Peopling of Thailand

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The peopling of Thailand refers to the process by which the ethnic groups that comprise the population of present-day Thailand came to inhabit the region. Aside from ethnic groups representing recent expatriate migrations, and the earliest Negrito arrivals, the ethnic groups of Thailand are all believed to be descended from ethnicities associated with clades of Y-DNA Haplogroup O.

This suggests an ancient homogeneous ethnicity in Southeast Asia some 35,000 years ago which, over time, spread out and independently evolved into diverse sub-ethnicities, branches of which found their way to Thailand at different points in history, employing different migration routes and modes of transportation, only after being infused with elements of other cultures along the way, via both exposure and inter-breeding. The result is an extremely diverse population of distantly related tribes with a common Asian heritage steeped in ancient tradition.


Early arrival of the Aboriginal Mani people[edit]

The Sayams are an indigenous tribe of southern Thailand, who make their home on the Malay Peninsula. Although they now speak a Mon–Khmer language, they are not a Mon–Khmer people, but are a remnant of a much earlier migration into the region.[1] The Mani are the only Negrito people living in Thailand. This was proven when the Thai and Australian governments conducted DNA tests on them.

Origin of the Negrito[edit]

The Negritos are among the least-known of all living human groups, and their origin is much debated. The Malay name for them is orang asli, or "original people". They are most likely descendants of the indigenous populations of the Sunda landmass and New Guinea, predating the Mongoloid and Australoid peoples who later entered Southeast Asia.[2] Alternatively, some scientists claim they are a group of Australo-Melanesians who have undergone island dwarfing over thousands of years, reducing their food intake in order to cope with limited resources and adapting to a tropical rain forest environment. Regardless of the theory of origin, geographically speaking, they probably came to Thailand via the lower portion of the Malay Peninsula, through present-day Malaysia.

Coastal migration of the indigenous Mon–Khmer populations[edit]

A map showing present distribution of Austroasiatic languages throughout Southeast Asia.

The Mon–Khmer ethnicities were among the earliest aboriginal populations in Southeast Asia. The arrival of these ethnic groups likely represents the first waves of settlement in Thailand, although considerable inter-Southeast-Asian migration has taken place since their arrival, especially during the prevalence of the Khmer Empire in Thailand. Archaeologists suspect that the Mon–Khmer may have spread through Thailand throughout the metal ages, bringing rice agriculture, metalworking, domestic animals, and the Mon–Khmer languages to the region.[3] They are believed to have spread through Southeast Asia from west to east along the coast, and then subsequently migrated inland along the rivers to the central plains of Thailand, long before the arrival of the now dominant Tai.[3]

Origin of the Mon–Khmer peoples[edit]

Comparative linguistics reveals that the Mon–Khmer are of Austroasiatic descent. Genetic research suggests that Y-DNA Haplogroup O2a is the primary marker associated with the Austroasiatic ethnicities, suggesting that some 35,000 years ago, the Austroasiatic people were homogeneous with the Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, and Hmong–Mien peoples (prior to the evolution of Y-DNA Haplogroup O into its present clades), sharing a common homeland in Southeast Asia. The coastal immigration theory suggests that the Mon–Khmer probably first entered Thailand from the Malaysia.

Regional Mon–Khmer migration throughout Southeast Asia and cross-cultural infusion[edit]

Throughout the history of Southeast Asia, the various Mon–Khmer and other Austroasiatic ethnic groups of the region have migrated from one territory to another within the region, for reasons such as the expansion and contraction of political boundaries (particularly during the Khmer Empire), the expansion of individual tribal populations, and the threats imposed by other civilizations in the region. Also, in early days, the Austroasiatic were a hunter-gatherer civilization, a lifestyle which lends itself to continuous migration.

Along with this ongoing intra-regional migration, there has been considerable cross-cultural inter-marriage over the years between the Mon–Khmer peoples and other Southeast Asian civilizations, resulting in a Mon–Khmer population very different in both physical appearance and culture from other branches of the Austroasiatic ethnic tree who migrated elsewhere. Likewise, Mon–Khmer have largely assimilated into the later-arriving dominant Tai population in Thailand, beginning at an early stage in the region's history, thereby infusing their culture and genetics into the modern Thai people.

