PREHISTORIC CULTURAL SITES IN THE NAM LANG CATCHMENT,
PANG MAPHA DISTRICT, MAE HONG SON.
John Spies: Independent Researcher: Abstract
Eleven prehistoric cultural sites have been identified on pinnacle peaks amongst rugged limestone karst in the Nam Lang catchment area. Artifacts found on the peaks include complete and broken river cobbles, flaked stone tools and potsherds. The sites appear to have been used for some type of ceremony or ritual. The distribution of the sites suggests that the people living in the area shared some beliefs, possibly about spirits of the deceased. The cord marked pottery found at 4 sites may not be contemporaneous with the lithic material.
The Nam Lang, in Pang Mapha District of Mae Hong Son Province, is the major tributary of the Nam Khong, a tributary of the Mae Nam Pai. The Nam Lang catchment delineates the Myanmar border to the North and drains an area of approximately 400 square kilometres, the vast majority outside areas of karst. In the lower part of the catchment area the Nam Lang passes through two caves, Lod and Nam Lang, before it flows into the Nam Khong. Tham Lod is a through cave with a huge river tunnel up to 50 metres high and 600 metres long. Further downstream, the river sinks into several impenetrable holes. It reappears from Tham Nam Lang, another massive cave with 8.4 kilometres of surveyed length. Limestone karst borders the lower Nam Lang and its tributaries, with the topography dominated by caves, dolines, cliffs and areas of rugged, exposed limestone.
Some of the limestone towers and mountains in the area have heavily weathered and jagged rocky pinnacles. The pinnacle tops are typically areas of exposed rock with patches of stunted small trees and plants adapted to the dry, minimal soil conditions. The exposed limestone is riddled with cracks, solution tubes and holes. The pinnacles are difficult to climb and often require scaling vertical sections and traversing extremely jagged sharp limestone.
Most of the recorded pinnacle sites are west of the Nam Lang, between Tham Lod and Tham Nam Lang, in Tham Lod sub district, on the edge of the karst. John Spies and Stephen Brown discovered the sites between June and November 2000. Nine of the sites are recorded on a map of the Tham Lod area (fig.1), along with other known lithic sites in the vicinity.
The next section provides some examples of cultural use of other limestone peaks in the region followed by a brief description of the sites and the artifacts discovered. The implications of the existence of the artifacts on the peaks are discussed and conclusions are drawn.
2. Pinnacle Peaks and Culture
Towering limestone pinnacles are some of the most impressive geographical features of the landscape. In Mae Hong Son Province their peaks have been used for cultural purposes from prehistoric times.
A possible cemetery is located on a prominent limestone hill 300 metres west of Ban Tham Lod Temple. The top of this hill has forested, gently sloping areas with many small sherds of cord marked pottery on the surface. A few holes have been dug by animals, and among the excavated soil were found a small, bifacially flaked, mudstone axe along with a small flake from a river pebble and several cord marked potsherds. It is very unlikely that this site was ever used for habitation due to its distance from a water source and the difficulty of access.
Doi Saeng is a rocky pinnacle near Ban Tham Lod, located 200 metres east of Tham Poo Pa (site 4). On the highest point are the remains of what was probably a Buddhist chedi. A pile of bricks, lime mortar and a few small pieces of iron are all that’s visible at this heavily disturbed site but, on the eastern side, below the peak, are small cord marked potsherds. Residents of Ban Tham Lod have also found highly polished stone adzes near this site.
The broad, forested peaks of Doi Laem and Doi Pha Daeng, large limestone pinnacles west of the Nam Khong, are probable cemetery sites from the historical period. Glazed ceramics, including Kalong ware, are scattered across the surface of these difficult to access sites.
On a high pinnacle near Tham Boong Hoong (Banyan Valley Cave, excavated by Gorman), Lahu villagers from Ban Yappanair found pottery, and two bronze gongs. The Lahu believe that Lua people, who once lived in the area, left these artifacts.
