Southeast Asian Warfare: A catalyst for complexity?

Even from its primitive stages, warfare has been an integrated part of culture and life ways of the peoples of Southeast Asia. Primitive warfare in this region is quite distinct, and coupled with the surrounding geographical constraints; warfare in Southeast Asia even provides a possible catalyst for complexity.

Primitive warfare has been described as making warfare part of a social institution with multiple purposes rather than a single or temporary event declared by a central authority. Participants in this type of warfare are not concerned with the group gain but more with personal prestige and could even be described as seeking goals that do not require what westerners would call a 'victory' (Keeley, 1997 pp 10-11). The region of Southeast Asia provides a good example of this type of primitive warfare and its relation to the warfare of complex societies to follow. In his book on Southeast Asian Warfare from 1300-1900, Michael Charney sites the importance of understanding the cultural value of primitive warfare to indigenous Southeast Asians and its enduring presence throughout early modern history (Charney, 2004 pp2).

Some war parties of Indonesia or the Pacific Islands would face their opponents for hours from a safe distance. They would taunt and jeer at one another, showing off their decorative war paints and attire. This display is how forces would measure each others' strength rather than by some tactical means of counting men or reckoning advantageous positions (Pearsall, 2008). In these types of primitive war parties, there is usually not a very strong military leadership. A good example of this is the “fighting-leaders” of the New Guinean Mae Enga who run back and forth through the battle shouting encouragements rather than accessing the situation and leading the battle (Keeley, 1997 pp43-44).

These types of leaders gain support and plan an attack, but that plan is only carried out by the war party as long as success seems certain and comes quickly. Participation in primitive war parties was voluntary and support could only be held for a few days at most. These peoples were trained from children to be warriors; however, the focus was on their individual abilities and not their functioning as a group (Keeley, 1997 pp43-44). This way of thinking will permeate through Southeast Asian history into modern times.

A good example of this, used by both Michael W. Charney and Quatrich Wales in their books describing warfare in the region, is the adaption of 'soul stuff' and its crucial part in the creation of headhunting societies. Soul stuff is a term used by O. W. Wolters that is kind of like the Star Wars Jedi 'force'. This soul stuff animates everything in the world of early Southeast Asians from the trees and forests to people themselves. People would gain soul stuff from fallen enemies and the more soul stuff you accumulated the higher status you would reach among the warrior community. People with exceptional amounts of soul stuff would be natural leaders. This prehistoric concept would make its way into the halls of kings in times of complexity around 500BC (Charney, 2004 pp2) . An interesting comparison here is to the flowery wars of the Aztecs. These early wars were not about killing and few injuries or casulties, however, once things escelate, the Aztecs use the wars to obtain sacrifices. This ritual display reminds me of the culmination of headhunting mentioned here.

The architecture of early Khmer kingdoms embodied this idea of a central force or soul stuff and placed the kingdom or temple at the center of the universe. The kingdom is a symbol of upmost order in this universe. Its well-defined borders are an abstract boundry between the organized world of the kingdom and the "demon-haunted nature" of the surrounding jungle (Chandler & Mabbett, 1995 pp 16). Kings manipulate this ritualized center, making themselves children of the sun and moon gods (Chandler & Mabbett, 1995 pp 20). This does not mean that Khmer kings enforced their will like totalitarians, despite this being their ritual depiction. Quite contrary, the King must still make regular displays of his soul stuff to maintain power among the people. His title and claim to divinity alone did not keep him upon the throne. The importance of a leader having adequate soul stuff could be considered the ultimate derimation of a battle and therefor determine if he is to stay in power. This was taken to the extreme that if a soul stuff leader fell in battle, his troops might immediately disperse and flee the field (Charney, 2004 pp2). The important part of all this is that ritual and symbolism are more imporant in giving early Khmer people and their king an identity, they are not instruments of control (Chandler & Mabbett, 1995 pp 21).

This idea of soul stuff was crucial to the emergence of headhunting in more modern times, since soul stuff is concentrated in the head. Even Southeast asian socieites which do not practice headhunting still consider cutting off the head to be the most efficient way of disposing of an enemy. The pinnacle of this ritual development is the headhunting practices described by Quartich Wales in which freshly taken heads were rushed from the battlefield and returned to a village for drying and preparation for hanging in a temple. Scraps from the skull were eaten by the villagers in order to absorb the soul stuff (Charney, 2004 pp 3-4).