Individual Mon–Khmer ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

Khmer woman working in field

Since the Mon–Khmer were aboriginal to the region, there is great ethnic diversity among the individual ethnic groups. In fact, there are at least 15 distinct Mon–Khmer ethnic groups who make their home in Thailand today. These groups have resided within Thailand for thousands of years, with the possible exception of the Pearic peoples who are indigenous to neighboring Cambodia. The following Mon–Khmer ethnic groups currently reside in Thailand:

  • Aslian clade (indigenous to the Malay Peninsula)
  • Viet–Muong clade
    • So (forest tribe straddling the Thai-Laotian border)
  • Monic clade (indigenous to Burma and Thailand)
  • Pearic clade (indigenous to Cambodia, fled recently to Thailand, but were probably a people of Thailand as well during prehistoric times)
  • Katuic clade (indigenous to Thailand and surrounding countries to the east)
  • Khmer (indigenous to Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam)

Other Austroasiatic people[edit]

Arrival of Malayic peoples by sea[edit]

Traditional Moken boat

The Malay were historically a seafaring people, as is evident by their prominence on the islands of Southeast Asia, and they likely settled throughout the region via a mixture of sea and land routes. The Malayic migrations to Thailand took place over a vast expanse of time. The Mon–Khmer probably inhabited the Malay Peninsula prior to or contemporaneous with the Malay people, but long before the Tai came into the region.

Origin of the Malayic peoples[edit]

It is believed that the ancient Malayic speakers were once part of a greater Malayo-Polynesian people who originated in Philippines and then expanded outwards into Sumatra and later into the Malay Peninsula, establishing substantial settlements in present-day Malaysia. They were part of an earlier Austronesian ethnicity originating on the Island of Formosa (Taiwan).

It is believed that the Y-DNA haplogroup O1 is associated with the Austronesian people, thus suggesting that prior to their arrival in Taiwan, they were part of an earlier ethnicity in China which encompassed the Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic people as well. Archaeological evidence supports this theory, and suggests that the Austronesians may have come to Southeast Asia via boat, south from mainland China through Formosa island after settling for a period of time in mainland China.

Individual Malayo-Polynesian ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

  • Cham (population of 4,000 in Thailand, considered to be descendants of the kingdom of Champa, the only Malayo-Polynesian ethnic group in Thailand to have migrated by land, coming from the coastal region of Vietnam where they had settled over a thousand years ago by sea, to Thailand via Cambodia in recent times)
  • Malay (Peninsular and Island ethnic groups in Southern Thailand)
  • Moklen clade (Nomadic sea-based tribes)
  • Urak Lawoi (Sea Gypsies residing on the islands of Lipe and Adang, in the Adang Archipelago off the western coast of Thailand)

Gradual inland migration of Tai peoples from China[edit]

The Tai migration from the northern mountains into Thailand and Laos was a slow process, with the Tai generally remaining near to the mountainous regions within the region, where they were able to use their specialized agricultural knowledge relating to the use of mountain water resources for rice production. The earliest Tai settlements in Thailand were along the river valleys in along the northern border of the country.

Eventually, the Tai settled the central plains of Thailand (which were covered with dense rainforest) and displaced and inter-bred with the pre-existing Austroasiatic population. The languages and culture of the Tai eventually came to dominate the regions of both modern-day Laos and Thailand. In more recent times, many of the Tai tribes of Laos also migrated west across the border establishing communities in Thailand. The Laotian Tai ethnic groups, often referred to as the Lao, are largely clustered in the Isan region of Thailand.