Buddhist monks today, at Tham Wua in Amphur Muang and at Tham Lod, erect flags on prominent pinnacles near their temple. Some Lisu people in Pang Mapha District place flags, and leave offerings for the sky spirit, on limestone peaks near their village.
3. Peak Sites
On the majority of the peaks investigated, we have found artifacts left there by people. These sites are between 700 and 900 metres above sea level. Artifacts have been found only on pinnacles with areas of exposed, barren limestone but this may partly be due to the difficulty of locating artifacts amongst the low and prickly plants that cover some peaks. The artifacts found on the peaks consist of large quartzite river cobbles, broken pieces of cobbles, flaked stone tools and potsherds. They are usually near the highest point and can be difficult to find among the collapsed and broken limestone. No bones have been found and it is unlikely that any organic material could have survived for long periods on the exposed peaks.
All lithic materials and pottery on the pinnacle sites were left where they were found, except one small potsherd from site 4 that was removed for further examination. The location of each site has been recorded as grid co-ordinates on 1:50,000 maps (series L7017, sheets 4648 II and III). The Elevations recorded are in metres above sea level and have been determined from the same maps with a margin of error of approximately 20 metres.
Site 1. Large pinnacle above a cave with a sinking stream. The cave, Tham Christmas, is 600 metres from the Ban Tham Lod – Ban Yappanair road, 2 kilometres northwest of Ban Tham Lod. The pinnacle can only be climbed from near where the small stream sinks into the cave. The highest point is rough and exposed with sheer cliffs on three sides. One piece of a broken quartzite river cobble was found on the lower, northern end of the pinnacle top. Elevation: 909 Location: 25.15/65.25
Site 2. Highest pinnacle, visible from and 300 metres southwest of Tham Lod Nature Education Station. The top of the pinnacle is rough exposed limestone with crevasses between higher points. A few metres below the highest rock was found one reddish–grey quartzite river cobble, approximately 30cm long and 15cm wide. A piece has been broken off on one side. Elevation: 740 Location: 24.50/63.35
Site 3. Highest pinnacle, 200 metres south of the Tham Lod inflow. The top is exposed limestone with one small peak jutting two metres higher than the surrounding flatter area of broken jagged rocks.
A few artifacts were discovered in small fractures and holes on the sides of the highest rock. On the north side is a small broken piece of a reddish, quartzite river cobble. Another small rounded pebble of a red-brown, fine-grained rock, probably quartzite, was found nearby. On the western side, in a small hole, protected from direct rainfall, is a cord-marked potsherd approximately 10 cm across. The cord marks are deeply impressed in a cross pattern. The pottery is grey coloured and coarse grained. In a crack on the top of the pinnacle is a rounded piece of heavily weathered, almost crumbly, granite, about 10 cm in diameter. Elevation: 700 Location: 24.70/63.10
Site 4. Pinnacle above Tham Poo Pa, next to and west of the road, 1 kilometre southwest of Ban Tham Lod. On a rough flat area, just below the highest point, was found one large river cobble 33cm long and 23cm across, broken into three adjoining pieces. The cobble is light grey, fine-grained quartzite with a thin red-brown staining on the outer surface. Near this cobble is a unifacially flaked core tool, (sumatralith), fashioned from a light yellow, quartz-sandstone river pebble. Nearby is a fragment of a reddish-grey quartzite pebble, broken in several places. A small heavily weathered potsherd was also found. The pottery is dark grey, 3mm thick and coarse grained. Microscopic examination of the sherd showed that the clay contained angular quartz grains and flakes of mica. Elevation: 760 Location: 23.95/62.75
Site 5. Two rocky pinnacles, about 50 metres apart, 400 metres south of Tham Poo Pa, to the east of the road. On the higher, eastern pinnacle was found six small, grey coloured, cord marked potsherds in a hole at the base of the highest point. A small broken river cobble was nearby.
