|12 February 2005
Bronze Age burial site discovered in Vietnam
An Australian scientist believes the extraordinary discovery of a rare early Bronze Age burial site in northern Vietnam will help trace the origins of agriculture in South-East Asia. Excavations at the 3500-year-old cemetery at Man Bac, two hours south of Hanoi, have uncovered a rich array of beads, arrows, hammers, small nephrite adzes, clay burial pots, animal remains and 29 human skeletons - mostly infants and young children. Intact burial sites were extremely rare in Vietnam, Oxenham said, due to the heavy acidity of the soil.
"This is the first early Bronze Age burial site to be discovered in this region," Australian National University archaeologist Marc Oxenham, who returned last week from Vietnam, said. "We've found amazing things, like the skeleton of an eight-year-old child with a cowrie necklace who had been buried holding two large shells in each hand." The team also found rhinoceros molars, sealed burial pots with soot-blackened bases, grinding stones and axes. They plan to analyse the contents of the unglazed clay cooking pots to gain clues to the type of agriculture practised. "Chemical analysis of bones can reveal different isotopes of carbon and nitrogen that will give us insight into their diet - whether they were eating seafood, terrestrial animals or plants."
The burial site may also reveal details of cultural mortuary traditions, social structure, division of labour, and possibly dietary deficiencies related to chronic diseases. "There is ongoing debate about whether agriculture was imported wholesale into the region by Chinese migration or whether there were independent developments. The sorts of artefacts we're getting at Man Bac are fairly typical of agricultural communities, so the site may well be the earliest evidence of that transition to agriculture and its impact."
Initial examinations of the bodies indicated that some of the inhabitants belonged to an ethnic group resembling today's indigenous Australians, while other bodies were more typically Asian in appearance, Oxenham said. "Vietnamese from the earlier Neolithic period have an Australian/Melanesian appearance but Vietnamese from the early Bronze Age have a more typically South-East Asian appearance." The presence of both ethnic groups side-by-side in the cemetery indicated that there was a significant degree of intermixing between the two races, possibly marking the earliest known origins of the modern-day Vietnamese population, which became fairly well established by around 2000 BC, Oxenham said.
"One of the unusual things about this site is that mainly kids were buried there. You naturally get high levels of childhood mortality in prehistoric sites because infants and kids under five didn't tend to survive that dangerous period of life when the immune system is developing and you're more susceptible to diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases. But 80 per cent of the people buried here are kids and that's unusually high." One theory is that the excavation has revealed only a fraction of a larger burial site and it could be an area that was designated for infant burial. But the presence of adult skeletons didn't support that theory, Dr Oxenham said. "It's possible this cemetery was formed in a very short time and we're looking at the impact of an epidemic or chronic diseases. There are various markers that show up on a skeleton and that indicate metabolic or physiological stress, particularly during the growing years.
Source: Canberra Sunday Times, Iol.co.za (10 february 2005)
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