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Southeast Asia: geography, society, culture, art ...

Geography of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Southeast Asia consists of the peninsula, which is oriented in direction to Australia and New Guinea and is formed by the (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia) and extends in the direction of Australia by large islands (Sumatra, Borneo, Java), and a series of archipelagos (Celebes, Moluccas, Philippines).

The geographical areas that interest us here are those who known until recently an archaic culture and had until recently a production of everyday objects and objects of art that can be classified in primitive art. This archaic area of Southeast Asia consists in large islands (Sumatra, Borneo, Java), and a series of archipelagos (Celebes, Moluccas, Philippines). These people of Indonesia have experienced a culture and lifestyle archaic until the 19th or even the 20th century. They were not affected by the historic events of importance that took place in the rest of South Asia. They have not been influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, or later by Islam. Without political organization, nor written tradition, these people continued to live in the narrow confines of their villages, keeping their religion, their art and their initial social structure.

Archaic southeast Asia is present on each side of the equator. The climate is mainly hot and humid, the vegetation is rich and luxuriant. Virtually all the peoples of Southeast Asia grow rice which is the staple of their diet, use of buffaloes for plowing, and implement sophisticated irrigation systems. In mountainous areas there are many terraced fields.

Settlement of southeast Asia.

The first people to occupy this region were men with black skin, small with curly hair. Little by little they were pushed by successive waves of immigration and left to live in the forest areas of mountainous regions where they live by hunting and gathering. One can find this kind of people still in Luzon in the northern Philippines.

Most residents of southeast Asia are coming from Indochina (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam). They arrived in two main waves: the first one arrived there about 50,000 years ago at the time of the Neolithic from the Caucasus. Now they have become the Batak of Sumatra, the Dayaks of Borneo, Toradja from Sulawesi. The second movement of invasion arrived there 2500 years ago from Mongolia at the time of the Bronze Age. The first group arrived has been pushed to the interior of the territories, by the second group who occupies the coastal regions.

Traditions, beliefs and way of life of the peoples of Southeast Asia.

All these people have in common a deep respect for traditions: headhunting and ancestor worship are the most important.

The head is the place where are located of the vital forces. Thereby headhunting was essential to social and religious rituals. According to that tradition among the Dayak, to get married the young man should offer his future wife a head to prove his manhood. Generally people found the heads in the enemies tribes. There were also anthropophagies ceremonies during which slaves were sacrificed.

The skull cult is linked to the ancestors. The old man was revered as one who knows and has experienced. After his death, his skull was piously preserved in a net above the hearth. People considered  that it was protecting the living people. The effigy of the ancestor, when it exists, for example among the Toradja performs the same function.

From this worship of ancestors, common to all primitive peoples of Southeast Asia, was born a sculptural artistic style rich and varied, as important as that of black Africa and the Pacific Islands.

The village a sacred place,at the image of the universe

The village is a closed entity, sufficient in itself and that directs the lives of its inhabitants. The village is the center of life of the villagers, their thoughts and their actions are motivated and governed by the village. The village is the basis of the economy. The villages are autonomous, except in the case where several villages are federated by a legal entity and policy, such as a clan.

The size of the villages varies from a small hamlet to nearly a town. They are all protected by a fence or palisade as different clans were often in dispute and head hunting was common. The walls also allowed the village to be protected from the demons of the forest and the bush which could bring misfortunes and diseases in the village. The door of the village was barricaded at night and guarded by magical practices.

The village has a religious dimension. Its center is a sacred place. Many people planted here a sacred tree, others built a temple, others stood a menhir or a forked pole or a statue of its founder.

Economy, agriculture and livestock: autarky village.

The economy is based on agriculture and livestock. Rice is the staple food. Pets are pigs, dogs, chickens, buffalo and zebu.

The village is a self sufficient community, regional trade is based on barter, local markets uniting nearby villages are common and are one of the rare opportunity for the women  to leave the village.

It was sometimes necessary to import some products from remote countries, such as iron, shells, beads, porcelain, even gold. But this practice was marginal.

Useful plants are sacred, during sowing take place religious ceremonies. Indeed, without the blessing of the spirits of the earth, nothing would grow. Humans and pets are family and part of the same creative process. Therefore pets are reserved for sacrifices are slaughtered and eaten during parties.

Social organization

Archaic society of South Asia is based on small groups of several related families called "clans" that can sometimes be spread across several nearby villages. There is a surefire solidarity between members of the same clan. Its members are bound together by a common ancestry a "father" or "mother" of the clan who is almost worshiped as a deity. Marriages are prohibited within the clan. The choice of a spouse is the choice of the whole clan who seeks through the strong bonds of marriage to join a group and become human ally, friends and assisting each other in case of misfortune.

In many nations, there are privileged or noble families whose chiefs have a political and legal authority. The superiority of these families above the other people were mostly from a religious origin.

In ethnic groups in which there was no nobility, decisions concerning a village or region were taken by a meeting of the elders of each family group.


The whole life of archaic communities in southeast Asia, even the most insignificant events were governed by customs and rules dating from the creation of the universe and had been handed down from generation to generation. These customs can adjust the difficulties between the members of a group or between groups of people and provide compensation schedules and expiatory actions for each type of different or conflict.

Primitive arts of Southeast Asia

Primitive arts of Southeast Asia are still relatively unknown.

The diversity of styles reflects the diversity of the cultures:

Arts from Batak and Dayak have a large decorative delirium with the use of spirals and scrolls inherited from ancient China.

The Ifugao and Igorrot who live in Luzon in the northern Philippines are using more sculptural forms with simple and powerful shapes.

Timor, Flores, Sumba, Taiwan have cruder style.

Many statues of ancestors are squatting. This position is widely used in the art of southeast Asia. This position is both the position of the fetus, of birth and of death. It is the symbol of fertility, birth, and the protection of vital forces.

Masks seem much less used than in Africa or Melanesia and British Columbia. They are often more frustrated in their forms.

One can see, on the contrary,  an artistic proliferation of cultural or utilities objects. They are often decorated in a very sophisticated way while maintaining a highly evocative magic.