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Hoabinhian Macro Botany [8/7/2008]


Hoabinhian Macrobotanical Remains in Vietnam as a indicator of Climate Changes from Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene Nguyen Viet

Center for Southeast Asian Prehistory

email The paper present the results of the plant remains excavated from Hoabinhian sites of Xom Trai ( 18.000 - 16.000 BP), Con Moong (12.500 - 8.500 BP), Dong Cang ( 11.000 - 10.000 BP ) and Mai Da Dieu (19.500 - 8.000 BP). Almost all charred plant remains were dated directly, only at Dong Cang were the dates of the plant remains based on 14C-dates of molusk shells in equivalent layers.

Juglans, Castanopsis and Canarium are main vegetable food of Hoabinhian in Vietnam during 20.000 BP to 8,000 BP. They overlaped in the Hoabinhian chronology and represented for three phases of climate changes from a mild and cold - cool climate at LGM to mild warm climate at about 10.000 - 11.000 BP and to warmer at early Holocene. The flora evidences for those climate changes are confirmed by some fauna food remains too.

I- Introduction

Chester Gorman ‘s excavation at Spirit Cave (Thailand) in 60th years of last century influened very much to the author of this paper. The first test excavation after Gorman’s dry sieving method in Vietnam was carried out at the Hoabinhian cave of Xom Trai ( Lac Son, Hoa Binh ) in August 1982[1]. Here I had collected in first time in Vietnam many hundreds fragments of prehistorical dry and charred plant remains. In 1986/87 I came back from Germany to cave Xom Trai and excavated there 6 sq meters and taken at the cave Con Moong a test excavation with same sieving method. One year later, in Winter 1987/88 the Vietnamese-Bulgarian team excavated at the cave of Dong Cang and collected also some charred nuts fragments. Dr. Dang Huu Luu let me study this collection in Hanoi. Dang Huu Luu and his bulgarian collegueas collected also at the excavation in Mai Da Dieu in 1988 some charcoal samples and sent them to Berlin 14C-Laboratory. Studing these samples I reconized that they are charred core and cover fragments of Juglans-like and Canarium fruits. The plant remains of Dong Cang stored in magazin of Institute of Archaeology Hanoi. The rest of Xom Trai, Con Moong and Mai Da Dieu store in the Center for Southeast Asian Prehistory, Hanoi.

After excavation saison 1986/87 the plant remains collections of Xom Trai and Con Moong were studied by botanist Dr Nguyen Nghia Thin and his student Tran Thi Thuong of the National University Hanoi. 1988, Prof. D. Yen of Australian National University Canbera agreed to studied these vietnamese hoabinhian plant remains collection. From Germany I sent 25 checked samples of Xom Trai and Con Moong to Canbera.

Some single plant remains recovered suddenly in hoabinhian sites were documented. They are fruit stones of celtis in My Te cave[2], in Nguom rock shelter[3], in Sung Sam cave[4], fruit stone fragments of Canarium sp. in Hang Doi[5], in Hang Muoi[6], fruit stone fragments of Juglans-like in Lang Vanh [7] and Du Sang[8] rock-shelters. (Map 1 - the hoabinhian sites concerning to the paper)

II- Materials and datings

1- Xom Trai’s plant remains collection

This collection was taken mainly from two excavations of 1982, 1986 and from the last survey of 2004 (map 2). It contains 128 dryed items and 324 charred items ( ca 30 items per one cubic meter of cultural sediment). Almost charred fragments belong to shells of a fruit, which look very similar to Juglans fruit. Because the incompletation of samples it isn’t yet exact botanicaly identified. However they are very pure and dominated as main vegetable food remains in all cultural layer in Xom Trai. We call them as Juglans-like. Almost small charred fragments of Juglans-like fruit shells were used as 14C dating materials after they are classificated by cross sections under microscope. Only the complet core stones and big fruit shell fragments were documented. The radiocarbon dates spread from 18,400 BP till ca 16,000 BP. About more than two meters of upper sediments were taken out by local farmers for fertilite of their garden and rice field. The rest materials of those lost sediments suggested that the occupation here continious till about 4,000 BP. The most recent discovery at the right side of mouthing cave evidenced an very important change into hoabinhian were living here at 3,500 - 4,000 years ago. Seemly occured a moving of late neolithic rice growing people from sea cost plains somewhere in Ninh Binh and Thanh Hoa ( maybe in lower river Buoi ). This new occupation influenced strongly into hoabinhian living way here and lead the change here from hunting / collecting subsistance into rice growing. Hundreds of dry and charred rice corns excavated in Xom Trai in upper layers were dated at only 780 years ago. This date isn't for beginning of rice growing in Xom Trai.    (Table 1- List of the macro plant remains excavated in Hoabinhian sites)

Table 1

No. Name of Plant Collected year locations 14C dating (BP) preservation situation quatity percentage (%)
1 Oc cho Juglans-like 1988 MaiDaDieu


