Sunday, 18 November 2012

Book Review: "Early Thailand" by Higham and Thosarat

Charles Higham is one of the foremost archaeologists of mainland southeast Asia, having worked at Angkor, Noen U-Loke, and other important locations, over the course of several decades.  Alongside local collaborators, Higham has helped work out sequences of human society going back to the Paleolithic and reaching all the way up to the migrations of Tai-Kadai speakers into what is now Thailand and Laos in the late twelfth century.  His popular book on Angkor, The Civilization of Angkor, published in 2001, is in my opinion the best introduction to its history and archaeology (notwithstanding Michael Coe's Angkor, which is also very good).  It was thus a great pleasure to read Higham's latest book, Early Thailand: From Prehistory to Sukhothai (2012, Bangkok: River Books), written together with his long-term collaborator Rachanie Thosarat, which documents the archaeology of Thailand from the arrival of H. erectus up to the thirteenth century CE.

The book is beautifully presented and lavishly illustrated with maps, sketches, and full-colour photographs of archaeological finds and pottery types.  It is clearly a labour of love and the culmination of decades of work.  The writing is clear and un-jargonised, and the level of detail is perfectly chosen - neither too dense and overwhelming for those new to southeast Asian archaeology nor too simplistic for those with prior experience and knowledge.  The prehistoric focus of the book means that instead of mulling over the grand civilisations, including Angkor, that dominated Thailand in the historic period, the reader gets a more nuanced look at the build-up to social complexity and 'civilisation' in the region which, contra Coedes and others, did not depend on Indian influence to get going.  It is 165 pages, in a book under 300 pages long, before we get to the end of the southeast Asian Bronze Age.  On that basis, it would be a good place to start for anyone looking to produce an overview of the rise of early states that, for once, included southeast Asian material in addition to the usual mix of Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, China, Egypt, and the Andean Cordillera.

Another prominent feature of Early Thailand is the use of data from population genetics (or archaeogenetics).  The archaeological material in the book is fantastic, but it is supported by work in linguistics and genetics that is often lacking from archaeological texts.  Here it plays an important role in understanding population movements in Thailand, and the studies so far suggest that there must have been considerable movement of people, instead of just language and ideas, from southwestern China in the last thousand years, which we can correlate with the spread of the Tai-Kadai family into an area previously dominated by Austroasiatic (which had also probably arrived from the north c. 2000 BCE).  Studies of the DNA of skeletons recovered from prehistoric sites show the greatest resemblance to the DNA of Austroasiatic-speaking populations instead of the Thai-speaking majority, indicating that the impact of the Thai migrations was more than merely cultural and linguistic.  I'm a big fan of this sort of approach, using all available evidence to illuminate the past in greater detail and resolution, and I was pleased to see it employed so effectively in this book.  Hopefully, it is an indication that the genetic/linguistic/archaeological/ethnographic/ethnohistoric synthesis is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

If you're an English-speaking Thai, or are travelling to Thailand on holiday and have an interest in the archaeology and history of the region, then this is the book for you.  It would also be useful for any archaeologists or historians out there who want a glimpse of southeast Asian prehistory, helped along by fantastic presentation and clear writing.  This is one of my favourite books of this year, and it has been a year of excellent books; if you're at all interested in southeast Asia, then I'd recommend this as a place to begin.

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