Mobility & Kinship in Prehistoric Vietnam


A review of The Ties that Bind: Population Dynamics, Mobility, and Kinship during the mid-Holocene in Northern Vietnam, by Damien G. Huffer.

As observed in many parts of the world, the transition between different food-production regimes and the intensification of long-distance exchange tend to stimulate a series of biological and socio-cultural changes. At the same time, a number of other factors, such as disease patterns, demographic structure, intra- and inter-site wealth distribution, social mobility, kinship networks, land-use, and ecology/biodiversity, show signs of modification to various degrees. In Mainland Southeast Asia, the relationship between the adoption of rice agriculture, socio-cultural factors, and subsequent social changes has been extensively explored in recent decades. Bioarchaeological studies have played a key role in understanding the biological consequences of this transition.

The bioarchaeology of prehistoric Mainland Southeast Asia has addressed topics including paleodiet, skeletal health, mobility and residency, population growth, and identity. While these studies have effectively explored human behavioral diversity and significantly enhanced the understanding of human lifeways during/after the agricultural transition, the main emphasis was mainly put on investigating collective individual life histories and drawing inferences at the population-level, as Damien Huffer points out. In his dissertation, Huffer emphasizes that understanding the daily life of an individual during his lifetime is the key to addressing issues of kinship, mobility, and activity patterns in a fine-tuned manner. Focusing on mid-Holocene northern Vietnam, Huffer takes a holistic approach by using four biological parameters (non-metric traits, strontium isotopic signals, enthesial changes, cross-sectional geometry) to gain insight to the daily lifeways of prehistoric Man Bac and Con Co Ngua individuals. After establishing daily life patterns, Huffer proceeds to reconstruct the relationship between the individuals buried at the same site to infer kinship relationship, social identity, mobility, and continuation of mortuary practices over time.

This dissertation is organized into eight chapters. In Chapter 1, Huffer explains the unique approach of his dissertation, which focuses on the daily life of the individual and takes a multi-factor approach to assessing kinship network, something that has never been done in the study of Vietnam or Southeast Asia in general. Huffer then provides an overview of the research history and archaeological background of the two mid-Holocene northern Vietnamese sites that his study focuses on, i.e., Man Bac (c. 3,800BP) and Con Co Ngua (c. 5,600BP). Following Charles Higham’s chronology as Huffer does, these two sites encompass the late Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (c. 5,000-3,000BP) of Southeast Asia. While the cultural sequence and chronology of agricultural transition and Mainland Southeast Asia in general is debated, it is relatively clear that agriculture in Thailand did not occur before c. 4,000BP at the earliest. As Huffer points out, it can therefore be expected that Man Bac and Con Co Ngua human skeletal assemblages may provide evidence for the changes in human physiology generally associated with agricultural transition. While these two sites have been extensively studied bioarchaeologically, previously the skeletal remains had never been examined with all four biological parameters, a lacuna that Huffer fills with this dissertation.

Three primary aims, each associated with one hypothesis, are established as the key foci of this research. First, Huffer wishes to understand the chronological difference in terms of the extent of individual mobility (activity patterns and migration) during the Neolithic transition in mid-Holocene northern Vietnam. Based on archaeological context and previous studies, Huffer hypothesizes that activity patterns remained consistent over time (i.e., between Man Bac and Con Co Ngua) while evidence for individual migration (logistical mobility and immigration) should be more obvious in Man Bac than at Con Co Ngua. Secondly, Huffer attempts to assess the potential relationship between social identity, familial affiliation, and lifetime mobility patterns of the Man Bac people. Each of these three elements is reflected through differences in mortuary treatment, non-metric traits, and mobility biological parameters. He hypothesizes that there is a clear distinction in grave goods by kin groups and birth locales, as well as continuity in patterns of mortuary treatment by lineages. Lastly, focusing on the Man Bac assemblage, Huffer assesses the impact of intensified trade and mobility on socio-cultural lifeways. He hypothesizes that biomechanical evidence of mobility differs between sexes, with males being more mobile, and that the differences in mobility between age groups (adolescents and adults) in a kin group are only observed at the individual level. As one of the first comprehensive bioarchaeological studies of prehistoric Vietnam, Huffer’s dissertation provides isotopic and biomechanical analyses of datasets on migration and activity patterns. Furthermore, this dissertation is the first systematic case study on intrasite kinship and community structure in Vietnam that uses non-metric traits.