19,400 charred 46 fragments 100
2 Oc cho Juglans-like 1982 XomTrai 18,400 - 16,000 charred 466 fragments 86
3 Oc cho Juglans-like 1986 XomTrai 18,400 - 16,000 charred 1072 fragments 82
4 Oc cho Juglans-like 1987 LangVanh (70cm) 16,700 charred 1 fragments 100
5 Oc cho Juglans-like 1987 DongCang (Layer 2/3) 11,000 - 10,000 charred 7 fragments 5
6 Soi de Quecus/Castanopsis 1987 DongCang (Layer 2) 11,000 - 10,000 charred 64 fragments 49
7 Soi de Quecus/Castanopsis 1987 ConMoong (B3a-B1a) 12,000 - 10,000 charred ca 3500 fragments 98
8 Trau - Aleurites 1987 ConMoong (B2ab-B1ab) 11,000 - 10,000 charred/dry 14 fragments 0,5
9 Tram - Canarium 1987 ConMoong (A4b-A1) 10,500 - 8,000 charred/dry 1019 fragments 98
10 Tram - Canarium 1987 DongCang

(layer 2)

11,000 - 10,000 charred/dry 4 full/


11 Tram - Canarium 1988 HangDoi 11,000 - 10,000 charred/dry 6 full/ fragments 100
12 Tram - Canarium 1988 MaiDaDieu

(180-140 cm )

9,000 - 7,000 charred/dry 52 fragments 100

2- Con Moong’s plant remains collection

This collection was collected from the test excavation 1987. It contains 18 dryed items and 855 charred items ( ca 300 items per one cubic meter of cultural sediment ). The charred plant items are very pure similar and separated clearly in two compacts corresponding to cultural layers. in the upper layers ( from surface to the depth of 1.60 cm) the canarium dominated and from 1.60 cm to 2.50 cm dominated shell of castanopsis. Almost small charred items were used as materials for 14C-dating. Only the big one are documented and stored. The 14C dating in Con Moong based on three material sources : Charred plant remains, shells of land snail cyclophorus and shells of stream snail Melania. The results show always same old for samples of land snail and charred plant remains, while the samples of stream snail are in medium ca 500 years older. The hoabinhian occupations here began from ca 13,000 BP and ended at ca 8,000 BP. 

3- Dong Cang’s plant remains collection The Vietnamese - Bulgarian excavation team used also the dry sieving method to collect materials from hoabinhian sediments in Dong Cang cave. However, because the sieve net size is some biger than ones I used in Xom Trai and Con Moong, the plant remains collected here are only some complet or relative big fragments. The collection which Dr. Dang Huu Luu let me to identify contains only 130 items. They are very typical for Hoabinhian vegetable food complex. The 14C dates for Dong Cang made in a Poland laboratory almost from bone and shells of stream snail. The believable dates for Dong Cang hoabinhian occupaition are from 11,000 - 10,000 BP ( see Table 1 ) 4- Mai Da Dieu’s plant remains collection  This collection orinated from the charcoal samples, which were brought by Prof. Pham Huy Thong in 1988 to Berlin 14C-laboratory, where I was fellowship from 1984 till 1989. As studing this samples before let 14C date, I reconize that they belong to two pure commune charred plant remains of Hoabinhian : Juglans-like ( the sample no. at the depht of 3.20 cm, contains 46 charred items) dated 19,500 BP and Canarium  ( the sample no. at the depht of 1.80 cm, containes 32 charred items) dated at ca 8,000 - 7,000 BP. Because man need materials for 14C dating, I could stored only some best items for sample. Three dates for Mai Da Dieu hoabinhian occupation messured from charred plant remains and show very clearly that they belong to two quite different flora . ( Table 1 )   

III- Methodology

1- The main method to collect the dry and charred plant remains at mentioned sites is dry sieving. All excavated sediment in Con Moong and Xom Trai in 1982,1986/87 saison collected by sieving in three sizes : 0,1x0,1cm/ 0,2cmx0,2cm / 0,5cmx0,5cm and 1cmx1cm. The plant materials taken from sieving size 0,2cmx0,2cm were selected under microscope. 

2- The botanic identifiable items were confidenced by Nguyen Nghia Thin (National University Hanoi), D. Yen (National University Canbera) and researchers in East Berlin Tierpark. The charred fruitstone fragments of Canarium, Aleurites, the nut shells of Quecus, Castanopsis, the fruit cover of Juglans-like were identified through analizing their section cross under microscope.

3- The charred fragments of canarium and quecus/ castanopsis (in Con Moong) and charred fruit cover fragments of juglans-like were used as materials for directly 14C dating.