It was the study of modern headhunting that brought some light on the unique placement of woman in Southeast Asian warfare. There are some accounts of elite woman leading war parties from the backs of elephants and taking guard posts in royal palaces but their role in headhunting is the most interesting. Headhunting was considered a prerequisite for marriage and though counting heads may bring a man higher recognition as a warrior, it also determines his suitability as a mate when judged by woman in his village. A married man gained position for himself and his wife by brining home heads and there was great incentive for woman to play large rolls in the ceremonial aspect of head hunting such as war dances and the teaching of the importance of the hunt to children. During a hunt a woman would keep up with ritual responsibilities at home, such as tending to a collection of skulls. This was just as important as the hunt itself and should not be overlooked when considering the roll of gender in warfare (Charney, 2004 pp 5-6).

Soul stuff was not the only attribute of primitive warfare to permeate beyond complexity. There was also the concept of the “frenzied attack” and invulernability. Alcohol and opium are taken before a battle as stimulants to encourage a fearless attack and to give the warrior a sense of invulnerability. Invulnerability also came from amulets or charms carried by warriors. Makassars of the late seventeenth century were raised with “the point of honor” which dictated fighting to the death and never surrendering. Their battles with European soldiers have painted a good picture for what facing these warriors was like (Charney, 2004 pp 11-14).

(Charney, 2004) Being full of these notions, they never beg quarter nor give it, and ten Makassars, with their drawn daggers, will attack ten thousand men; and no wonder, for men who have such principles engrafted in their very nature are void of all fear, and are very dangerous people to deal with. (pp12, quoting Forbes, 1999)

(Charney, 2004) I plunged my lance into his stomach; nevertheless, the Makassar, as if he had no sense of feeling, advanced upon the weapon which I held fast in his body, and made incredible efforts to come at me in order to run me through; and he would infallibly have don it, if the hilt of the blade had not hindred him. If ound that my best way was to retreat a little, still keeping the lance in his stomach, without venturing to repeat my thrust, till at length I was relieved by others of the lancemen who laid him dead on the spot. (pp12, quoting Forbes, 1999)

These accounts accurately depict a very fierce people in whose culture violence and killing played a large roll before and after the development of complexity in the region. But how did we get from the most primitive voluntary raid parties to complex kingdoms commanding great armies? The answer may lie within the geographical constraints of the region.

The earliest villages were near forest streams and were surrounded by dense forests. Travel through the forests was extremely difficult and near impossible during monsson seasons, making the river a primary source of travel. The jungles were so thick that a 50 mile elephant journey in the dry season could take up to five days. Missionaries to the region in the 1300’s reported dark forests with tigers, pythons, crocodiles and other animals. Monsoons play a vital role along the river by providing floodwaters to farm rice in (Chandler & Mabbett, 1995 pp 34). The relatively low concentrations of population in this region along with the dense jungle made it easy for villagers to abandon their settlements and hide in the jungles instead of fight open battles in fields. This made controlling vast territories nearly impossible and lead to a focus on controlling individual towns rather than battlefields. This focus on siege warfare is very unique to the region, unlike China and Europe which were known for many famous battlefields and massive armies (Charney, 2004 pp 73). The building of fortifications is an obvious response to siege warfare and it is these fortifications that will help confirm time periods for the rise of complexity within the region, as we will discuss shortly.

Now that we have described a people with a cultural background for warfare and placed them in a geographical setting indicative of certain types of warfare, let us look at a possible path to complexity within this framework. It is mostly agreed that states arise from competing chiefdoms. In this case it is possible that competing chiefdoms along the Mekong river and around the Tonle sap were the catalysts for complexity. This idea follows Carneiro’s circumscription hypothesis, attributing complex developments to the presence of warfare in a circumscribed region. It is possible that population increased to a point that subsistence patterns could not support the spreading out and colonizing of more lands. Groups defeated in war could no longer move away, instead they were forced to remain as slaves of the conquering chief (Chandler & Mabbett, 1995 pp 58-59). It is important to note here that one of the main reasons for warfare in the region, other than a disposition to blood and violence, was a means of increasing population. The taking of war captives, especially woman and children, was very important. Since captives are used to replenish numbers or sell for profit it appears that the taking of captives even becomes more important as the state increases in size (Charney, 2004 pp 18).

