In this talk, I briefly discuss how I became involved with Ban Chiang and what we have learned, in the decades since, from our studies of the approximately 142 human skeletons (2100 B.C. - 200 A.D.) excavated in 1974 and 1975 by the Thai Fine Arts Department and University of Pennsylvania. Specifically, I discuss what we know about health, diet, life span, and lifestyle of some of the earliest inhabitants of Northeast Thailand, people who were in the transition from hunting and gathering lifestyle to one that increasingly relied on agriculture. I also discuss some of what we have learned about the biological relationships of the ancient inhabitants of Ban Chiang. Then, I will mention one particular burial from these excavations, BC Burial 23, given the nickname, “Vulcan”. My talk will end with on-going research and plans to repatriate the Ban Chiang skeletons to Thailand.
Much of the information discussed in this talk derives from our monograph on the human skeletons from Ban Chiang published by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2002 and other publications by me, Michele Toomay Douglas, and others over the years. In addition to the systematic recording of thousands of measurements and nonmetric observations and detailed descriptions of paleopathology, there have been more specialized chemical analysis of bone and teeth from Ban Chiang including isotope analysis and, most recently, attempts to obtain ancient DNA from these skeletons.
The results of an examination of a number of indicators of health (e.g., life expectancy, adult stature, linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH), cribra orbitalia (CO), trauma, infectious disease, and dental pathology) indicate that Ban Chiang/Southeast Asia does not follow the general global decline in health with increased sedentism and/or the adoption and intensification of agriculture. Some possible reasons for this are discussed in the talk. In addition to unusually good health, our studies also found no evidence for skeletal trauma from warfare and little evidence for interpersonal violence. These studies further suggest that individuals of both sexes led strenuous lives at Ban Chiang. Analyses of stable isotopes indicate evidence for temporal changes and gender differences in diet and support for a matrilocal residence pattern.
In addition to skeletal evidence for genetic affiliations within the spatial groups at Ban Chiang, the results of applying multivariate statistical procedures to cranial measurements support models of local continuity in the late lithic to Neolithic/Bronze Age of mainland Southeast Asia. These studies also indicate major differences between the inhabitants of Khok Phanom Di, a site in south central Thailand, and Ban Chiang. Broader biodistance analysis indicates connections between prehistoric and modern inhabitants of Southeast Asia, suggestive of long-term continuity rather than models that argue for intrusion and displacement.
Special mention is given to one of the Early Period burials from the 1974 excavations at Ban Chiang, nicknamed “Vulcan” after the Roman god of fire and metalworking. Osteological examination indicates this individual was a 45-50 year old male at the time of his death. Further features of his skeleton, including his relatively tall stature, are consistent with the designation as a skilled village craftsman and hunter who married into the community.
It has been a privilege to serve as the sole curator of the skeletons from the 1974 and 1975 excavations at Ban Chiang, which has meant that new studies, such as the DNA studies now in progress, could be undertaken allowing new research questions to be addressed. Currently, the skeletons for the 1974 and 1975 excavations at Ban Chiang, which are currently curated at the University of Hawaii, are being prepared for repatriation to Thailand. It is hoped that additional research on these remains will continue to uncover new information about the prehistoric people of Thailand and Southeast Asia.