Chapter 2 reviews the theoretical background and methods used to investigate kinship among skeletal individuals and places Man Bac in the context of kinship analysis via a global review of such studies. While direct genetic analysis would have been most straightforward, Huffer outlines the biological and cultural limitations of using DNA to trace kinship in archaeological assemblages and turns the focus on the examination of osteological remains themselves. Despite ongoing debates over which osseous non-metric traits are under heritable genetic control, non-metric traits collectively are considered to be valid phenotypes representing actual polygenic variation uniting individuals with shared genotypes. However, the expression of genotypes can be heavily influenced by a suite of environmental, evolutionary, and population factors. Huffer acknowledges these issues and offers a precaution by stating that “bioarchaeological kinship analyses must remain ‘organic and flexible in practice’ (Stojanowski and Schillaci, 2006: 60)” (p. 31). A wide range of non-metric traits and their applications in kinship studies are then evaluated along with various statistical and scoring approaches. In the final part of this chapter, a thorough global review on archaeological kinship analyses not only provides readers in-depth knowledge in this subject but also aids Huffer in identifying suitable methodological approaches relevant to the Man Bac remains. As Huffer is able to show, there is clearly a scarcity of bioarchaeological studies addressing kinship and the related socio-cultural issues conducted on prehistoric Southeast Asian populations. The identification of kinship relationships, which is a primary goal of Huffer’s study, is one of the first steps towards addressing the possibility of kin-based migration patterns and the disparities in lower body activity patterns, mortuary treatments, and daily life.

Chapter 3 provides a review of the chemistry, theories, methods, and related debates centering on the usage of strontium isotopic analysis (among other isotopes) to address residential mobility in past populations. Strontium signals derived from human bones and tooth enamel are closely associated with the chronological age and composition of the bedrock upon which people’s food and water is based. Coupled with archaeological context, mobility is inferred from a disparity of strontium isotopic signals between tissues (bone and tooth enamel) formed at different stages of an individual’s life. Huffer notes that if movements occur among areas with identical bedrock, location changes cannot be detected by strontium signals alone. Thus, using multiple isotopic options (e.g., oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur) in combination with strontium signals tends to provide better resolution in delineating migration and mobility. With this acknowledgement, strontium remains the focus of the chemical analysis for this study. A global overview of case studies is also provided to highlight the issues related to migration in prehistoric societies to set the stage for the analysis of Man Bac and Con Co Ngua. While there have been studies on resident mobility in prehistoric Thailand using strontium and other isotopes, the strontium data that Huffer presents in his dissertation is the first dataset of its kind for Vietnam and thus significantly adds to the growing application of bone chemistry analysis on material from prehistoric Southeast Asia.

In Chapter 4, Huffer introduces the biological background and diagnostic approaches of enthesopathy, followed by a review of biomechanical and bioarchaeological studies that use enthesial changes in assessing activity patterns. An enthesis is a site on the bone on which soft tissues (tendon, ligament, joint capsule) attach. Normal muscular movements exert mechanical loads onto the enthesis and over time can result in a patch of smooth and non-vascular osseous changes on the bone contouring the attached soft tissue(s). When these areas become pathological, whether inflammatory or mechanical, the osseous change is then termed enthesopathy. Since enthesopathies are usually caused by soft tissue reaction, it is traditionally referred to as musculo-skeletal stress markers. The severity and distribution of enthesopathies can be used to infer habitual activity patterns an individual endured in life. On a population level, sexually dimorphic distribution and severity of enthesopathy can shed light on the possibility of a sexually divided activity pattern and perhaps further cultural inferences. In this chapter, Huffer establishes a solid foundation for his analyses of enthesial changes and interpretation of activity patterns by providing clear definitions of key terms and exploring differential diagnosis. Huffer’s global review also highlights the diagnostic and interpretative issues in enthesial studies that still linger in the bioarchaeological community.

