Natural History Investigations at Ban Chiang

The Study of Natural Resources and Their Use Today Aids Reconstruction of Early Village Farming in Prehistory

By: Joyce C. White

Originally Published in 1982

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Although social scientists have long con­sidered Southeast Asia a cultural back­water of China and India, biologists have noted since the 19th century that botanical evidence pointed to this region as an inde­pendent and probably very early source of plant domestication. One recent com­pendium (Li 1970) lists over twenty species of plants that were probably domesticated on mainland Southeast Asia, and several of these, most notably rice, yams, and taro, now are staples for regions well beyond the Southeast Asian heartland. What societies undertook the original horticultural experi­ments? Why and how did they commence and develop agriculture? Not until the 1960s did archaeologists seriously pursue these questions, when Dr. Wilhelm Solheim at the University of Hawaii and his stu­dents Chet Gorman and Donn Bayard excavated in northern and northeast Thailand. The resulting work at Spirit Cave and Non Nok Tha brought Southeast Asia to the attention of the archaeological world as a region of technological precocity not only in plant and animal domestication, but in metallurgical understanding as well. From under the Indo-Chinese shadow, a regional configuration of cultural and ecological traits and adaptive strategies has begun to emerge, with indigenous roots dating back to the Late Pleistocene.

Ban Chiang, the site of The University Museum/Thai Fine Arts Department exca­vation in northeast Thailand, is a window on four thousand years of this Southeast Asian cultural tradition. While at some future date we may have a better picture of the prehistoric interrelationships with neighboring areas such as northern Vietnam and southern China, the intensive, multi­disciplinary research crucial to the elucida­tion of early agricultural development has been initiated thus far only in northeast Thailand. Since Ban Chiang lies within the theoretical zone of the early domestication of rice, yams and other indigenous South­east Asian domesticants, the multi­disciplinary research effort into the palaeo­economy and palaeo-ecology of Ban Chiang and related sites should shed light on the biological, social, and technological factors in the emergence and development of plant cultivation throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The story behind the emergence of Southeast Asian farming societies lay in the interaction between the prehistoric societies and their natural world. We can­not go back, however and interview the ancient inhabitants on their cropping sys­tems and other exploitation strategies. Nor are most of the relevant but highly perish­able data on diet and environment likely to be directly recovered from archaeological contexts. Thus the archaeologist is forced to turn to other sorts of data.

In October of 1970 I went to live in the modern-day village of Ban Chiang to col­lect data not generally preserved in the archaeological record, but integral to the reconstruction of the early environment and agricultural economy of the region. During the twenty months that followed, a combination of ethnographic and ecologi­cal data was collected with a focus on indigenous plants. I wanted to learn what plant resources were available, during what times of the year, where they could be gathered, where and how they were culti­vated, how and where they were stored, cooked, eaten or otherwise used. In addi­tion to the systematic data collection, observing and participating in the annual round of subsistence activities gave me a vivid awareness of many of the natural rhythms that have shaped life in this part of the world for several millennia.


The rhythm that pervades the ecology, both human and non-human, of this region is the seasonality of rainfall. Northeast Thailand lies in a tropical zone that receives all of its annual rainfall within about six months—May through October. During the dry season, November through April, lakes and marshes contract, streams dry up, the water table drops. It is likely that this seasonal pattern of rainfall dates back to the lowland settlement of this region in the 4th millennium B.C. because the same faunal species found in the excavations (see pp. 17-24, Higham and Kijngam) have been found in the vicinity of Ban Chiang within living memory of the inhabitants. The plants and animals that inhabit this region have evolved suitable behavioral and biological adaptations to the fluctuation in water resources, and human societies must adjust their subsis­tence strategies to the ebb and flow of the natural resources. One of the primary goals of my field work was to document the fluctuations in natural resources through­out one seasonal cycle, and to record the traditional strategies used by the current villagers of the region to exploit these fluctuating resources.

When I arrived in Ban Chiang in Octo­ber, the dry season had just begun and the rice crop was about to be harvested. I had planned to stay at least eighteen months, the first six months to orient myself, develop language facility and appropriate research strategies, the next twelve months to document a seasonal cycle. The schedule worked very close to plan.

