describe stone artifact assemblages in Southeast Asia that contain flaked, cobble artifacts, dated to circa 10,000–2,000 BCE. The term was originally used to refer to a specific ethnic group, restricted to a limited time period with a distinctive subsistence economy and technology. More recent work (e.g. Shoocongdej 2000) uses the term to refer to artifacts and assemblages with certain formal characteristics.

Bacsonian is often regarded as a variation of the Hoabinhian industry characterized by a higher frequency of edge-grounded cobble artifacts compared to earlier Hoabinhian artifacts, dated to circa 8000–4000 BCE.

History of definitions

In 1927 Colani published some details of her nine excavations on northern Vietnamese province of Hòa Bình. As a result of her work the First Congress of Prehistorians of the Far East in 1932 agreed to define the Hoabinhian as

a culture composed of implements that are in general flaked with somewhat varied types of primitive workmanship. It is characterised by tools often worked only on one face, by hammerstones, by implements of sub-triangular section, by discs, short axes and almond shaped artefacts, with an appreciable number of bone tools (Matthews 1966).

Despite the general terms of the definition, Colani’s Hoabinhian is an elaborate typology as indicated by the 82 artefacts from Sao Dong that Colani classified into 28 types (Matthews 1966). The original typology is so complicated that most Hoabinhian sites are identified simply by the presence of sumatraliths (White & Gorman 1979). The chronology of Hoabinhian artifacts was assumed to be Holocene because of the extant fauna found in the assemblages and the absence of extinct fauna by Colani and others working before the availability of radiocarbon dating methods in the 1950s.

Problems with Colani's typology were exposed by Matthews (1964) who analysed metric and technological attributes of unifacially flaked cobble artifacts from Hoabinhian levels at Sai Yok Rockshelter, Kanchanaburi Province, west-central Thailand. His aim was to determine if Hoabinhian artefact types described by Colani could be defined as clusters of constantly recurring attributes such as length, width, thickness, mass, length-width ratio and cortex amount and distribution. Matthews found that Hoabinhian types did not really exist and instead Hoabinhian artifacts reflect a continuous range of shapes and sizes.

Following his archaeological excavation and surveys in Mae Hong Son Province, northwest Thailand, Chester Gorman (1970) proposed a more detailed definition as follows

  1. A generally unifacial flaked tool tradition made primarily on water rounded pebbles and large flakes detached from these pebbles
  2. Core tools ("Sumatraliths") made by complete flaking on one side of a pebble and grinding stones also made on rounded pebbles, usually in association with iron oxide
  3. A high incidence of utilized flakes (identified from edge-damage characteristics)
  4. Fairly similar assemblages of food remains including remains of extant shellfish, fish, and small-medium-sized mammals
  5. A cultural and ecological orientation to the use of rockshelters generally occurring near fresh water streams in an upland karstic topography (though Hoabinhian shell middens do indicate at least one other ecological orientation)
  6. Edge-grinding and cord-marked ceramics occurring (though perhaps as intrusive elements), individually or together, in the upper layers of Hoabinhian deposits

Gorman's work included a number of radiocarbon dates that confirmed the Holocene age of the Hoabinhian.

The term was redefined in 1994 by archaeologists attending a conference held in Hanoi. At this conference Vietnamese archaeologists presented evidence of Hoabinhian artifacts dating to 17,000 years before the present. A vote was held where is was agreed that

  1. The concept of the Hoabinhian should be kept
  2. The best concept for "Hoabinhian" was an industry rather than a culture or techno-complex
  3. The chronology of the Hoabinhian industry dates is from "late-to-terminal Pleistocene to early-to-mid Holocene"
  4. The term "Sumatralith" should be retained
  5. The Hoabinhian Industry should be referred to as a "cobble" rather that a "pebble" tool industry
  6. The Hoabinhian should not be referred to as a "Mesolithic" phenomenon

Geographical distribution

Since the term was first used to describe assemblages from sites in Vietnam, many sites throughout mainland and island Southeast Asia have also been described as having Hoabinhian components. The apparent concentration of more than 120 Hoabinhian sites in Vietnam reflects intense research activities in this area rather the location of a centre of the prehistoric Hoabinhian activity. Archaeological sites in Sumatra, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have been identified as Hoabinhian, although the quality and quantity of descriptions vary and the relative significance of the Hoabinhian component at these sites can be difficult to determine.

