Discovering the Prehistory of North-western Thailand By Edd Richardson


This is a typical example of a 2000 year old log coffin from Pang Ma Pha. Remote caves in the district of Pang Ma Pha contain hundreds of these large coffins carved from teakwood. This burial practice took place around 2000 years ago.


As I carefully edge deeper into the darkness a shiver runs down my spine. Is it just sweat from the exhausting trek that is cooling me down in the chill of the cave, or can the local obsession with spirits subconsciously enter even the most cynical of minds? Either way, I've been told that King Cobras like to live in caves and so my attention at the moment is firmly focused upon checking the way ahead, above, below and behind for snakes. Maybe it's the dreaded expectation of another 'close encounter' of the serpent kind that sends the next chill down my spine.

The oldest known murder in Thailand? The 10,000 year old 'primary flexed' burial uncovered during the excavation of the Ban Rai site in Pang Ma Pha. The body has been placed in a crouched or 'flexed' position so you can see the skull, the right arm and both lower leg bones. The skull is cracked.

I squeeze through another tight passage which suddenly opens up into a large cavernous chamber. As my torch scans from wall to ceiling to wall again and my eyes begin to adjust to the total darkness, it quickly becomes clear that I am not the first to crawl in here. I can now make out the distinctive outline of the huge log coffins that fill the chamber. Several are scattered and broken along the floor or placed in a rim pool of sparkling flowstone, but there are still a number of large posts left standing, stretching out above the stalagmites towards the roof of the chamber. I then recognise the distinctive outline of one coffin high up on six posts, possibly the largest of them all, which has stubbornly defied time and gravity by remaining in the commanding position in which it was placed. Unfortunately a large hole along the base of the coffin quickly dashes my hopes of finding a complete burial intact.
As I carefully make my way through this chamber I notice large amounts of pottery, decorated with the distinctive cord markings, as well as a number of large river cobbles scattered amongst the decaying coffin wood. The quality and quantity of material that has survived suggests that very few people have visited this natural crypt since these offerings were left for the dead, around two thousand years ago.
I feel privileged to be able to work alongside this team of young Thai archaeologists, as we begin the task of recording the site in detail by taking photographs and measuring out an accurate plan of the chamber and its contents. While I am drawing a sketch of the site from a quiet corner of the cave, I begin to consider the supreme amount of effort and skill it must have taken to perform these burial rites. Not only did they carry a dead body up that steep hill we've just climbed, let alone into the cave itself, but a huge carved log coffin as well! I start to imagine how the cave would have looked during one of the internments, filled with mourners lit by the eerie yellow flicker of fire and the intense perfume of burning pinewood. It must have been a very impressive, if exhausting, ceremony.


Ancient ceramics are often found in association with the log coffins. The decoration on these fragments of pottery is typical of this period, with the markings from a piece of cord impressed onto the outer body of the vessels. Photograph by John Spies.