That first year the rains had ceased a few weeks ‘early’ and my principal inform­ant, Lung Li, was nervous about his yield. While he and his family harvested their rice crop, I set about the slow process of building a vocabulary appropriate to the research. The intensive language course in Thai I had taken at Berkeley gave better preparation for asking directions to the Oriental Hotel than for discussing rice varieties with farmers. Moreover, I quickly found that although the villagers learn central Thai in school, read Thai news­papers, etc. I should learn the local dialect, a variant of Lao, if I wanted to understand discussions an farming, foods, etc. This process required much dictionary work and discussions with a very patient Lung Li on the name for this, the name for that.

The remainder of that first dry season I spent scouting around (more formally known as surveying), developing interview and other data collection forms, reading appropriate literature (discussions of Thai flora were a lot more meaningful while sitting in Ban Chiang than while sitting in Van Pelt Library at Penn), and discussing `things’ with Lung Li. I came to have a profound respect for Lung Li’s character and knowledge of his natural world. He had an enquiring mind—hard to find in any society—and a sensitivity to his environment that surpassed that of anyone else with whom I talked. Moreover, this self-taught naturalist had truly extraordi­nary patience with my endless requests for repetition and elucidation, which reflected a selfless desire to share his knowledge and understanding. He became a close com­rade, and I will always be in his debt.

By the start of the rainy season in May, I had acquired sufficient understanding of the language and ecology of the area that I could begin to ask semi-intelligent ques­tions. Although my understanding of the answers was still somewhat hazy, Lung Li helped to clarify. I began the systematic collection of data for the full seasonal round.

Certain activities I carried on through­out the year. Once a week I rode my bicycle around the village to measure the depth of all the wells in order to document the change in water table with the sea­sons. Once a week I inventoried the Ban Chiang morning market to learn the names of produce cultivated and gathered as each became available. I ate the local foods pre­pared in local ways. And during that year considerable time was spent with Lung Li collecting botanical specimens, drying them and recording relevant information on the preferred environment locale, local name, dietary and other uses, method of exploita­tion, seasonal availability, etc.

In addition to these activities I would frequently venture out with Lung Li into the surrounding area to investigate sub­sistence activities and environmental zones. When possible I tried my hand at the ongoing activity in order to get a better sense of the problems faced by subsistence farmers. Thus, during the early rainy sea­son I helped to plow and transplant fields. Local women will plow only if circum­stances dictate, and I found upper body strength most stressed when turning the corners of the paddy. One has to hoist the heavy plow and iron plowshare out of the sticky mud and swing it up and over to the next side, preferably in one smooth motion, all the while encouraging the water buffalo to turn the corner and proceed at an appro­priate pace down the next row. After a few of my jerky and draggy turns, the water buffalo marched off the paddy in apparent disgust at my inexpert technique.


During lulls in the seeding and trans­planting of the paddies, people turn their attention to dry land farming. I hoped that an examination of the gardening system might show insights into one of the major issues in the prehistory of this region: What was the nature of the early cropping sys­tem—wet paddy? or dry land swiddening?

While no final answer per se can be offered, I did find the study of gardening was much more complex than wet rice cultivation. I started by taking inventories and plant counts of various local gardens and discussing the cultivation techniques with the owner. Slowly I came to realize that most gardens around Ban Chiang reflected not traditional gardening prac­tices, but the impact of cash cropping and the market economy since the last genera­tion.

Thus most gardens had low diversity of species since everyday produce and condi­ments could be bought at the morning market. Some plants might be grown in quantities too large for family consumption so that the surplus might be sold for cash income. Many garden plants—such as cassava and corn (maize)—were not indigenous to the area.

So Lung Li and I went off to look at gardens in more remote villages and even­tually I began to sort out the traditional gardening system, the basic set of plant varieties and cultivation strategies. It became clear that a wide variety of strate­gies was generally known, from which certain ones might he selected and imple­mented depending on circumstances such as the type and amount of land available to the family, family food preferences and interest in gardening, the vagaries of that year’s rainfall, the availability of seed stock.

The opportunistic yet principled nature of gardens was illustrated one day when Lung Li, another farmer, and I were walk­ing by a patch of seemingly natural vegeta­tion alongside some new paddy land. Lung Li exclaimed, “Here’s a tiny garden.” Vines of legumes and squash were climb­ing up some uncleared trees. The farmer explained that an accidental dry season fire had cleared a small patch in the scrub [and in the process created a highly fertile niche). He noticed this would be an excellent place to plant a few seeds of climbers when the rainy season came. A thorny branch was placed alongside to dis­courage cows and buffalo from nibbling the shoots and with minimal effort voilà-a garden. Such a gardening strategy may in a sense mimic nature. Lung Li, on another occasion, noted that certain wild legume vines like to colonize recently burnt patches in tropical deciduous forests.

