Cambodian People, Society, Culture, and Civilization
Based on the archaeological evidence from the discovery of the Java Man, we know that people have been settling on insular islands of Southeast Asia for a long, long time--as long as some of those found in Africa. We also know that the people of Southern Pacific islands (Indonesians included) were and are seafarers--that is to say adventurers of the sea. We know that these people used their sailing skills to hopscotch from island to island all over the Southern Pacific Ocean. Given the fact that the Monsoon winds also blow directly from Java (Indonesia) toward Funan (the predecessor Kingdom of the Kingdom of Cambodia) in every summer of the year, the people of insular islands of Southeast Asia could have easily used these winds to sail in search of new lands. Even though they didn’t want to go look for new lands, the winds could have blown them toward mainland Southeast Asia anyway, for they didn’t have compasses back then and the use of stars’ positions for navigation could not be possible if the skies were dark. Hence, given the fact that Cambodians’ ancestral origin connecting to the distant lands of South Asia appears to be murky, could their origin lie with insular islands of Southeast Asia? This is only the question. And I hope, with the help of the human genome project, this question would be once and for all answered in the near future.
Evidences of human settlements in mainland Southeast Asia dated back to at least as early as 10,000 BC. Among these early traces of settlements are the Hoabinhian cultures, so named after the village of Hoa Binh located along the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam where they were first discovered. According to archaeological evidences, the Hoabinhian cultures appeared to spread from Northern Vietnam to Southern Thailand. Though there are no firm indications that the Hoabinhian people were the first and only group of people to settle in mainland Southeast Asia, based on similar artifacts and stone tools found in different caves in the region, it appears that they were, at least, the precursors of Southeast Asian civilizations.
In terms of place(s) of origin, the Hoabinhian cultures seem to be shrouded in mystery. Though some experts believe that they were parts of the larger cultures of China and India, the hypothesis remains inconclusive, for there are so many broken links between pre-historic Southeast Asian cultures and their counterparts in China and India. For example, according to the artifacts found on mainland Southeast Asia, prehistoric Southeast Asian people appeared to have developed a distinct culture independent of influences from either China or India. One of the evidences of this independence is the development of metallurgic technology. According to a bronze spear head found near the village of Ban Chiang, Thailand, prehistoric people of mainland Southeast Asia appeared to have made bronze tools in about 2,000 BC, which was only 800 years or so after the Bronze Age began in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). If the trail of archaeological evidences were valid, after it began in Mesopotamia, bronze tool making technology reached China about 800 years later which, in effect, put China and Southeast Asia matching neck and neck into the Bronze Age. Also, given the fact that people did not have instant Internet-speed means of disseminating information then, it is hard to imagine that the Bronze Age moved into China and filtered down into Southeast Asia in such a short period of time. If it took some 800 years for bronze tool making technology to travel from Mesopotamia to China, it would take at least another 300 years for this technology to travel from China to Southeast Asia. Thus, it is very unlikely that pre-historic people of Southeast Asia learned their bronze tool making from China. On the other hand, it is quite possible that both geniuses in China and Southeast Asia developed their bronze tool making at about the same time. Furthermore, based on metal artifacts found at Ban Chiang, it appears that pre-historic people of Southeast Asia might be or were among the first to move into the Iron Age.
Collectively, Southeast Asia civilizations are full of paradoxes—that is to say they are not readily fit into our perceptional order of things. Therefore, studying Southeast Asian pre-historic civilizations is like trying to piece together badly broken pieces of a puzzle without its holding board and with many of the pieces missing.
As far as modern Southeast Asian society is concerned, it is almost universally accepted that both insular and mainland Southeast Asias are the offshoots of Indian and Chinese cultures. To the east, namely Vietnam, is the cultural basket of Chinese influences whereas to the west and south starting from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and, to some extent, the Philippines are the breeding grounds of Indian culture glossed over by Moslem influences in insular’s region. The Indian cultural influences over the majority of Southeast Asian region were both obvious and misleading that, for so many years, most early Southeast Asian scholars referred to the area as Farther India. The term Southeast Asia had only been coined around 1945 during World War II when the Allied troops, namely the Americans, weary of the war and couldn’t care less about the cultural ties, called the region Southeast Asia so that it would be easier for the war planners to locate and monitor the progress of the troops who were chasing after the Japanese soldiers. Imagine you were a war planner in Washington, D.C. in an urgent situation trying to find Farther India or to locate your troops in the Indian Ocean. The result would certainly be a spectacular disaster, for the majority of Farther India is neither in the geographical proximity of India, nor located in the Indian Ocean.
Though it might be just a coincidence, the creating of the term Southeast Asia couldn’t have been more correct since the region was neither Farther India nor the cultural basket of India and China. In reality, Southeast Asia has its own independent identity and civilization except that it has been glossed over by more influential cultures namely those imported from India, China, Arabia, and recently the Western world brought forth by European explorers, missionaries, and colonialism.
As far as its culture and civilization are concerned, Southeast Asia is like an onion. To fully learn of its true nature, one must try to get to its core by peeling the outer layers one after another. Undoubtedly, Southeast Asian cultures and civilizations have as many layers as an onion. The more we peel, the more we will learn of its true nature.
In order to get to the unknown bottom layers, or core, or origin of a particular country or region, we have to start with the earliest known evidences. Because the purpose of this essay is to shed some lights on the origin of Cambodian people and their society, culture, and civilization, the main focus, from this point on, will be on mainland Southeast Asia where Cambodia is located. Thus, I will make reference to insular Southeast Asia only when it is necessary.
Based on archaeological evidences and histories, namely the Chinese dynastic and diplomatic (foreign relation) records and the royal chronicles of various countries in Southeast Asia, we learn that several “kingdoms” existed on mainland Southeast Asia dating back to at least as early as the first century of the Christian Era. Over the years, most of these ancient kingdoms have been transformed into new political entities and, in the process, lost their original identities as they take on new ones. Through this metamorphism, some of the kingdoms have lost their original names while other unfortunate ones lost almost everything including their cultural, political, and territorial identities. An example of this extinct kingdom is Champa, which is now part of central Vietnam. Another is the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati, which is now part of southern Myanmar and north central Thailand.
(To be continued)