Magnificent Tham Lod Rockshelter Sheds Light on Earliest Humans in Thailand
The Tham Lod Rockshelter (a shallow cave) in Mae Hong Son Province, in Northwest Thailand is a prehistoric area that had been the center for burial and tool–making in the late Pleistocene to the late Holocene phase. The magnificent cave, a photographer’s and archaeologist’s dream, continues to shed light on the earliest humans that inhabited Thailand.
The discovery of a wealth of archaeological remains inside the Tham Lod rockshelter, also known as Tham Lot cave, led to the protection of the site by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Studies in 2001. Extensive excavations were carried out to establish and examine human activity at Tham Lod during the three major periods of occupation in the region. The results revealed extensive long-term activity by early humans including hunting, food preparation, tool-making, and human burials.
The entrance of the Tham Lot cave, Thailand. (public domain)
Exploring Human Origins in Asia
The mainlands of Southeast Asia and East China are renowned for their extensive ancient structures, as well as excavations of Early Metal Age (Bronze Age and early Iron Age) sites and cemeteries. The oldest cultures have typically been reported in China and Vietnam. One of the main explanations why some areas in Southeast Asia have few traces of early Homo Sapiens is due to the rarity of human remains. This is partially due to the fact that Southeast Asian palaeoanthropology and Pleistocene archaeology receives relatively little academic and public interest and suffers from a significant lack of funding.
In the last thirty years, however, a number of Early Metal Age sites have been reported and documented on the Northeastern part of Thailand. The Tham Lod Rockshelter is one of the principal sites to have been archaeologically studied in recent decades. The protected site is in a mountainous region and is in close proximity to another cave dwelling known as Ban Rai. Rasmi Shoocongdej from Silpakorn University, who was funded by the Thai research fund, began excavations at Tham Lod in 2001 and various other studies have taken place since then.
A 10,000-year-old 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. (sopping.com)
Early Humans in Thailand
Research suggests that early humans occupied the region from the late Pleistocene (~125,000 BC to 9,700 BC) through to the Holocene period (9,700 BC onwards). The Australian National University’s Graduate School and Center for Archaeological Research and the Australian Institute for Nuclear Science and Engineering funded a study in Northwest Thailand that dates the occupation of Homo sapiens at Tham Lod from 40,000 BC to 10,000 BC. According to studies, the population was at its peak during the Holocene period. If estimation is correct, the society may have experienced a gradual population increase possibly due to migration deriving from East Asia.
Artifacts at Tham Lod Rockshelter
The analysis of thousands of stone artifacts recovered from the Thom Lod Rockshelter has provided a substantial contribution to the understanding of early hunter-gatherers in the area. There is strong evidence that Tham Lod cave was home to an extensive tool workshop throughout its human occupation. Tools retrieved from the cave include chopping tools, short-axes, and disks, as well as hammering tools for making other tools. The variation of tools and materials found within multiple layers of the cave suggests that Tham Lod was a center for trading with neighboring societies.
Artifacts dating back at least 2,000 years discovered in Tham Lod Rockshelter, including earthenware, human remains, stone tools, and teakwood coffins.
Burials at Tham Lod Cave
In 2006, Rasmi Shoocongdej of the Highland Archaeology Project carried out excavations at Tham Lod in the hope of uncovering human remains. Their study revealed regional burial practices and distinct mortuary phases, which were distinguished by their depth, orientation, and grave goods.
Two burials in particular reveal insights into human activity at Tham Lod.
The remains were buried in different levels above one another. One of the skeletons, dated to 12,100 +/- 60BC, was located in a burial 46 cm (18.11 inches) underground. The second skeleton, that of a woman, was buried in a flexed manner 152 cm (59.84 inches) underground and was dated to 13,640 +/- 80BC. This second individual showed dental pathology—disease was evident in the right first and second molars. A third unidentifiable set of human remains had been buried with a hammer stone and flakes. It is believed the grave goods indicate a high status and perhaps belonged to an accomplished hunter.
Bamboo rafts in Tham Lod cave, Thailand. (public domain)
In 2017, an archaeologist working alongside the team that found the skeletal remains in the Tham Lod Rockshelter created a drawing of what the woman’s face may have looked like. Of course this task is always a difficult one because the artist pretty much only has the bones of the person to work with. In this case, it has been shown that the woman died young, between the ages of 25 and 35, so that has also helped in the facial reconstruction.
By using data containing the measurements of skulls, muscles, skin, and other facial tissue from more than 720 contemporary people around the world, the researchers tried to create a more average look. However, as Dr. Susan Hayes of the University of Wollongong in Australia and author of the article detailing the work, said “there is no average when it comes to how people look, even when averaging data from prehistoric ethnicities worldwide.” Thus, Dr. Hayes admitted the drawing is probably more of a general impression than a portrait of what the Tham Lod woman looked like.
Mammal teeth discovered in the region in 2003 also indicate various animals lived and thrived at Tham Lod, including Rhinocerotidae (species of Rhinoceros) and Rhizomyidae (subfamily of rodents), the first of which needed a very specific habitat to survive. The fact that they were able to co-exist with humans for as long as they did suggests that the area and environment had a dense forest. Remarkably, the forest of Tham Lod has remained practically the same since ancient times.
Numerous excavations and studies have given us a much needed glimpse of human activity at the Tham Lod Rockshelter. With the help of field archaeology, carbon dating, and other crucial methods, a close reconstruction regarding past human occupation within Tham Lod is gradually accumulating. Evidently, investigations can show us how important these sites were for the evolution of humans in the region.
Featured image: Inside the Tham Lod rockshelter (amazingplacesonearth.com)
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