In Chapter 5, the theoretical background, interpretive issues, and world-wide application of cross-sectional geometry in assessing prehistoric activity patterns are reviewed. Following the introduction of concepts in biomechanics, Huffer cites animal and clinical studies to re-examine the concept of “Wolff’s Law,” where he distinguishes the microstructure of mechanical loading from the macro-development of bones described by Wolff’s Law. He then turns his focus to explanatory factors for bone remodeling processes to lay the ground for his interpretation of Man Bac and Con Co Ngua skeletal cross-sections. Cross-sectional geometry is often influenced by variation in age progression, sex, growth and development (ontogenetic), and baby mass. Huffer takes these factors into consideration and observes that the association between levels of mobility and diaphyseal robusticity and shape remains quantifiably meaningful when demographic and biological factors are controlled for. With this theoretical ground established, Huffer proceeds with a review of how bone cross-section geometry has been used world-wide to discern activity patterns. Lastly, as an additional tool for quantifying activity patterns, concepts and a brief review of bilateral asymmetry in upper and lower limbs are provided. To achieve a region-specific comparison in activity patterns among prehistoric Southeast Asian populations, when assessing limb bilateral asymmetry Huffer plans to use a similar measurement regime that was applied to a coastal central Thai site of Khok Phanom Di.

Chapter 6 introduces and justifies the analytical methods and sample selection protocols employed in this dissertation. Echoing the previously discussed methodological diversity, Huffer explores the potential impacts derived from method selection on the presentation and interpretation of his data. In order to identify the most valid kinship patterns and avoid the confounding biases of missing data (due to inherent biological nature, preservation, and/or post-excavation factors), a list of non-metric traits is selected (Table 6.1.1.) after careful deliberation. Appropriate statistical analysis approaches are also discussed in detail in conjunction with observation criteria and caveats. To assess mobility, Huffer samples a total of 27 molars (second and third) and 40 third molars for strontium isotopic analysis from Man Bac and Con Co Ngua, respectively. Since strontium isotopic signals are intimately associated with local geology, it is essential to have an established local strontium-signal map before the interpretation of human strontium signals can take place. Unfortunately, such a map is lacking in Vietnam (and Southeast Asia in general). As a result, faunal skeletal remains are sampled to establish the local strontium signal. The third parameter used is musculo-skeletal stress markers (or entheses); in this context, Huffer stresses the need to assess population variation of activity patterns among different body segments using multivariate methods. Cross-sectional geometry and bilateral asymmetry are chosen as the fourth parameter. A selection process for non-pathological and well-preserved specimens excludes a large portion of the available skeletal remains. Through this process, Huffer is able to observe the biomechanical changes of these “normal” bones by gross measurement and cast analysis via X-ray. Lastly, Huffer discusses the limitations of a study using the above-mentioned methods. Among others, he acknowledges that sample size, especially in Con Co Ngua, is the key factor that inhibits many biological parameters from being effectively evaluated. However, it is Huffer’s intention for his dissertation to serve as a preliminary assessment of the interrelatedness between different populations in prehistoric Southeast Asia beyond the community level. His thoroughness and novel approach using biological parameters to address large scale socio-cultural and behavioral issues help to overcome the inherent shortcomings of the skeletal assemblages.

In Chapter 7, Huffer presents the analytical results in the order of the four biological parameters discussed in Chapter 6. Kinship reconstruction is established for both Man Bac and Con Co Ngua, while the spatial distribution of kin groups and the potential disparities in accessing to wealth between kin groups are only available for the former due to sample limitations. Aside from reporting the results of strontium isotopic analysis, Huffer evaluates the data with respect to local vs. non-local and the intra-individual variation of migrants as indicated by differed mortuary treatments. Results of enthesis analysis are first assessed by age, sex, and time period, followed by multivariate analyses of sex-based activity patterns. After relating the distribution of the musculo-skeletal markers with specific activity patterns, Huffer divides and compares the activity patterns occurring with migrants and people of local origin. Data of several elements in the cross-sectional geometry category, including breadth ratio indices, bilateral asymmetry, and robusticity are evaluated by sex and site, followed by multivariate analyses of these elements. Huffer also takes into account degrees of intra-observer error and sexual dimorphism to control for data quality and inherent dimorphic skeletal structure between sexes, respectively.