On the western pinnacle, under a small overhang about five metres directly below the highest point, a few sherds from a grey and a brown pot were found. One rim piece is from a pot at least 30 cm in diameter. Elevation: 720 Location: 24.00/62.35
Site 6. Rocky pinnacle 300 metres west of the Tham Lod road, about 700 metres north of the Nong Daeng turnoff. One large piece of grey, fine-grained quartzite broken from a rounded cobble was found in a small crevasse, 15 metres east of and 5 metres lower than the highest point. Elevation: 800 Location: 23.30/61.90
Site 7. The peak of Doi Luang, the highest hill between the road from Ban Tham to Soppong and the Nam Lang. The site is about two kilometres south of Ban Tham Lod. The western face of this pinnacle is a sheer cliff and the only access is by climbing steep, razor sharp limestone on the eastern side. On the top between the two highest rocks is a small trench floored with a jumble of heavily weathered blocks of limestone. On the surface and in amongst the broken rocks in the trench, were found five unbroken quartzite river cobbles, 20-30 cm long. About 10 metres lower, on a rough flat area, was another large cobble. Climbing this pinnacle, we were reminded of how sharp the weathered limestone can be and wondered if the original climbers of this peak had any foot protection. Elevation: 860 Location: 23.80/61.75
Site 8. Pinnacle just east of the Ban Tham road about 200 metres north of the Nong Daeng turnoff. This pinnacle is steep and difficult to climb. The top has an exposed area of weathered, broken and jagged limestone, about 10 metres long and 3 metres wide. Two, small sharp peaks jut another 1.5 metres higher. On a partially sheltered rock below the southern peak a small brown potsherd was found. The clay contains coarse quartz grains and faint impressions of a net or cords are visible on the outside of the sherd. Below the northern peak, in a slightly depressed area of broken limestone, are two large river cobbles. One cobble is complete and the other has two smaller pieces broken off. The broken pieces were found under a jumble of weathered limestone rocks nearby. Near the boulders is a hole about 50 cm deep, based with broken limestone. The stones may be in their original position, or, they may have fallen from the peak, been excavated from the hole or moved from elsewhere. The cobbles are about 30-40 cm long and are grey, fine-grained quartzite, with a brown stained crust. Elevation: 720 Location: 23.45/61.50
Site 9. Prominent pinnacle 300 metres west of the Tham Lod-Soppong road, 1 kilometre northwest of the Nam Lang. The pinnacle top has a large exposed rocky area more than 30 metres long and 10 metres wide. The limestone is typically jagged and broken with deep crevasses. One broken piece from a river cobble was found on the western part of the pinnacle, a few metres below the highest point. It is fine-grained cream coloured quartzite, stained brown on the surface of the cobble. The piece found is approximately 15 cm long and 5 cm wide. Elevation: 772 Location: 23.25/60.75
Site 10. Prominent rocky pinnacle 3 kilometres west of Ban Rai and 500 metres southeast of the final sink of the Nam Lang. The pinnacle top has an exposed rocky area about 15 metres across. In a small crevasse about 5 metres east of the highest point were found 8 pieces of flaked quartzite. Some were visible and others were under pieces of weathered limestone. They are all from a large, pink, rounded river cobble. All of these stones have been roughly flaked to common tool shapes but appear to be unfinished and to have no evidence of use. The assemblage consists of 3 oval shaped stones and 5 triangular stones with points. Elevation: 840 Location: 13.80/58.25
Site 11. Pinnacle top, about 300m west of site 10 and 40 metres lower. This peak is relatively easy to climb and has a rocky exposed area about 10 metres across. Only one piece of a broken quartzite cobble was found in a crevasse near the highest point. Elevation: 800 Location: 13.70/58.10
The discovery of these difficult to access sites raises several questions. How long ago were the artifacts left on the pinnacles? Why were they left there? Who left them there and where were their settlements? What can the sites tell us about the beliefs of these people?