Detailed examination of garden cultiva­tion practices [which has only been touched upon in this discussion) showed how both dry and wet field cultivation can not only coexist, but in fact can comple­ment each other in land type, schedule of planting and harvesting, and contribution to the subsistence needs. It seems entirely plausible that the early cultivators could have used both techniques.

Digging for Yams

In addition to rice, botanists have said that several species of yams were domesti­cated from wild species in mainland South­east Asia. While hard coated rice seeds have some probability of leaving archaeo­logical traces as carbonized grains or impressions in pottery, detecting the role of roots in prehistory is a notoriously elu­sive problem because fleshy tubers have no hard structures and thus rapidly disinte­grate in the earth. Because of lack of direct evidence for use of yams and the pre­dominance of rice cultivation in the region today, archaeologists have tended to dis­count the possible importance of yams in the prehistoric subsistence at Ban Chiang. The question remains, however, as to who then domesticated the yams?

In my research I wanted to find out if yams grew today and were used in the Ban Chiang region, which species, where in the environment, and what time of year they were exploited. I found that many wild and cultivated species of yams known generically as man grew in the area and that the local people gathered them to sell in the market. They ate them either steamed plain or as a sweet mixed with shredded coconut and sugar. During the yam digging season, commencing in late August, Lung Li and I went on several forays to collect specimens. I also had several planted in my yard so that I could watch the develop­ment of the plants.

Each of the six or so non-cultivated edi­ble species had distinctive habits and environmental preferences. One yam. Dioscorea hispida, or as it was known locally goy, had to be detoxified before it could be eaten. Thin slices of peeled yam were soaked in changes of salty water for at least three days. Then the slices were steamed before mixing with coconut and sugar. I found they made excellent home fries as well, although my neighbors did not appreciate this recipe. Other yams did not require detoxification, but each had its own defence against natural ‘predators’ such as wild pigs. Some yams had sharp thorns just under the surface of the soil, or several tubers spreading out from the main vine, or one very long and deep tuber.

The growth habit of cultivated yam varieties usually had these defences mini­ mized. While the wild Dioscorea alata had one very long and deep tuber, a cultivated variety may have a short and stout tuber which was much faster to dig up. It took Lung Li and me two and a half hours to dig one 4-kilogram wild tuber that reached to a depth of 2.2 meters. At a shallow depth, we dug a stout domesticated tuber of com­parable weight from a garden at a nearby village in thirty minutest A 2-kilo Dioscorea hisbida might be dug up in less than five minutes. By placing relatively defenceless yams in the house garden, they could be protected from pigs, and also easily found and dug up during the dry season when the vine had withered away. The presence of so many yam varieties, both cultivated and non-cultivated, in the Ban Chiang vicinity suggests that such an obvious and easily exploited resource would have been util­ized throughout habitation of the area. Long ago, when rice varieties had smaller seed size and fewer seeds per head, when the paddy technology was less well devel­oped, and so annual rainfall variability a greater problem, rice was most likely a less predictable resource. We can reasonably postulate that yams had a much larger role in the diet than at present. They could have been dug up in August through April after which the tubers shrive] up to provide energy for the vine that shoots up with the beginning of the rainy season.

Wild Rice

At the end of the rainy season, my atten­tion shifted to the collection of wild rices. During the preceding months patches of wild rice (perhaps better referred to as feral rice since there probably had been considerable genetic interchange with culti­vated rices) had been indicated to me by Lung Li. These patches were found along seasonal streams and lake margins, areas which were inundated during the rainy season but dried out during the dry season. It was clear that these margins were par­ticularly suitable for annual plants which reproduced from seeds. As the water receded at the end of the dry season, the seeds were dispersed and would lie dor­mant on the ground for the next six months or so. When the rains came the seeds germinated and the rising waters both nourished the hydrophytic plants and kept down competition from other plants. This same ecology is mimicked in the paddy field system. The seeds are germinated in seed beds that are basically flat planes of mud. As the rains fill up the paddies, the seedlings are transplanted into plowed beds that ideally have a few inches of water above the mud underneath. If the water is properly controlled throughout the rainy season few weeds successfully compete with the rice, according to the local farmers.

