Following an ancient trail

Thailand has been the centre of the international archaeological community recently after a published report showed an illustration of a woman based on the remains of a stone-age body found in Mae Hong Son province.

The woman, who is believed to be over 13,000 years old, was one of four sets of skeletal remains found in the expedition, with the others varying greatly in age by thousands of years. The illustration bears a significant resemblance to that of present-day Thai people, raising important questions about the development of human life in prehistoric Thailand, and even that of Southeast Asia.

The report, published in Cambridge University’s academic journal Antiquity and titled A Late Pleistocene Woman From Tham Lod, Thailand: The Influence Of Today On A Face From The Past, was written by scientists Kanoknart Chintakanon, Sanjai Sangvichien, Natthamon Pureepatpong, Susan Hayes and Rasmi Shoocongdej.

While modern technology has only allowed for a 2D illustration of the Tham Lod woman, Rasmi believes that in the near future, advancements in DNA technology will allow researchers to determine even more details about ancient humans, such as an approximation of their physical build.

“In Europe, researchers have actually been able to make full-body simulations of well-preserved human fossils, using DNA to determine various physical traits like skin or hair colour. There is even talk of technology that could extract DNA from the soil where the remains are buried,” said Rasmi, a professor of archaeology at Silpakorn University who led the expedition that unearthed the remains in 2002.

“In Thailand, as well as Southeast Asia as a whole, simulations of prehistoric human faces this old have never been done before, as the technology that allows us to do so is relatively new. Aside from the Flores Man in Indonesia, which was also simulated in April, our simulation is only the second ever prehistoric human face to be created in this manner in the region. It is the first time that we have received a general idea of what the ancient ancestors of Thai people could look like.”

Done in collaboration with professor Susan Hayes of Australia’s University of Wollongong, the illustration of the Tham Lod woman’s face was achieved by comparing her skull — recreated as a resin model based on a CT scan of the fragments found — with measurements of skulls, facial structure, muscle and skin collected in large quantities from modern populations all over the world. The researchers reasoned that since the Tham Lod skull was anatomically similar to that of modern humans, the skull’s measurements could allow the researchers to recreate the woman’s face based on the structural ratios of the modern human face.

According to Rasmi, the recreation of the Tham Lod woman’s face is significant for several reasons. It offers Thai people a good sense of where they came from and how they came to be. Concrete evidence of prehistoric human life in Thailand can also offer answers to wider questions regarding the region and world’s ancient history.

“Based on current archaeological knowledge, there is evidence to support the belief that the fossils found in Thailand are Homo erectus that migrated from China and Indonesia, though there is not enough evidence to say with any certainty that their descendants are the ones who would eventually settle in Thailand, or if they simply stopped here on their way to somewhere else,” says Dr Rasmi.

However, by continuing to study and create physical simulations based on the remains of humans of various time periods found in Tham Lod, Rasmi believes we can gain a general impression of the course of prehistoric human development in the area, which could determine whether humans have lived and settled in Thailand since the Pleistocene era, or ice age.

“We found four sets of individual fossils from the site in Tham Lod, dating back 13,000, 12,000, 9,000 and 2,000 years,” explained the professor.

“If we can continue to create more physical simulations based on these remains, we should be able to determine whether the humans found 13,000 years ago are physically similar to the ones found in the other time periods. If they are, it is possible that they are ancestrally related, and as such could be the original ancestors of all Thai people. But if their appearances differ wildly, then it could also be assumed that the older humans either died off or migrated elsewhere, and as such are not the ancestors of modern Thai people.”

In Thailand, much evidence of prehistoric humans has been discovered towards the northern and southern regions of the country, near South China and northern Indonesia respectively. In China, hundreds of Homo erectus fossils as old as 500,000 years have been uncovered since the 1920s, while a 700,000-year-old Homo erectus fossil was found in Indonesia in the 19th century.

Accompanying evidence has allowed modern scientists to have a good sense of the migratory patterns of ancient humans in those countries. But while it may be safe to assume the constant migration of prehistoric human ancestors would have seen them end up in the area that would become Thailand, there has been peculiarly little evidence to suggest so.

“When it comes to the full picture of what the narrative of prehistoric humans was in Asia, we have extensive understandings of those in ancient China and Indonesia, but very little of the ones in Thailand. Homo erectus fossils similar to the ones found in China suggested that humans have existed in Thailand at least hundreds of thousands of years ago, but there is precious little evidence to determine their movements from there.

“If we can find more evidence of ancient human remains in various parts of Thailand, it may become the missing link in the historical narrative of the evolution of humans in Southeast Asia, even the world’s collective understanding of prehistoric humans.”

Evidence supports the belief that the fossils found in Thailand are Homo erectus that migrated from China and Indonesia. Photos: Pawat Laopaisarntaksin

Rasmi Shoocongdej, a professor of archaeology at Silpakorn University who led the expedition that unearthed the remains in 2002.