A recent example of warfare playing an important roll in the formation of the state can be seen in the Yao people in Malawi. Though far from Southeast Asia, C. Higham believes they may provide a good template for the formation of complexity along the Mekong Delta. Groups of controlling sisters in a village would appoint their eldest brother as a village headman. Villages were numerous and smaller in numbers since the drive for personal prestige mentioned before encourages young men to leave and create their own villages. The size of a village and the number of followers would determine the prestige of a local headman and put an emphasis on the taking of captives or slaves. These men were capable of enhancing their prestige by acquiring new trade items and adopting new exotic religions. The transition from several headman to one big chief happened extremely fast as one headman managed to gain more control over the region while others had no more room to expand out and start their own villages. Similar changes should be evident in the Southeast Asian archaeological record, showing a clear period of developing chiefdoms before culminating in complexity (Higham, 2001 pp 8).

The period just prior to civilization in southeast Asia falls around the start of the Iron Age in Southeast Asia around 500BC. This period from 500BC leading up to the formation of states in AD 400 shows the formation of many more settlements, the best evidence coming from north-east Thailand. These societies are defined by their burials, technologies, subsistence and economic patterns, trade, and more importantly to this discussion, the creation of many moats surrounding the sites (Higham, 2001 pp 19).


Like some fortifications found in the Andes such as the walls surrounding Chankillo, it is difficult to say whether large moats around Southeast Asian sites were built primarily for defensive purposes and not for agricultural or some other purpose.

Angkor Wat from the air. http://watsuptaxi.com/?page_id=22

It is the dating along with the function of these moats that is extremely important. Many sites within the Mun valley are large circular settlements surrounded by multiple concentric moats and embankments. Within these moats were earthworks 10meters high that were topped by thorn bushes. Eastern Cambodia is home to many Moi forts, or ‘savage’ forts dating from the first millennium BC into the first millennium of the common era. The site of Ban Chiang Hian was occupied around 400BC and is also foritfie dby moats and ramparts. The construction of these moats would have involved 500 adults working for a full year. The population of this particular settlement would have been at least 2,000. This makes it more evident that around aprox 500BC chiefdoms arose commanding denser settlements and building more elaborate fortifications while using iron age technologies (Machandler & Mabbett pp 57). This period of intensified fort building coincides with the introduction of the Iron age and the implement of the iron spade in digging moats may have aided in bringing about these larger fortifications (Higham, 2001 pp 19).

The dating of these Iron Age moats has continued to be a focus of The Origons of Angkor Archaeological Project. AMS dates taken from datable materials within mounds at several iron age sites. The most important findings here were that the dates of the mote material fell within the ranges suggested previously by Elizabeth Moore(1000BC-AD1000). Also, these moats were shown to be constructed in one short time instead of naturally accumulating. This supports Higham’s theory that Southeast Asia was witnessing increased social complexity by 200AD (Boyd & McGrath, 2001)

Alltogether, it is evident that prior to reaching complexity, the peoples of Southeast Asia had a culture in which warfare was fully integrated. Archaeological evidence shows an increase in moat and fortification building prior to the rise of the region’s first civilizations. Even if warfare was not the main catalyst of complexity in this short time between 500BC and AD200 it did play an important roll.



From excavations at Ban Non Wat, a neolithic through iron age cemetary in Thailand.

Excavated by Charles Higham in 2006. The many shells and bangles adoring this body probably

indicate his leadership roll. http://archaeology.about.com/od/thailand/a/ban_non_wat.htm

Hello Everyone!

This will be a wiki about Se Asian warfare... I think... Waiting to be linked!


Module 4 Web Links
Module 5 Wiki history
Module 7 Brainstorming
Module 8
Carlson Lecture
Module 9- Articles
Module 10. Image of the Khmer
Module 12.kmz file
Module 13
Module 14


Old Dutch Print Showing Taiwanese Aboriginal Headhunters With a Chinese Head, Amsterdam 1670

Found this at www.taiwandna.com. This website was made for the education and awareness of Taiwan aboriginals. This picture gives a good image of the gruesome impression Tiawaneese headhunters gave to europeans. This site is loaded with information and many references. This partiular section on headhunters quotes 'Among the Headhunters of Formosa' by Janet B. Mcgovern. It does not say if this illistration came directly from this book.