The dating of the artifacts that have survived long term exposure on the peaks is presently not possible unless associated organic remains are found. The existence of a few cord marked potsherds at 4 sites does not necessarily help determine when the lithic artifacts were left there.
It is possible that the pottery was brought to the peaks at a much later date than the stones. The sherds have all been found on peaks between Ban Tham Lod and Ban Soppong, an area with many other known archaeological sites including 5 caves that contain pre-historic log coffins and associated cord marked pottery. This area has many places suitable for agriculture and there is some evidence of occupation by swidden agriculturalists much earlier than the coffin sites. The flaked stone axe and cord marked pottery found on the hilltop near Tham Lod may be associated with this period.
On ridges east of the Nam Lang, similar flaked mudstone and slate axes have been found at probable habitation sites amongst tools made from flaked quartzite river cobbles. Some of these small axes have ground edges. More axes, associated with pottery, have recently been discovered close to the Nam Lang, near to site 9. Cord marked pottery has also been found at the ruins of several Buddhist temple sites near the Nam Lang, 2 to 3 kilometres upstream from Tham Lod.
The same peaks may have been used several times during the past and the occurrence of pottery and quartzite together at the 4 sites could be coincidental. Similar pottery is certainly ubiquitous in the region but unfortunately at present there is not enough evidence from dated sites to determine when it was first used or locally produced. In Pang Mapha, cord marked pottery has been found in sites with flaked core tools, small bifacially flaked axes, edge ground stone axes and adzes, bronze artifacts and iron artifacts. However, based on present evidence, it can only be confidently stated that cord marked pottery was widely used around the middle of the first millenium AD. There are no definite associations of pottery with material dated earlier than about 300 BC.
Further research in other sheltered and open sites may reveal that similar pottery was used thousands of years earlier. There are more than 10 cave and rockshelter sites in Pang Mapha that contain no coffins remains but have flaked stone tools and pottery on the surface, including 3 sites near the Nam Lang and the pinnacles between Ban Tham Lod and Soppong. However, the cord marked sherds found at these sites may date from much later than the flaked tools, possibly being brought there by people hunting or fishing or by dry rice farmers seeking shelter during the wet season.
The flaked tools at sites 4 and 10 suggest that the lithic artifacts were brought to the pinnacles by hunter-gatherers. Similar tools have been found at excavated sites with occupation layers dated between the Late Pleistocene and the Middle Holocene.
A considerable amount of effort, and obviously a good reason, was required to carry heavy quartzite cobbles from their source, which was most likely the Nam Lang, to the pinnacle tops. The limestone is often extremely sharp on the exposed areas and without foot protection the ascent of some peaks would have been treacherous. Lacking any practical use, the most reasonable explanation for the existence of river cobbles on the peaks is that the sites were used for some sort of ritual or ceremony. The stones appear to have been left for symbolic rather than actual use. The complete cobbles found are all fine-grained quartzite, which, judging by the tools found in sheltered and open lithic sites in the area, was the most popular raw material for flaked stone tool manufacture in the region. The flaked stones found at site 10 are particularly interesting as they seem to symbolically represent a typical assemblage of tools commonly found at habitation sites in the region. The crude tools include 2 palm sized, oval shaped stones. Another 5 are pointed stones of various sizes; the smallest triangular flake the size and shape of an arrowhead. The intended function of these tools is speculative, as is the reason why they are on a remote pinnacle in the first place.
Pang Mapha is presently inhabited by people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds who share a common belief that there exists a ‘spirit land’, occupied by the spirits or souls of the deceased. The possessions of the deceased or necessities that they will need in an afterlife are usually buried or burnt with the bodies. In prehistory this burial custom is well illustrated by the wide range of burial goods associated with the log coffins in Pang Mapha caves. These goods include pottery, iron and bronze jewelry, glass beads, laquerware, iron tools and sharpening stones. The sharpening stones are usually flat river cobbles 15-20cm long and show no sign of use, indicating that rather than being personal possessions of the deceased, their intended purpose was for sharpening iron tools, in the spirit world.
