History of Laos

Evidence for modern human presence in the northern and central highlands of Indochina, that constitute the territories of the modern Laotian nation-state dates back to the Lower Paleolithic. These earliest human migrants are Australo-Melanesians — associated with the Hoabinhian culture and have populated the highlands and the interior, less accessible regions of Laos and all of South-east Asia to this day; the subsequent Austroasiatic and Austronesian marine migration waves affected landlocked Laos only marginally and direct Chinese and Indian cultural contact had a greater impact on the country. Tai and Lao people southward migration into Laos only occurred after the eighth century of the common era; the modern nation-state Laos emerged from the French Colonial Empire as an independent country in 1953. Laos exists in truncated form from the thirteenth century Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. Lan Xang existed as a unified kingdom from 1357–1707, divided into the three rival kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Champasak from 1707–1779, fell to Siamese suzerainty from 1779–1893, was reunified under the French Protectorate of Laos in 1893.

The borders of the modern state of Laos were established by the French colonial government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Archaeological exploration in Laos has been limited due to rugged and remote topography, a history of twentieth century conflicts which have left over two million tons of unexploded ordnance throughout the country, local sensitivities to history which involve the Communist government of Laos, village authorities and rural poverty; the first archaeological explorations of Laos began with French explorers acting under the auspices of the École française d'Extrême-Orient. However, due to the Lao Civil War it is only since the 1990s that serious archaeological efforts have begun in Laos. Since 2005, one such effort, The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project has excavated and surveyed numerous sites along the Mekong and its tributaries around Luang Prabang in northern Laos, with the goal of investigating early human settlement of the valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries.

Anatomically modern human hunter-gatherer migration into Southeast Asia before 50,000 years ago has been confirmed by the fossil record of the region. These immigrants might have, to a certain extent and reproduced with members of the archaic population of Homo erectus, as the 2009 fossil discoveries in the Tam Pa Ling Cave suggest. Dated to between 46,000 and 63,000 years old, it is the oldest fossil found in the region that bears modern human morphological features. Recent research supports more accurate understanding of migration patterns of early humans, who migrated in successive waves moving west to east following the coastlines, but used river valleys further inland and further north than theorized. An early tradition is discernible in the Hoabinhian, the name given to an industry and cultural continuity of stone tools and flaked cobble artifacts that appears around 10,000 BP in caves and rock shelters first described in Hòa Bình, Vietnam and also in Laos; the earliest inhabitants of Laos – Australo-Melanesians – were followed by members of the Austro-Asiatic language family.

These earliest societies contributed to the ancestral gene pool of the upland Lao ethnicities known collectively as “Lao Theung,” with the largest ethnic groups being the Khamu of northern Laos, the Brao and Katang in the south. Subsequent Neolithic immigration waves are considered dynamic complex and are intensely debated. Researchers resort to linguistic terms and argumentation for group identification and classification. Wet-rice and millet farming techniques were introduced from the Yangtze River valley in southern China since around 2,000 years BC. Hunting and gathering remained an important aspect of food provision. Earliest known copper and bronze production in Southeast Asia has been confirmed at the site of Ban Chiang in modern north-east Thailand and among the Phung Nguyen culture of northern Vietnam since around 2000 BCE. From the 8th century BCE to as late as the 2nd century CE an inland trading society emerged on the Xieng Khouang Plateau, around the megalithic site called the Plain of Jars.

The Plain, nominated to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 is still being cleared from unexploded ordnance since 1998. The jars are stone sarcophagi, date from the early Iron Age and contained evidence of human remains, burial goods and ceramics; some sites contain more than 250 individual jars. The tallest jars are more than 3 m in height. Little is known about the culture which used the jars; the jars and the existence of iron ore in the region suggest that the creators of the site engaged in profitable overland trade. The first indigenous kingdom to emerge in Indochina was referred to in Chinese histories as the Kingdom of Funan and encompassed an area of modern Cambodia, the coasts of southern Vietnam and southern Thailand since the 1st century CE. Funan was an Indianised kingdom, that had incorporated central aspects of Indian institutions, statecraft, culture, epigraphy and architecture and engaged in profitable Indian Ocean trade. By the 2nd century CE, Austronesian settlers had established an Indianised kingdom known as Champa along modern central Vietnam.

The Cham people established the first settlements near modern Champasak in Laos. Funan expanded and incorporated the Champasak region by the sixth century CE, when it was replaced by its successor polity Chenla. Chenla occupied large areas of modern-day Laos as it accounts for the earliest kingdom on Laotian soil; the capital of early Chenla was Shrestapura, located in the vicinity of Champasak


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