The Hoabinhian techno-complex in Mainland Southeast Asia: The history of a pebble which hides the forest [Le techno-complexe hoabinhien en Asie du Sud-est continentale : L’histoire d’un galet qui cache la forêt]

  • Hubert Forestier Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
  • Heng Sophady Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (Cambodia)
  • Vincenzo Celiberti Université de Perpignan Via Domitia
Keywords: Southeast Asia; Late Upper Palaeolithic; Hoabinhian; chaîne opératoire; pebble-tool; hunter-gatherer; anatomically modern humans


The prehistory of Southeast Asia is characterized by some chaînes opératoires which are still not very well known or poorly described. This lack of knowledge comes on the geographical remoteness of these tropical regions with respect to Western prehistoric problems developed during the past two centuries. The prehistory of the Far East is complex, original, surprising because on the sidelines of major technical lineages elsewhere known to the relevant period, the one of anatomically modern human advent. This regional prehistory of about 2 million km2, which is called Peninsular or Continental Southeast Asia, refers to the development of a science in motion whose construction is still relevant. In colliding with the classic thesis of evolution and technical progress, the Hoabinhian shakes the rules and landmarks in prehistory. It is located at the antipodes of the classical model (Eurasian, African) of development of the stone tools according to the improvement and gradual lightening of the tool-kit, from the pebble culture until the Neolithic. Our reflection is precisely on this singularity, about a unique technical phenomenon that remains difficult to place on the evolutionary axis of industries as it exists elsewhere in the world or in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan). The regularity and homogeneity of cobble-based tool shapes in a vast area and for a record length of nearly 30,000 years are the main features of this unorthodox technocomplex that questions the cognitive capacity of Homo sapiens in a wet tropical ecosystem. But we also question the nature of the existing links between prehistoric men and their lithic productions, and the role played by knapped stone techniques during the human development in this region away from Europe. To this monotonous longevity of pebble-based tools is added the absence of pointed lithic tools (tips, apical ends, tool with converging salient edges, etc.) as they are found everywhere else in hunter-gatherer groups, whether from the Upper Palaeolithic or historical times.
This is why the stability of these pebble-based tools would hide a whole range of complexity unknown to the technical field such as the elusive activities relating to the transformation of hard animal materials but also of vegetable materials not preserved in archaeological context. The thought process from the mineral towards the question of the vegetal sends back the need to complete the "toolbox" of Hoabinhian prehistoric artisans with sharp objects. Known to date only through the ethnographic data, the "vegetal civilization" leads naturally to reflect on the importance of this perishable material in the tool-kit of the last hunter-gatherers from the Upper Pleistocene rain forest in continental Southeast Asia. In other words, the possibility of another technical existence in equilibrium with the external environment.
After having highlighted the originality of Hoabinhian cultural phenomenon compared with impact of research in paleoanthropology and prehistory in the Southeast Asia regions, this paper will present from a strictly qualitative point of view the main chaînes opératoires that are present within the Hoabinhian techno-complex, a regional variant that characterizes the main culture of Southeast Asia Final Paleolithic hunters-gatherers between about 30 000 and 5 000 years BP. More generally, details will be provided on the informative incompleteness of the lithic phenomenon as archaeological data and, also, on its overcoming as a phenomenon. It will therefore be a question of rethinking the reverse of the lithic-lignic dialectic, that is to say the vegetable objects forever extinguished, in the light of stone tools, the only preserved markers of time, technique, space and absence.

Author Biographies

Hubert Forestier, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
Institut de Paléontologie Humaine
1 rue René-Panhard, 75 013

Heng Sophady, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (Cambodia)

Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts
227 Kbal Thnal, Preah Norodom Boulevard
Sangkat Tonle Bassac
Khan Chamkar Mon Phnom Penh 12305

Vincenzo Celiberti, Université de Perpignan Via Domitia

Université de Perpignan Via Domitia
Centre Européen de Recherches Préhistoriques
Avenue Léon-Jean Grégory
66720 Tautavel

How to Cite
Forestier, H., Sophady, H., & Celiberti, V. (2017). The Hoabinhian techno-complex in Mainland Southeast Asia: The history of a pebble which hides the forest [Le techno-complexe hoabinhien en Asie du Sud-est continentale : L’histoire d’un galet qui cache la forêt]. Journal of Lithic Studies, 4(2), 305-349.