Origin of the Tai peoples[edit]

Photograph of a Tai-Dong women and man of Guizhou, China, in traditional dresses, similar to the existing tribe in northern provinces of Thailand

Comparative linguistic research seems to indicate that the Tai people were a proto-Tai–Kadai-speaking culture of southern China, and like the Malayo-Polynesians, they may originally have been of Austronesian descent.[4] Prior to living in mainland China, the Tai are thought to have migrated from a homeland on the island of Taiwan, where they spoke a dialect of proto-Austronesian or one of its descendant languages.[4]

Unlike the Malayo-Polynesian group who later sailed south to the Philippines and other parts of maritime Southeast Asia, the ancestors of the modern Tai-Kadai people sailed west to mainland China and possibly traveled along the Pearl River, where their language greatly changed from other Austronesian languages under the influence of Sino-Tibetan and Hmong–Mien language infusion. The coming of the Han Chinese to this part of southern China may have prompted the Tai to migrate once again. This time they went over the mountains of southern China into Southeast Asia through the mountains of Burma and Laos to the north of today's Thailand.[5]

The Tai ethnic groups are believed to have begun migrating south from China to Southeast Asia during the first millennium CE. While this theory of the origin of the Tai currently predominates, there is insufficient archaeological evidence to prove it, and linguistic evidence alone is not conclusive. In support of the theory, however, it is believed the O1 Y-DNA haplogroup is associated with both the Austronesian people and the Tai.

Tai ethnic fusion[edit]

Over the centuries, the Tai intermarried and absorbed many of the other populations who co-inhabited and/or politically occupied the region, particularly populations of Mon–Khmer, Burmese, and Chinese descent. This fusion of ethnicity has led to considerable genetic diversity in the modern Thai people, and has resulted in a Tai population that differs in culture, language, and apparel from the Tai ethnic groups who remained in China. Many of the individual Tai ethnic groups have assumed a common Thai identity and have adopted a nationalistic view of their culture.

Individual Tai ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

There are presently more than 30 distinct Tai ethnic groups in Thailand, making up nearly 85% of the nation's population. The genetic stratification of the ethnic clades of the Tai ethnicity is an ongoing topic of debate among linguists and other social scientists.

Continuous diverse Chinese immigration from the 13th century[edit]

The history of Chinese immigration to Thailand dates back many centuries, and the specific Chinese ethnic groups which made their way to Thailand are numerous, although there is a greater concentration of Chinese from the southern provinces due to their geographic proximity to Thailand. The Chinese are a part of the greater Sino-Tibetan ethnicity which also includes the Tibeto-Burmans. The Chinese immigrants were largely able to merge into the predominant Tai culture, and have contributed significantly to the economy and infrastructure of Thailand over the years. Every king of the Chakri Dynasty which currently rules Thailand is part Chinese, on his mother's side. Also of note, the Khek River in Thailand derives its name from the Thai word Khek, which is the Thai name for the Hakka people of China who settled along its banks in Phitsanulok Province.

Chinese immigration during the Ayutthayan Period[edit]

Chinese traders in Thailand, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces, began arriving in Ayutthaya by at least the 13th century. Ayutthaya was under almost constant Burmese threat from the 16th century, and the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Empire was alarmed by the Burmese military might. From 1766-1769, the Qianlong Emperor sent his armies four times to subdue the Burmese, but all four invasions failed. Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767. During the Ayutthaya period, many Chinese traders and soldiers inter-married with local Tai, infusing Chinese culture among the population early in its history.

18th and 19th century male Chinese immigration[edit]

In the late 18th century, King Taksin of Thonburi, who was himself half-Chinese, actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. Settlers came from Chaozhou prefecture in large numbers.[6] By 1825, the population of Chinese in Thailand had reached 230,000, and it grew steadily due to a constant stream of Chinese immigrants to the country throughout the 19th century. Early Chinese immigration consisted almost entirely of Chinese men, who, of necessity, married Thai women. The children of such intermarriages were called luk-jin (ลูกจีน), meaning "children of Chinese" in Thai.[7]

20th century immigration of Chinese families[edit]

The Chinese population in Thailand had risen to 792,000 by 1910. By 1932, approximately 12.2% of the population was ethnic Chinese.[citation needed] The corruption of the Qing dynasty and the massive population increase in China, combined with very high taxes, caused many families to leave for Thailand in search of work and a better life. Those who came before the First World War came overland or by sailboats called sampams, while after World War II most arrived by steam ship.[8] The earlier tradition of Chinese-Thai intermarriage declined once large numbers of Chinese women began immigrating in the early 20th century. Moreover, the new arrivals frequently came as families and resisted assimilation, retaining their Chinese culture and living in all Chinese areas.

