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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

A plead to our roots

Marielle Santoni

Texte intégral

1January 2004

2The Asia Network is a necessary tool to strengthen ties between French researchers, whose objective is to inform and assist economic actors. At the dawn of globalisation, it is useful to bring together our expertise to question the way in which Asia is currently composed and its future without neglecting its distant past. Participation in the harmonious development of a country depends on an in-depth knowledge of its present, but also its history, which has helped to shape it, along with its prehistory, which has given it a soul, buried in its roots. This is an obvious fact that is forgotten at times in the expansion of the social science. A fact that sometimes leads governments and developers to make tragic mistakes.

3The number of areas of interest and the quantity of information to be processed have become such that research richness and diversity are causing divides, dispersal and fragmentation; that which is favoured by our university systems. It is no longer possible to be like those before us, that is to say, a culture generalist. When the trees hide the forest, the roots are no longer seen. The current borders often determine the areas of study over actual areas of ancient society or where there is a lack of coherence. In the present, like in the past, the linguistic, ethnic and cultural sets intermix, but do not overlap with one another.

4To truly understand the Asian countries, it is necessary to use an overall approach that is both horizontal and vertical. Each one of us should be able to, ideally, have a “view of the whole picture”, and study the specific aspects, not losing sight of the general picture in order to study a region that is replaced in its geographical context, in addition to its historical and prehistorical aspects.

5The more we go back in time, the more our knowledge is incomplete, as knowledge was deduced from the difficult interpretation of the rare relics that were deteriorating in state. Archaeological excavations and scientific techniques of analysis are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but they are slow and expensive, and financing them is difficult. The urgency of these rescue excavations leaves little place for planned research, which only benefits from state support, rarely that of investors or sponsorships, as it seems that this does little for their “image”. More than often, archaeology is considered unimportant; it is deemed an obstacle to economic development when it is seen as generating immediate profit. When difficulties are encountered in the implementation phase in the world’s industrialised countries as well as in laws regarding the protection of heritage and preventive archaeology, we can imagine to which point certain Asian countries are opening up to either the joys of world capitalism or that they are suffering from a decline in communitarian or religious members. They are unbothered neither by it, nor by the wars or looting of irreplaceable sites, provoked by unconscious buyers.

6This increased risk of destruction of buried heritage should be taken very seriously, as well as the forced assimilation or disappearance of various populations or isolated ethnic groups, whose survival is, for most nations (despite their protests in good faith), unacceptable. The sadness of cultural integration is like a society having lost its roots again and again, despite any means to find them, will one day be as helpless as an orphan “born under X”, desperately in search of its identity and ancestry.

7“Archaeology”, as I deliberately use here, a general term for both the study of prehistory, for which there is no text, only early history or historical periods, study, which involves excavation, interpretation, conservation, understanding its importance and dissemination. This discipline provides vital information that has evolved quickly, yet it is still somewhat confusing to the public who are able to come to terms with the history of art at best and at worst, the “treasure hunt”. It is also often a powerful political issue; displaying the past must serve national ambitions.

8Archaeologists are now interested in human evolution as well as the environment, changes in climate, wild-and plant life. They are trying to understand what the people’s responses were regarding the environmental constraints, how ancient societies were structured, their rituals, savoir-faire, and techniques. Mankind was able to adapt, sometimes that is enough for survival, but also, for millennia, altered the landscape to his advantage, causing, in some cases, catastrophic ecological results.

9Human science and archaeology have long inspired methods of ethnology and sociology, applied to data (that was unfortunately damaged) of the past. Regarding earlier periods, we are able to work with thin relics; biological remains are generally poorly preserved, especially in humid tropical Asia. The construction of models based on the study of contemporary populations has already successfully recreated the specific activities of certain prehistoric societies.

10However, this benefits increasingly from the progress of “hard” sciences and their techniques. Although not yet an exact science itself, archaeology is developing an “archeosciences” method that uses analysis and research from the laboratory. There is significant progress in the field of (scientific) dating, on the most varied samples, sometimes minute, as a result of particle accelerators and the redefinition of how rare elements, magnetism, thermoluminescence are measured. Recent research on fossil DNA is already changing the approach to physical anthropology.

11To recreate ancient landscapes, we are reliant on, “archaeopalynology”, whose charts reflect the vegetation, climatic variations and possible anthropogenic intake. Sedimentology and soil science are essential to understand stratigraphy with special reference to the micromorphology of soils, which can unveil the slightest human activities including planting, breeding, living, passing moments of one’s life, creating a home, etc. Archaeozoologists and paleobotanists underline the importance of consuming natural food, and animal and plant domestication, or even importing species. In support of experiments aimed at understanding and recreating operational chains and technological gestures, all microscopic observations finally come together, along with analyses – too many to mention – on the artefacts of stone, metal, ceramic, glass, textiles, etc., which tell us about the composition, manufacturing techniques, sources of raw material and possibly their origin and how they have managed to be spread out.

12This gradually forms a synthetic image. Past research has identified major phases of human evolution and key issues, the transition from subsistence hunter-gatherers to how early farmers gained money, the appearance of the division of labour, hierarchical societies, mass production, domestic and international trade, urbanisation, and large population movements. However, models have already been established for the Middle East, South-East Asia and to a lesser degree for Central Asia and those of East Asia and South-East Asia are in the process of being constructed and verified.

13The Palaeolithic era, the material culture of this sub-Himalayan region illustrates a certain “family resemblance” (pebble tools of northern Pakistan, Nepal, India, Indochina and southern China). However, while the Indochinese regions and their borders retain a specific (unifacial) size, the western regions are adopting a bifacial stance. The Indian subcontinent, whose development closely follows that of the Middle East, however, has developed, since Neolithic times, original cultural forms. Processes are less well known to subcontinent Indochina and South-East Asia’s coasts, whose Neolithic era had arrived later – undoubtedly under China’s influence – and the change (or stress) brought about by mental and environmental processes that have generated conservatism. Contact that was probably indirect must have happened, especially during the metallurgy distribution of bronze and iron. However, it appears that South-East Asian countries did not take as keen an interest or as immediate as the western regions to the metal, taking only an interest in it later on for the manufacture of particular objects (Dong Son bronze drums, for example, or bracelets). Most importantly, they were not strongly influenced by socio-cultural models that could have also supported the diffusion of metal.

14However, as soon as direct links, by sea (we have no evidence of previous inland contact), were established with India at the beginning of the Christian era, the Indian models were immediately adopted, or rather, placed over the original model. The creation of cities and states seems to date back to this period, with the integration of Buddhist and Hindu religions, hierarchical social structures (kings, governors and “slaves”), and imported techniques and styles (metallurgy, carnelian ceramic work, etc.). Trade at that time connected Europe directly to South-East Asia, as proven by Roman coins found in Vietnam

15The question now asked is why South-East Asia, which, for millennia, demonstrated such conservatism and which seemed, like a fairly egalitarian society, has suddenly adopted this Indian “fashion”.

16This is, however, just one example. The dryness in Asia, monsoons in the region, highlands, mountain ranges, continental coastlines, rich alluvial plains, deserts, numerous environments where the climate has varied over time, with pre-and protohistoric populations responding in different ways, condition Asia today. A continent made of worlds opened outwards or closed in their egalitarian or hierarchical, nomadic or sedentary homes, or a continent not willing to accept innovations, lifestyles, religions from elsewhere, to produce or to exchange. Only by using a trans-disciplinary and polycultural approach can we try to implement a method that is both more local and more global.


Centre national de la recherche scientifique

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