Tourism Thứ sáu, 06/09/2013 09:52

Paddling the Trang An trail

The secret cradle of Vietnamese civilization is now firmly in Unesco's spotlight

Trang An boasts a rich and ancient cultural heritage along with stunning landscape.
Trang An boasts a rich and ancient cultural heritage along with stunning landscape.

Spread across the northern province of Ninh Binh, the stunning Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is often called Vietnam's second Ha Long Bay.

Recent archaeological excavations in the area have revealed that, lurking behind the magnificent beauty of the area's dramatic mountains and clear blue waters, is a long-hidden story that provides exciting clues about the culture of the ancient Vietnamese.

A plethora of archaeological objects, including many limestone artefacts left behind by prehistoric man, have been found at several cave sites in the area.

According to associate professor Nguyen Khac Su from the Institute of Archaeology, head of the excavation team at Trang An, these objects offer clear evidence of a long-lasting settlement in the caves of the limestone valleys at an absolutely identifiable date.

"We have been able to discover that the tradition of human cave residency dates back 23,000 years," he says. "The relics and artifacts excavated in Trang An's cave system show that remarkable prehistoric values developed here and passed from generation to generation, becoming a tradition."

In the caves where Su led his excavation, his team discovered an abundance of shell deposits from both fresh water and marine molluscs, some of which were used to make ancient tools and jewellery.

"Similar finds have been made in other northern provinces. Their ages range from 7,000 to 8,000 years old. Jewellery shells were used for both decoration and as currency," Su explains.

The team also uncovered various work tools made from limestone - some relatively fragile but others harder than glass. The haul was complete with the discovery of pottery from the New Stone era.

Samples of natural material such as pollen, stalactites and soil were taken from the cultural items in order to date the finds as well as shed some light on the geological changes to the region.

Dr Nishimura Masanari, a Japanese archaeologist, has discovered similarities between the Trang An caves and others in the Asian region.

"In Vietnam up to now, few limestone tools have been found, except here at Trang An, while in Malaysia a few similar tools have been discovered. I guess they are from the Hoa Binh culture (12,000-10,000 BC). They indicate that several archaeological caves in Southeast Asia share certain similar features," he says.

More evidence found in the Trang An caves, such as wooden boat-coffins, Han-era tombs and diamond shaped decorative tiles, suggests that the ancient Vietnamese continued to occupy the area well into the proto and early-historic periods towards the end of the last period of glaciation, when the area's most dramatic geological transformation took place as the area changed into its present shape.

"This is truly a unique discovery, a typical example showing the tradition Vietnamese people have had historically of settling in caves," Su stresses excitedly.

Su's team also discovered many bones from buffaloes, cows, stags, and deer. Most surprisingly, the bones of rhinos were discovered, which left scientists scratching their heads - the swampy and sunken environment of Trang An does not match their natural habitat. Shells from oysters stuck in the sunken limestone demonstrate rising sea levels and mark the period that humans started coming into contact with the ocean.

The gradual change from freshwater to marine molluscs used as food, culture and ancient tools shows that the increasingly water-dominated environment caused the ancient human inhabitants of the caves to change their lifestyle, diet and technology.

"It can be inferred that dwellers at Trang An were good at adapting themselves to environmental changes," Su says.

According to the professor, the results of the excavations are contributing significantly to a much wider regional and global reassessment of early human behavioural and cultural diversity while providing some elusive answers to questions about human adaptation in tropical environments.

Not only serving as cradle of civilisation of ancient Vietnamese, Trang An also used to house the first capital of the Vietnamese feudal and independent state, Hoa Lu, more than 1,000 years ago. Its rugged landscape provided a favourable location for a secure and easily defended citadel.

Even though over 10 centuries have passed and Hoa Lu no longer exists, relics have been left behind, including the temples of Dinh Tien Hoang (968-979), Le Dai Hanh (980-1005) and several one pillar pagodas from different dynasties. All have helped to build the legend that exists around this ancient culture.

Experts predict that these recent archaeological discoveries mean that Trang An mean will soon be recognised as Unesco world heritage.

"With its well-protected and unique culture, landscape, geology and geomorphology, we strongly believe that Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex will become Vietnam's next World Heritage site in the near future," Van says.

Unesco's criteria for World Heritage

_ It offers a typical example of the residential culture of early humans and the process of exploiting earth and sea, which is a key demonstration of human-environment interaction through some of the most turbulent climatic and geographical changes in the planet's recent history.

_ It contains special natural phenomenon and areas of outstanding natural beauty and aesthetic value.

_ The area is a remarkable example of the changing historical phases on Earth, including the processes of life development, geologic activities forming topography and geomorphology.

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