Over the course of millennia, migrations from southern China peopled Southeast Asia, including the area of contemporary Thailand. Archaeological evidence indicates a thriving Paleolithic culture in the region and continuous human habitation for at least 20,000 years.
The pace of economic and social development was uneven and conditioned by climate and geography. The dense forests of the Chao Phraya Valley in the central part of Thailand and the Malay Peninsula in the south produced such an abundance of food that for a long time there was no need to move beyond a hunting-and- gathering economy. In contrast, rice cultivation appeared early in the highlands of the far north and hastened the development of a more communal social and political organization.
Excavations at Ban Chiang, a small village on the Khorat Plateau in northeastern Thailand, have revealed evidence of prehistoric inhabitants who may have forged bronze implements as early as 3000 B.C. and cultivated rice around the fourth millennium B.C. If so, the Khorat Plateau would be the oldest rice-producing area in Asia because the inhabitants of China at that time still consumed millet. Archaeologists have assembled evidence that the bronze implements found at the Thai sites were forged in the area and not transported from elsewhere. They supported this claim by pointing out that both copper and tin deposits (components of bronze) are found in close proximity to the Ban Chiang sites. If these claims are correct, Thai bronze forgers would have predated the "Bronze Age," which archaeologists had traditionally believed began in the Middle East around 2800 B.C. and in China about a thousand years later.
Before the end of the first millennium B.C., tribal territories had begun to coalesce into protohistorical kingdoms whose names survive in Chinese dynastic annals of the period. Funan, a state of substantial proportions, emerged in the second century B.C. as the earliest and most significant power in Southeast Asia. Its Hindu ruling class controlled all of present-day Cambodia and extended its power to the center of modern Thailand. The Funan economy was based on maritime trade and a well-developed agricultural system; Funan maintained close commercial contact with India and served as a base for the Brahman merchant-missionaries who brought Hindu culture to Southeast Asia.
On the narrow isthmus to the southwest of Funan, Malay citystates controlled the portage routes that were traversed by traders and travelers journeying between India and Indochina. By the tenth century A.D. the strongest of them, Tambralinga (present-day Nakhon Si Thammarat), had gained control of all routes across the isthmus. Along with other city-states on the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, it had become part of the Srivijaya Empire, a maritime confederation that between the seventh and thirteenth centuries dominated trade on the South China Sea and exacted tolls from all traffic through the Strait of Malacca. Tambralinga adopted Buddhism, but farther south many of the Malay city-states converted to Islam, and by the fifteenth century an enduring religious boundary had been established on the isthmus between Buddhist mainland Southeast Asia and Muslim Malaya.
Although the Thai conquered the states of the isthmus in the thirteenth century and continued to control them in the modern period, the Malay of the peninsula were never culturally absorbed into the mainstream of Thai society. The differences in religion, language, and ethnic origin caused strains in social and political relations between the central government and the southern provinces into the late twentieth century.
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