East Asia has China, West Asia has Mesopotamia, and South Asia has India as its center of civilization. Why doesn't Southeast Asia have one?





Samuel Chan

Likely for the same reason most places in the world didn’t have a center of civilization, including Europe — surplus agriculture initially developed in only a few specific places in the world, forming history’s first cities before gradually spreading their influence to other places over time. In the Old World, there were FOUR pristine cradles of civilization that arose: Mesopotamia, China, India, and Egypt, all of which formed independently with virtually no external influence (note that Greece isn’t considered a pristine civilization because it grew from Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences).



So the question is, why did these four places in particular develop civilization first and not elsewhere? Why not Southeast Asia? Or Europe? Or sub-Saharan Africa? The reason is because these four places were the first to experience the Agricultural Revolution thanks to moderate climate, abundant river systems, and good soil quality. Agriculture is the foundation of urbanization, which in turn fosters civilization, which in turn develops more advanced technologies to allow less advanced regions to catch up instead of starting from scratch.


In other words, the fortuitous climate and geography of these four places allowed them to become cradles of civilization. After these civilizations formed, the rest of the Old World borrowed and built upon their developments to create their own unique civilizations.



In fact, the history of Southeast Asia in particular is remarkably similar to the history of Europe, especially from the neolithic era until the end of the premodern period. Just as pre-civilization Europe produced stone megastructures like Stonehenge and Newgrange, pre-civilization Southeast Asia produced giant stoneworks like Gunung Padang, the megaliths of Bada Valley, and the Plain of Jars.



Just as the Agricultural Revolution later spread into Europe from the Middle East (Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent), agriculture spread into Southeast Asia from China (the Yangtze and Yellow River basins).[1]

These agricultural influences built the foundation of urbanization in Europe and Southeast Asia.




Just as the first European civilizations emerged from the influences of pristine cradles in Mesopotamia and Egypt (writing, architecture, art, mathematics), the first Southeast Asian civilizations emerged from the influences of pristine cradles in China and India (rice and metalworking from China, Hindu and Buddhist statecraft from India).



Just as Europe invented its first writing systems by deriving them from Middle Eastern scripts (Greek alphabet from Phoenician and Cretan Hieroglyphics from Sumerian), Southeast Asia invented its first writing systems by deriving them from Indic and Chinese scripts (Pyu script from Brahmi and Zhuang script from Chinese).



Just as the founders of European civilization were the ancient Greeks, Mycenaeans, and Minoans, the founders of Southeast Asian civilization were the ancient Burmese (the Pyu city-states), Cambodians (Funan kingdom), and Malays (Langkasuka kingdom).



Just as the Roman and Byzantine empires expanded across Europe and introduced statecraft and urbanization to tribal European groups (Germans, Celts, Slavs), the empires of Bagan (Myanmar), Srivijaya (Indonesia), and Angkor (Cambodia) expanded across Southeast Asia and introduced statecraft and urbanization to tribal Southeast Asian groups (Siamese, Shans, Laos, and tribal Austronesians and Austroasiatics).



Just as Europe adopted Abrahamic religions from the Middle East (Christianity), Southeast Asia adopted Dharmic religions from India (Buddhism and Hinduism).



Just as Europe syncretized Abrahamic religions with pagan beliefs, Southeast Asia syncretized Dharmic religions with animist beliefs. This is precisely why the Christian god is depicted as a sky father in European art (an indigenous European concept), while Southeast Asian Buddists and Hindus still revere guardian spirits in nature and the spirits of their own ancestors (indigenous Southeast Asian concepts).



Just as Europe innovated upon influences from the Middle East to build great cathedrals (Christianity and the use of true domes and arches), Southeast Asia innovated upon influences from India and China to build great temples, mixng Hindu-Buddhist architecture with local styles, Chinese motifs (such as guardian lions and dragons), and the Chinese tradition of creating galleries at right angles.*



Just as Christian figures in European art were often depicted to look more like Europeans than the Semitic people who originally developed Christianity, Hindu-Buddhist figures in Southeast Asia were often depicted to look more like the Southeast Asian locals than the Indians who originally developed Buddhism and Hinduism.



Just as nearly all domesticated horses in the world trace their lineage back to those that were domesticated by ancient European pastoralists, nearly all domesticated chickens on every continent trace their lineage back to those that were domesticated by Southeast Asian farmers. Poultry has historically been among humanity’s biggest source of animal protein.



Just as premodern Europeans revolutionized land transportation by introducing their ancient vehicles to the Middle East, India, and Africa (chariots, carts, the wheel itself), premodern Southeast Asians revolutionized water transportation by introducing their seafaring technologies to China, India, Arabia, and Africa (junks, double outriggers, crab claw sails, the lashed lug technique).




Southeast Asia didn’t have a center of civilization for the same reason most places in the world didn’t have one, namely because agriculture developed in only a handful of places that just happened to have the right conditions to support it (abundant rivers, stable climate, and quality soil). After these cradles of civilizations formed, the rest of the world adopted their influences and proceeded to build their own civilizations. Southeast Asia was one of them and went on to innovate upon these influences in spectacular fashion, erecting its own civilizations that were as unique as any.


Interestingly, Southeast Asia shared a remarkably similar history to Europe up until the modern period, despite the fact they’re located half a world apart. Note that I’m not the first person to make this observation. There’s a book called “Strange Parallels” by Victor Lieberman that discusses the similarites between state formation in Europe and Southeast Asia. However, I’ve never read the book nor any summary on it. Everything I’ve written is based completely on my own reading of history, but I mention the book to assure I’m not the only person who has noticed similarities between Southeast Asian and European history.





Rudy Widodo

If you constrict your view to just Maritime Southeast Asia, then there was one very influential kingdom, the Srivijaya. It is a Malay kingdom with its capital located at modern-day Palembang, Indonesia. It’s territorial expansion included most of Western Indonesia, Malay Peninsula and Southern Vietnam. Even after the fall of Srivajaya, the regions surrounding the former capital (e.g. Riau, Jambi, Johor) had been very important throughout the history of the Malay Archipelago. Even the official language of Indonesia (the 4th most populous country in the world) is a Malay dialect. I’m also pretty sure the official language of Malaysia is too.





Suttichart Denpreuktham

There was, or were to be precised. On the mainland you got the Khmer Empire which effectively trnasformed into the modern day Cambodian Kingdom. While they had long ceases to exst as a major power, the essense of theor culture and arguably even their dynastic succession is still surviving today. Obviously they aren’t the same line of rulers from the ancient Khmer empire but so did China various dynasties. Their culture and legacy are pretty much survived by every culture in mainland SEA except Vietnam.


To the South you got the ancient maritime kingdoms, although their cultural heritage were pretty much replaced and influenced by the Arabic and European, they were a major ancient kingdoms back them and influenced the foundation of both the mainland and maritime SEA nations today.





Ben Huang

Because Southeast Asia is just too hot, too humid.

If you check the climate zones of China’s Yellow River, Mesopotamia and Indus River Valley, they are all Subtropics.

Egypt is in this climate zone too.

The most important factor that impacts civilizations is the environment.






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