4- Ethnobotanic surveys to research on distributions and changes of natural flora in different altitutes

5- Using Radiocarbon Chronology and Animal evidences to confirm the changes of the hoabinhian main food flora in Vietnam. IV- Discussion : Estimated Climate Changings from 20.000 BP to 8.000 BP The table 2 presents the early period corresponding to end pleistocene (before 15.000 BP) with domination of Juglans-like and Celtis. The Juglans-like were found earliest in Mai Da Dieu at 19,500 BP and very popular from 18,000 - 16,000 BP in Xom Trai and Lang Vanh. The latest samples of Juglans-like were found in Dong Cang at about 11,000 BP. This plant exists noweday in Vietnam only in the altitute of 1200 - 3000 m obove sea level, while at LGM some 18,000 BP this plant existed popular in altitute of ca 100 m above sea level. The temperature at LGM in North Vietnam must be cooler than today about 5 - 7o C. From other sources, many researchers think that at LGM the climate in Vietnam as well as in Southeast Asia dryer than today. However, our study on the surfaces of fresh water spring (stream) snail shells Melania sp. evidenced those snails lived in the strong running streams under influence of strong rainfalls. The very big number of fresh water snail shells as food remains at Xom Trai, Lang Vanh ( at about 40.000 shells per one cubic meter sediment). A fire place with seat stone block rounding in circle was discovered in the layer of 18.000 BP in Xom Trai cave. This fire place located at the a possition, where far from the opening of cave to save the dwellers seating here again the wind. That suggested a living in cold condition. The adventage of tutles (toitoses) and rodentia bone in the animal bone remains excavated during this period in Xom Trai, Lang Vanh and Du Sang suggested also the flora with rich food for such animals -  Juglans/Quecus. 

In the case of Con Moong, the charred plant remains of Quecus/Castanopsis dominated in the lower layers (B1a-b and B2, B3, from some 12,000 - 10,500) while in the lowest layers (B4 and B5, from some 13,000 - 12,000) occured only dry fruitstones of Celtis. The Celtis is the major plant remains of the Nguom sediment, where occured some evidences for dry and cold climate during 24,000 - 19,500 BP. However, we found Celtis also in Sung Sam, Con Moong's upper layers at 11,000-10,000 BP. The castanopsis remains were seen also in Dong Cang at 11,000 BP. At Dong Cang, Con Moong occured good evidences for saisonality of food exploitation : mild rainy in sommer and relative cool dry in winter corresponding to present and absent of land snail Cyclophorus. Shells of crab Ranguna Dang in big number occured since 12,000 BP to 9,000 BP suggested much rainfall period corresponding to development of land - and stream snails Cyclophorus/Melania as well as of Castanopsis and Canarium.

Canarium remains were dicovered earliest in Hang Doi and Dong Cang sediments at ca 11,000 BP same as one in Spirit Cave (Thailand ). At Con Moong, the first charred fragment of Canarium was found in the layer of B1a but Canarium became dominated only from the layer A4b at some 9,500 BP. In Mai Da Dieu the Canarium were found in middle and upper layers at about 8,000 BP. The Canarium exists since that time till today very commune in North Vietnam and can be representative for holocene food plant of Hoabinhian.

V- Conclusions The botanist Birks have a notable article in 2000 to evidence the important position of plant macrofossils[9]. The application of sieving/flotting excavations enabled to collect plant macrofossils. This fossils represent only the human used flora, of them almost are food plants, but they are relative "in situ" plants while pollens are almost vary wide distribution. The identification for such fossils need alway a special botanic museum with corresponding sedimentation for modern samples. The changings climate during 20,000 BP - 8,500 BP in Vietnam didn't differ much to the global situation. The climate was clear cold at LGM with main food plant exploited from evergreen Juglans forest. and it became warmer with Quecus/Castanea forest replacing Juglans forest. However, we haven't found the evidences for dry climate dring that time, but it was seemly alway moisture, event at LGM, at last in the Muong Vang Valley, where Xom Trai cave located . The Juglans-like could see as best idicator for LGM in Vietnam and the Canarium for     frontier between Pleistocene and Holocene at about 11-10,000 BP.

[1] Nguyen Viet, Ha Huu Nga, Nguyen Kim Dung, 1982, Test excavation at Xom Trai, in New Discovery of Archeology, Hanoi, 1983, pp 43-46.
[2] These fruit core stones semented on a sediment block together with shells of Melania snail and animal long bone which excavated by M. Colani. See Nguyen Viet, 2000, The Plant Remains in the Hoabinhian Culture, in New Discoveries in Archaeology of Vietnam, Hanoi, 2001.
[3] Collected by Ngo The Phong and Vu The Long from a small test excavation in 1987. See above Nguyen Viet,2000.
[4] Collected by Nguyen Viet from a test excavation in 1987, See above Nguyen Viet,2000.
[5] Excavated by Bui Vinh and Nguyen Gia Doi in 1990, See above Nguyen Viet,2000.
[6] Test excavated by Nguyen Viet in 1987, See above Nguyen Viet,2000.
[7] Test excavated by Nguyen Viet in 1987, See above Nguyen Viet,2000.
[8] Excavated by Nguyen Viet in 2004, See above Nguyen Viet,2000.
[9] Hilary H.Birks and H.J.B. Birks, 2000, Future uses of pollen analysis must include plant macrofossils, in Journal of Biogeography, 27, pp31-35.




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