A couple of weeks ago I met someone who told me about Bác sĩ Kiều Quang Chẩn and said that she had heard him give an interesting talk in California on the Đông Sơn bronze drums.

That same week someone else told me about the journal Tạp chí Nghiên cứu và Phát triển, and praised it for publishing better articles on premodern history than the “mainstream” journals in Vietnam.

As luck would have it, today I came across a web page that hosts this journal, and I found an article in it by Bác sĩ Kiều Quang Chẩn entitled “Văn hóa Đông Sơn và tục săn đầu người” [Đông Sơn Culture and the Custom of Headhunting].

In this article, Bác sĩ Kiều Quang Chẩn points to evidence of headhunting in some of the images on Đông Sơn bronze drums and notes, by citing the work of respected authorities on headhunting, that this was a widespread practice in the past.

While the evidence he provides is not 100% conclusive, it nonetheless strongly suggests that there were headhunters in the area of what is today the greater Red River delta region in the first millennium BC.

I totally agree with his argument. I’ve been thinking about this over the past couple of years, and it’s clear to me now that in the first millennium BC, people from at least the Yangzi River southward through what is now Southeast Asia all lived a similar lifestyle.

While nothing stays unchanged through time, nonetheless, if we were to go back in time 100 years and visit peoples like the Dayak on Borneo, the Batak on Sumatra, and the various indigenous groups in the mountains of Taiwan, I think that the type of lifestyles that those people lived still shared similarities with the common lifestyle of people in the first millennium BC.

What were some of those similarities? Living in houses on stilts, eating (sticky) rice, engaging in slash and burn agriculture, and. . . headhunting.

The one point I don’t agree with in this article, however, is Bác sĩ Kiều Quang Chẩn’s use of the term “Việt cổ” [ancient Việt] to refer to the people who lived in the Red River delta in the first millennium BC.

We have no idea what the connection was between the people who made the Đông Sơn bronze drums and the people whom we today refer to as “Việt.” Indeed, we don’t even know if there is a connection.

What we can surmise is that at the very least the educated elite in the Red River delta who started to record information about themselves after the 10th century AD in classical Chinese were culturally very different from peoples who had lived in that same area over 1,000 years earlier.

Did they share the same blood as those earlier peoples? Probably some. But various migrations over the intervening 1,000-year period had undoubtedly complicated the blood/gene pool as well.

To put this another way, there were people who lived in the area of what is today Italy in the first millennium BC, but we don’t refer to them as “ancient Italians.” We call them “Romans” because Italy is something that came much later.

There were people who lived in the area of what is today France in the first millennium BC as well, but here again we do not refer to them as “ancient Frenchmen.” We call them “Gauls” because France and the French emerged many centuries later.

What is more, there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of “Italy” and “France.” Historical developments could have been very different, such that the concept of a nation, and the actual nations of Italy and France might never have emerged. This is all the more reason not to project connections back into a past where they do not exist.

To call the headhunters who lived in the Red River delta in the first millennium BC “ancient Việt” is thus like calling Caesar an “ancient Italian.”

Caesar was not an Italian, and the people who made the Đông Sơn bronze drums were not “ancient Việt.” However, they were probably headhunters, and Bác Sĩ Kiều Quang Chẩn does a very good job of making that point. His article is well worth reading.

The image above is from gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France. (http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b23003686/f10.item)