Chapter 8 discusses the results presented in the previous chapter and summarizes the findings of the dissertation as a whole. Huffer emphasizes that, while non-metric trait analysis does point to the existence of distinct genetic variation/cluster of individuals in Man Bac, spatial distribution of the burials in both sites does not appear to have followed the genetic linkage. Huffer suggests that incomplete excavation, complete integration of people with differing genetic affiliation, and interaction among people based on a larger-scale population affiliation rather than the genetic clusters suggested by non-metric traits may have led to this (genetically) seemingly random arrangement of burials. In Con Con Ngua, the lack of sub-adult burials indicates the practice of burying sub-adults elsewhere. In both cases, however, there is a mixed pattern of differential access to wealth reflected in mortuary treatment by kin groups. In short, the introduction of agriculture and genetic heterogeneity in Man Bac (as reflected by non-metric traits) did not lead to a clearly differentiated kinship structure. Strontium isotopic signals do point to the existence of first-generation migrants in both sites, in Man Bac mostly males. Burials of these migrants are often associated with exotic grave goods, suggesting differential burial treatment. The biomechanical parameters indicate minimal changes of activity patterns (i.e., types and intensity of movements) over time suggesting the continued practice of broad-spectrum hunting and gathering. Despite agricultural activities that may have been integrated into daily life, the biological effects are outweighed by the traditional hunting-gathering activity patterns on the skeletal remains. There are, however, signs of sexually devised labor patterns within a community. To place the findings in the interpretive framework, Huffer returns to the three aims of the research proposed in Chapter 1.

In conclusion, Huffer evaluates the three hypotheses posited in Chapter 1. The data do not support the first hypothesis that overall activity patterns should be consistent over time in both sites while mobility would be more pronounced among the Man Bac people. The data portray a more complex picture where the scale and intensity of mobility, along with activity patterns, remain similar before and after the introduction of agricultural lifeways in northern Vietnam. Despite differing migrant demography by sex between the two sites, Huffer does not observe a clear distinction of higher logistical mobility in the supposedly agriculturalist Man Bac. He interprets this by comparing the Man Bac data to the Neolithic site of Khok Phanom Di in coastal central Thailand and suggests that the interaction among people from varying locales in Southeast Asia starts at a very early period, and that migration patterns are highly varied regardless of time period.

In terms of the potential relationship among social identity, familial affiliation, and lifetime mobility, Huffer’s data from Man Bac do support the hypothesis that there is a differentiation in grave goods, especially non-ceramic, by kin group and birth locale. Huffer also observes that the isotopically outlying individuals (e.g., first generation migrants), mostly males, received special mortuary treatment that is often associated with higher social status, although the causes for differential burial treatments, be they identify, persona, leadership/founding personnel, or phenotypic variation, are currently unknown. Lastly, the data do not fully support the hypothesis that biomechanically inferred mobility is distinguishable between sexes in Man Bac, and there is no obvious sign suggesting that mobility patterns differ between immigrant and local populations. Females’ musculo-skeletal stress markers suggest mobility equal to that of their male counterparts, possibly due to shared food-procurement activities. This is unsurprising to Huffer since foods derived from hunting and gathering were likely still a large part of Man Bac subsistence, with both men and women taking part in the food procurement. Huffer believes that the resolution of such a holistic bioarchaeological study can be further improved by incorporating a greater number of sites, adding non-metric traits and isotopic elements to the analyses, developing detailed intrasite spatial burial distribution, conducting complete excavation of sites, and drawing inferences from comparable studies to place in northern Vietnam to understand the larger regional and cultural context.

Overall, Huffer’s dissertation is a well-structured and thoroughly executed product of meticulous scholarship. His research reiterates the heterogeneous nature of Mainland Southeast Asian population histories and cultural development, as portrayed by recent environmental, archaeological, and bioarchaeological studies. While attempting to investigate social elements such as kinship with biological data is a difficult undertaking, especially in the complex Southeast Asian context, Huffer was able to place the bioarchaeological data carefully into an established archaeological framework and derive inferences based on regional and global comparisons. The interpretive power is significantly enhanced by his considering the inter-relationship of four biological parameters. This holistic approach is unique in Southeast Asia and certainly contributes to the methodological expansion of bioarchaeology globally. The skeletal assemblages from Ban Mac and Con Co Ngua are important sources in their own right, shedding light on the lifeways and socio-cultural issues in prehistoric Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Now with Huffer’s work, the mid-Holocene sites are not only contextualized in the human behavioral and cultural developmental framework of Southeast Asia but also demonstrate the potential of what relatively small human skeletal assemblages can offer.

Chin-hsin Liu
Department of Anthropology
Appalachian State University

Primary Sources

Fieldwork in Vietnam
Laboratory Analysis
Peer-Reviewed Published Sources

Dissertation Information

Australian National University. 2012. 409 pp. Primary Advisor: Marc Oxenham.

Image: Man Bac excavation site within the modern karst limestone landscape; c. 1911 cemetery in the foreground. Photograph by Author.

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