Beyond this core area some archaeologists argue that there are isolated inventories of stone artifacts displaying Hoabinhian elements in Nepal, South China, Taiwan and Australia (Moser 2001).

The Hoabinhian and plant domestication

Gorman (1971) claimed that Spirit Cave included remains of Prunus (almond), Terminalia, Areca (betel), Vicia (broadbean) or Phaseolus, Pisum (pea) or Raphia Lagenaria (bottle gourd), Trapa (Chinese water chestnut), Piper (pepper), Madhuca (butternut), Canarium, Aleurites (candle nut), and Cucumis (a cucumber type) in layers dating to c. 9800-8500 BP. None of the recovered specimens differed from their wild phenotypes. He suggested that these may have been used as foods, condiments, stimulants, for lighting and that the leguminous plants in particular 'point to a very early use of domesticated plants' (Gorman 1969:672). He later wrote (1971:311) that 'Whether they are definitely early cultigens (see Yen n.d.:12) remains to be established... What is important, and what we can say definitely, is that the remains indicate the early, quite sophisticated use of particular species which are still culturally important in Southeast Asia.'

In 1972 W.G. Solheim, as the director of the project of which Spirit Cave was part, published an article in Scientific American discussing the finds from Spirit Cave. While Solheim noted that the specimens may 'merely be wild species gathered from the surrounding countryside', he claimed that the inhabitants at Spirit Cave had 'an advanced knowledge of horticulture'. Solheim's chronological chart suggests that 'incipient agriculture' began at about 20,000 B.C. in southeast Asia. He also suggests that ceramic technology was invented at 13,000 B.C. although Spirit Cave does not have ceramics until after 6800 B.C.

Although Solheim concludes that his reconstruction is 'largely hypothetical', his overstatement of the results of Gorman's excavation has led to inflated claims of Hoabinhian agriculture. These claims have detracted from the significance of Spirit Cave as a site with well-preserved evidence of human subsistence and palaeoenvironmental conditions during the Hoabinhian.

References

  • Colani M. (1927) L'âge de la pierre dans la province de Hoa Binh. Mémoires du Service Géologique de l'Indochine 13
  • Flannery, KV. (1973) The origins of agriculture. Annual Review of Anthropology 2: 271-310
  • Gorman C. (1969) Hoabinhian: A pebble tool complex with early plant associations in Southeast Asia. Science 163: 671-3
  • Gorman C. (1970) Excavations at Spirit Cave, North Thailand: Some interim interpretations. Asian Perspectives 13: 79-107
  • Gorman C. (1971) The Hoabinhian and After: Subsistence Patterns in Southeast Asia during the Late Pleistocene and Early Recent Periods. World Archaeology 2: 300-20
  • Matthews JM. (1964) The Hoabinhian in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. PhD thesis. Australian National University, Canberra
  • Matthews JM. (1966) A Review of the 'Hoabinhian' in Indo-China. Asian Perspectives 9: 86-95
  • Moser, J. (2001) Hoabinhian: Geographie und Chronologie eines steinzeitlichen Technocomplexes in Südostasien Köln, Lindensoft.
  • Phukhachon S. (1988) Archaeological research of the Hoabinhian culture or technocomplex and its comparison with ethnoarchaeology of the Phi Tong Luang, a hunter-gatherer group of Thailand. Tubingen: Verlag Archaeologica Venatoria: Institut fur Urgeschichte der Universitat Tubingen.
  • Shoocongdej R. (2000) Forager Mobility Organization in Seasonal Tropical Environments of Western Thailand. World Archaeology 32: 14-40.
  • Solheim, W.G. (1972) An earlier agricultural revolution. Scientific American 226: 34-41
  • Van Tan H. (1994) The Hoabinhian in Southeast Asia: Culture, cultures or technocomplex? Vietnam Social Sciences 5: 3-8
  • Van Tan H. (1997) The Hoabinhian and before. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (Chiang Mai Papers, Volume 3) 16: 35-41
  • White JC, Gorman C. (2004) Patterns in "amorphous" industries: The Hoabinhian viewed through a lithic reduction sequence. IN Paz, V. (ed) Southeast Asian archaeology: Wilhelm G. Solheim II Festschrift University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City. pp. 411-441.

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