For the past three years the Highland Archaeology Project has been conducting research in the district of Pang Ma Pha, hoping to uncover some answers to the questions surrounding this mysterious burial practice. Following in the footsteps of prehistoric people and more recent intrepid explorers, the team of archaeologists, directed by Dr. Rasmi Shoocongdej from Silpakorn University in Bangkok, has been re-visiting many of the identified archaeological sites in the area. The project has so far carried out an extensive survey of the area, followed by two excavations - the first detailed examinations of this prehistoric evidence since an American archaeologist, Chester Gorman, excavated the 'Spirit Cave' back in 1969.
For those of you that have never made it farther than Pai, Pang Ma Pha district is in the mountains to the northwest, about halfway towards Mae Hong Son. The district is already well known for its beautiful landscape and world-class cave systems, the most famous being the huge cave of Tham Nam Lod. Many of the caves contain evidence of prehistoric activities, with the large wooden coffin burials being the most obvious and impressive examples of this evidence.
The Log Coffin culture, as it is now known, refers to a mortuary practice that was carried out in this area between 2300 and 1600 years ago. Huge teak trees, some longer than nine metres, were shaped into coffins by being split in half and hollowed out, thus creating a 'base' and a 'lid' section for each coffin. The ends were usually carved and around fifty different shapes or styles have been identified, including the ornately carved heads of a cat and a pig.
The coffins were then placed in remote caves or rock-shelters, either wedged into a crevice or raised up using teak wood posts. Similar mortuary practices have been identified all over Southeast Asia, including Kanchanburi, Southern China, the Philippines and Sumatra, but nowhere else have these sites been identified and recorded in such quantity and detail.
Even so, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Log Coffin culture is but a small phase in the prehistory of this area. While this mortuary practice could have been introduced, and subsequently phased out, by a group passing through the area, the accumulated evidence does seem to suggest otherwise. The introduction of iron and other 'luxury' items through trade links could have helped to increase the wealth or respect afforded to some individuals or families. Is it possible that the Log Coffins are evidence of this early hierarchy establishing itself within a community that descended from the earliest inhabitants of the area?
"It's very exciting," explains Dr. Shoocongdej. "We are finally piecing together a more comprehensive picture of the prehistoric past in Northern Thailand. Previously, research in Thailand has tended to focus upon the lowland and coastal areas, the introduction of rice agriculture and the rise of city states. But it is now clear that people have been living in the northern highlands for many thousands of years."
The excavation at the Ban Rai rock shelter (a large, crescent shaped rock overhang that contains a large number of coffins and some spectacular rock paintings) has revealed several phases of use and occupation at this site. It is possible that people were living at this site 15,000 years ago, hunting and gathering in the surrounding wilderness.
"We found large quantities of stone tools, animal bones and shells - all in context with evidence of fire pits containing datable samples of carbon," Cherdsak Treerayapiwat, one of the principle researchers on the project, told me during the hike up to the cave. "But amazingly, on the last day of excavation, we uncovered what we call a 'primary flexed burial' dug into a shallow grave at the base of the cliff. The crouched male body was extremely delicate, probably lying undisturbed for over 10,000 years, but a distinct scar across the skull suggested that death was caused by a severe blow to the head."
A prehistoric stone tool murder?
"Possibly, but our excavation really demonstrated that people have been moving around and living in this area for far longer than people first thought. When people go trekking, they perhaps do not realise that the paths they are walking on could have been used for the past 15 or 20,000 years."
Last year the team carried out another excavation, this time at a rock shelter conveniently located within the grounds of the Tham Lod Nature Education Centre.
"The principle reasons for carrying out this excavation were not really research based," explained Dr. Shoocongdej, "we felt that it was important to involve the local people as much as possible and this was a perfect opportunity to provide people with an insight into our work. Plus it gave us the chance to demonstrate how we go about our research and why. I'm hoping that one day some of our volunteers could even be encouraged to study archaeology with me in Bangkok!"
Early reservations over the practical use of this excavation were soon cast aside as they began to uncover enormous amounts of occupation evidence. Vast quantities of pottery, stone tools, animal bones and shells were extracted from excavation pits that were over five metres deep. The very depth of the excavation also revealed yet another ancient burial; and a carbon 14 date that suggests the first occupation of this site occurred around 20,000 years ago.
"At first we were a little amazed at the amount of material at this site," explained Cherdsak, "but when we began to consider the unique advantages of this location, it quickly became clear why people would choose to live here."
And yet this is still only the beginning, as our understanding of the prehistoric groups in this area remains extremely limited. Where and how did they live? How long did they remain in this area, or did they never really leave? These are just some of the questions that further research hopes to answer.
The evidence is there in the hills, somewhere "People are beginning to see this area in a whole new light," enthused John Spies, the owner of the Cave Lodge Guesthouse who has been exploring this area and discovering this evidence for the past twenty years. "What was once viewed as a remote and sparsely inhabited wilderness is now recognised as an ideal location for early habitation. The wealth of natural resources in this area suggests that once people arrived, they would never want to leave. So by 10,000 years ago it is highly probably that this area was pretty full, and it would have remained that way until the conflicts between the Thai and Burmese kingdoms forced the original inhabitants to move away. This then allowed for the more recent migration of hill tribe communities into the area. I believe that in time the district of Pang Ma Pha will prove to be one of the most important areas for prehistoric research in Southeast Asia. Where else is it possible to go walking for a day and find evidence of continuous occupation spanning the last 20,000 years?"
Back in the darkness of the ancient cave burial site, I'm still trying to picture the scene during one of these 'extreme' burials. It is then that I notice a large crack in the back wall that can be reached by climbing onto a high ledge. Suddenly convinced that I have discovered the entrance to another burial chamber, I begin to hoist myself up to the enticing hole. At first it appeared empty, but then, like a coiled spring released from the roof, a 'cave racer' snake bounces down and twists to face me not thirty centimeters from my face. For what seemed like an age we stared each other in the eye, until the hypnotic silence was broken by a long hiss from Mr. Snake and an almighty scream from me.
My obvious cowardice aside, I'm quite proud of the fact that I still, and will perhaps forever, hold the record time for the exit of that particular cave. What I am less proud of is the fact that the rest of the team, believing I had come face to face with the same ghastly spirit, were hot on my heels on the way out and have since refused to go back inside again. Still, they had finished recording the site and so maybe it can remain undisturbed for another thousand years or so.

A Summary of Prehistoric Archaeology in Pang Ma Pha:

- Rock paintings - usually red ochre drawings and stencils. Age unknown.

- Rock shelter and cave habitation/burial sites. Activity in this area for over 20,000 yrs.

- Open air lithic sites. A range of stone tools from large sumatralith choppers to smaller ground axes. Seasonal sites possibly used throughout prehistory.

- Bronze Age urn burial. 2780 yrs.

- Log Coffins. Between 2300 and 1600 yrs.

- Pinnacle peaks. River cobbles left on highest limestone outcrops indicating some spiritual function.