Early History of Cambodia till 9th Century

The historical significance of Cambodia in mainland Southeast Asia is considerably disproportionate to its present-day reduced territory and limited political power. Much of the Indochinese mainland, including large chunks of present-day southern Vietnam, Laos, and eastern Thailand was part of the Khmer (Cambodian) state between the 11th and 13th centuries. The cultural sway of Cambodia over other countries, particularly Laos and Thailand, has been colossal.

Early history

It is not exactly known for how long people have inhabited what is now Cambodia, where they emanated from, or what languages they spoke prior to introduction of writing (based on a Sanskrit-style alphabet), about the 3rd century CE. Carbon-14 dating provides indications that people who made and used pottery were present in Cambodia as early as 4000 BCE. Those and ensuing findings suggest that those early people, like present-day Cambodians, were of slight to medium build, consumed a considerable quantity of fish, constructed their houses on wooden piles, and raised pigs and water buffalo.

Whether the early inhabitants of Cambodia arrived originally or primarily from the north, south or west is still debated, as are notions about waves of different peoples moving through the area in prehistoric times. Archaeological discoveries since 1950 suggest that prehistoric mainland Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, had a relatively sophisticated culture. Those finds include artificial circular earthworks believed to be from the 1st millennium BCE. Some scholars have even traced the first casting of bronze and the first cultivation of rice to the region.

Funan and Chenla

Indian influences were the most momentous in Cambodia’s early history during the first centuries CE, when Indian and Chinese pilgrims and traders stopped along the coasts of present-day Vietnam and Cambodia and exchanged metals and silks for aromatic wood, ivory, spices, and gold. Written sources dating from that epoch are almost entirely in Chinese and refer to a kingdom or cluster of kingdoms flourishing in southern Cambodia, known to Chinese writers as “Funan.” Chinese writers talked about the extent of Indian influence in the kingdom and accounted for it by mentioning a local story, dating from the 6th century, of Kaundinya (an Indian Brahman), who went to the region and “changed its institutions to follow Indian models.

There is no clarity about the confusing political developments that occurred in the Cambodian region between the downfall of Funan in the 6th century and the formation of a centralized state in northwestern Cambodia about three centuries later. It has been commonplace for modern writers to use “Chenla,” the contemporary Chinese term for the region, when discussing Cambodia during that time. Chinese sources suggest that there were in any case two kingdoms in Cambodia, known as “Water Chenla” and “Land Chenla,” that vied for acknowledgement from China in that period. Whereas the geographic centre for both Funan and Water Chenla was situated in the Mekong River delta south and east of present-day Phnom Penh and stretched into what is now Vietnam, the heartland of Land Chenla seems to have been farther north along the Mekong, with a vital cult site called Wat Phu set in present-day southern Laos.

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