The stones may have been left on the peaks as grave goods but, unless bones are found, we cannot determine whether the body was also carried there or if it was ‘buried’ elsewhere. The exposed peaks, rising above the canopied forests, would certainly be an ideal place for the soul or spirit of the deceased to easily find the objects left for them, assuming that the spirits could move freely through the air. The peaks may also have been inaccessible to tigers and other animals such as porcupines that feed on corpses and bones. The peaks are well removed from areas suitable for habitation, if not geographically at least by their relative inaccessibility. The Lahu Nyi people who inhabit the area today dig their gravesites on higher ridges and hills about 500 metres or more from their village. To avoiding meeting the spirits of the deceased and to help insure that they never come back, the dead are left with the things that they will need to continue their existence elsewhere.
The people who used the peaks probably lived in the vicinity. It is not possible to determine exactly where they lived but the nearest known habitation sites with lithic materials are a good guess. I have recorded open and sheltered lithic sites on a map (fig 1) in the areas near the pinnacles, that have evidence of being occupied by people using flaked stone tools. I have only included sites that are within about an hours walk of the utilised peaks- enough to sufficiently illustrate that the area has many places suitable for habitation, particularly in the non karst areas. Further away from the peaks are many more sites.
Judging by the large number of habitation sites and the limited numbers of artifacts found on the peaks there remains several important unanswered questions. If the river cobbles were individual grave goods, say for example, one per burial, then there were not enough for everyone who died, even over a short period of time. Are we seeing evidence of some sort of hierarchical system where only certain individuals were left with peak top grave goods or were the pinnacles not the only places where bodies or grave goods were left? Or maybe there is another explanation. I once asked a Lahu ‘spirit doctor’ why he left only the beak, claws, blood and feathers of a sacrificed chicken to appease some spirits during a healing ceremony, keeping all the meat for him. He replied simply that spirits don’t need much, they can get full by sniffing. Symbolically, there may have been plenty of stones for all of the deceased.
People living in the area today share a belief that spirits or souls of the dead exist in a ‘spirit land’ that is generally perceived to be above the earth. When standing on a towering peak with a 360 degrees view, far above the forest, it is easy to understand why these pinnacle sites have long been chosen for ritual and spiritual purposes.
I hesitate to draw any conclusions based on the circumstantial evidence that I have presented in the discussion of the pinnacle peak sites. However, I do believe that the lithic artifacts were part of some sort of prehistoric ceremony or ritual. Regardless of their exact purpose, the sites are significant in that they indicate that at least one group of people, probably hunter-gatherers, shared some common beliefs. That these people believed in the spirits of the deceased and ritually offered goods to be used in the spirit land, is a matter of speculation. The artifacts could have been part of offerings to other spirits or gods or have been used in some totally unrelated ritual.
If the cobbles were left by aceramic populations then some of the pinnacle sites have been used more than once, probably at some time after the late Pleistocene. We still do not know whether the pre-agricultural inhabitants of the area used pottery.
The small amount of artifacts discovered seems to indicate that the custom of leaving cobbles and/or pottery on the limestone peaks in the Nam Lang area was short lived. A change of location for the ritual or a change in ceremony itself is a possible reason for this.
It is likely that this custom was not confined just to the Nam Lang valley and I am looking forward to similar sites being discovered in different areas.
Figure 1: Prehistoric Lithic Sites in the Tham Lod Area Notes on the map:Pinnacle sites- white circles with site numbers Open lithic sites- black dot Sheltered lithic sites- black stars Map area is approximately 50 sq.kms. Top is North. The Nam Lang flows South.
Cave Lodge is open for all guests, bookings and walk-ins, on the 01/11/2021.
Cave Lodge is very happy to be opening again after being closed for more than six months. Our area is beautiful at this time of the year, the forest is lush and most of our amazing caving, trekking and kayaking trips are running. We hope to see you soon!