Cycles of sea-level change had a significant impact on Southeast Asian prehistory and continue to affect the lives of people living in this region today. Under glacial conditions, with lowered seas, the continent of Asia extended into the Southern Hemisphere, while up to 75% of that additional landmass (‘Sundaland’) is submerged during interglacials, making this the world’s largest single area of land lost cyclically to the sea.

Centred on the Tràng An World Heritage property in northern Vietnam, the 3.5-year (2016-2019) £1m Global Challenges Research Fund (AHRC) and Xuan Truong Enterprise SUNDASIA project examines archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence spanning the last three marine transgressions (59,000-1500 years ago), in order to explore how prehistoric communities adapted to past cycles of coastal inundation. The project further assesses how our understanding of human and environmental responses in the remote past can better inform modern responses to the effects of climate-change. With more than 23% of the world’s population currently living along coastlines or on low-lying islands, many communities face the urgent threat of climate-driven sea-level rise, and this is particularly acute in Southeast Asia where the rate of increase is three times the global average.

Scientists and policy-makers regularly incorporate long-term palaeoenvironmental records into predictive models of climate change; however comparatively little attention has been paid in that effort to considering how people coped with such changes in the past. Devising adaptive measures that permit a diverse repertoire of responses to climate-change is seen as key to the increasing the accuracy and practicality of modern models, yet these measures remain poorly understood. With sea-level change having been a powerful driver behind culture-economic systems for tens of millennia in the ecologically diverse environments of Southeast Asia, the archaeological record of this region and particularly that from Tràng An offers enormous potential to help bridge this knowledge gap.

SUNDASIA grew out of archaeological research led by Ryan Rabett in Tràng An, starting in 2007 (more information about that work can be found at the Tràng An Archaeological Project archived website), and from archaeological and geological investigations undertaken in Tràng An in preparation for its nomination as a World Heritage Site.

(Featured image: wave-cut notch – R. Rabett)