Harvesting the wild rice turned out to be quite a trick. Unlike domesticated varieties. the time between the maturation of the seed and the natural dispersal of the seed—its separation from the stalk—was brief, only a day or two. Each patch ripened at a slightly different time. It appeared that the feral rice that had been growing in that vicinity had a genetic timetable that timed ripening for the likely time of the recession of the water for that specific locale. For example, certain river margins might dry up well before lake margins would recede. So, to maximize the yield from any one patch, one should be poised at the site for just the right few days to collect the edible seeds. Although I had hoped to try to col­lect enough wild rice from one vicinity to try to make estimates of potential yields, this turned out to be impractical for this field trip. However, I learned enough about the ecology of feral rice, and the environ­ment surrounding Ban Chiang, to be able to suggest that wild rice may have been present during prehistoric times, but was unlikely to have grown naturally in prodi­gious quantities. This supports the proposal that if rice was important to the sub­sistence strategy in the prehistory of this site, it would most likely have been culti­vated.

Dry Season

The harvest is the most labor-intensive time of the year, but once the rice is cut, threshed and stored away in the small rice huts found in every house yard, the more relaxed part of the year commences. Some subsistence activities take place in the dry season: some trapping, small-scale fishing or hunting, some gathering of certain resources available only then, and even some small gardening activity near to shrinking water resources, The dry season is the time for festivities, craft activities and traveling to other villages and other regions. Many women set up their looms and spinning wheels, weaving and dyeing cotton and silk cloth. In certain villages iron smiths set up their bellows and make and repair knives and plows; some villages make earthenware pots. The next season’s supply of rope for plows is made. New land is claimed and slowly cleared, for work outdoors in the scorching sun is tiring. In modern-day northeast Thailand much effort goes into preparations for cele­bations relating to Buddhist holidays that can last several days. Traditionally, groups of families would travel by ox cart to dis­tant rivers that still had water. These great fishing expeditions would net fish to be fermented in bulk for the year’s supply of pie ra, a primary source of protein.

During this last dry season I focused on the ethnic system of environmental classi­fication. One of my major research goals was to try to place natural resources into their environmental context. The problem was that the classification of the region into vegetation types had been too general to be of any use in answering my very localized questions. I wished to know, for example, the relationships among wild rice, wild yams, and wild legumes. Before going to Thailand I had vague visions of under­taking inventories of sample vegetation patches. After some soul searching, this seemed totally inappropriate to an environ­ment highly disturbed by millennia of human modification. I was becoming aware of terminology that the farmers used to

refer to different types of land. As my understanding of the natural flora and other environmental variables increased I real­ized that this local environmental system was highly ‘scientific,’ based on vegetation, soil type, drainage. Since I was taking botanical samples, I could correlate the ethnic types with scientific classifications. In fact I found the local system more refined in several instances, more in tune with local needs of making a living, than the scientific forest types which were suited to the needs of lumbering. This local environmental map was a suitable frame­work with which natural resources could be correlated. The different zones were also recognized as having differing poten­tial as rice paddies or gardens. A full exposition of this ecological system and its relevance to reconstructing the prehistoric environment will be presented in later publications, but this discovery was the most rewarding of my field work. I cer­tainly would not have gained a full appre­ciation of it if I had stayed less than eigh­teen months.

The Value of Ethno-Ecology

In summary, I found the present a rich source of ecological data with great poten­tial for deciphering long-term relations between humans and this environment. Environmental constraints in the seasonal fluctuation of water, available resources, plus the plant and animal behaviors, clearly shape the options available for any human society living in this region. On the other hand, the study of current prac­tices reveals a variety of strategies that can be used to exploit this environment. In future more detailed expositions of the data collected during this field work, I intend to integrate the contemporary ethno­graphic and ecological data with archaeo­logical information to develop a model of the change in human/environmental rela­tions in the Ban Chiang region. Such a model can contribute not only to issues such as the origins and development of shifting and paddy cultivation in Southeast Asia, but also to a fundamental puzzle of cultural evolution raised by the Ban Chiang excavations: if an early and innovative rice-cultivating and metal-producing society developed in this area, why did no urban or state society subsequently emerge? The flourishing of technological sophistication in a non-urban, non-militaristic, village level society is one of the enigmas of Ban Chiang.

Cite This Article

White, Joyce C.. "Natural History Investigations at Ban Chiang." Expedition Magazine 24, no. 4 (August, 1982): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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