Burmese infusion during the Ayutthaya Period[edit]

Historical evidence suggests that Burmese intermarriage with the Tai in Thailand likely occurred during the Burmese occupation of Ayutthaya. These Burmese invaders from the Pagan Kingdom were largely of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity, particularly members of the Bamar people, (with an infusion of indigenous Southeast Asian Mon–Khmer ancestry).

Origin of the Tibeto-Burman peoples[edit]

The Tibeto-Burmans in Southeast Asia primarily took a migration route from western China, expanding southward into the Himalayas of Tibet, and southeast into Burma. Comparative linguistics suggests that the Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups are part of a larger ethnicity referred to as Sino-Tibetan. The Sino-Tibetan, Hmong–Mien, Tai, and Austronesian ethnicities all have a high incidence of Y-DNA haplogroup O, which suggests a common ancestral ethnicity along the lines of 35,000 years ago in an area within the borders of the present-day Peoples Republic of China.

Lolo migration from Tibet via Burma[edit]

Loloish Akha tribe wearing traditional dress

Some Loloish tribes such as the Lisu arrived in Thailand as recent as 100 years ago,[9] while others came at a much earlier date. The Lolo are believed to be descended from the ancient Qiang people of western China, who are also said to be the ancestors of the Tibetan, Naxi, and Qiang peoples. They migrated from southeastern Tibet through Sichuan and into Yunnan Province, where their largest populations can be found today.

Origin of the Lolo[edit]

The Lolo (also commonly referred to as the Yi) are one of the two major distinct Tibeto-Burmese ethnicities within present-day Thailand, along with the Karen. The Lolo migrated southeast from Burma into Thailand.

Individual Loloish ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

The Loloish of Thailand are generally hill tribes in the northern portion of the country, near the border with Burma. A list of the Loloish ethnic groups of significant size within Thailand are as follows:[10]

  • Southern Loloish clade
  • Northern Loloish clade
    • Lisu (population of approximately 16,000 in Thailand)

Hmong–Mien migration from China via Laos[edit]

Women in traditional Hmong dress

Like the Lolo, many of the Hmong–Mien ethnic groups are among the hill tribes in Thailand. Their population is clustered in the northeastern region of Thailand near the Laotian border. The Hmong–Mien of Thailand generally migrated from China in the second half of the 19th century through Laos, where they established themselves for some time prior to their arrival in Thailand.[11] An exception to the China-Laos-Thailand migration pattern is the Iu Mien people, who apparently passed through Vietnam during the 13th century, prior to entering Thailand through Laos.[11] The Iu Mien arrived in Thailand approximately 200 years ago, contemporaneously with a large number of other Hmong–Mien migrants.[11]

Origin of the Hmong–Mien peoples[edit]

The primary homeland of the Hmong–Mien ethnicity is said to be Kweichow, a province of southern China, where they settled at least 2,000 years ago.[11]

Palaungic Arrival as Burmese Refugees[edit]

The Palaungic people are indigenous Southeast Asians. The center of their population cluster lies in present-day Burma and neighboring regions of China. Many of the Palaungic people arrived in Thailand recently as refugees.

Origin of the Palaungic peoples[edit]

The Palaungic are closely related to the Mon–Khmer. They are an Austroasiatic people of Burma.

Individual Palaungic ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

The following is a list of Palaungic ethnic groups of significant size in Thailand:

  • Blang (larger population clusters in China and Burma)
  • Lamet (larger population cluster in Laos)
  • Lawa (inhabitants of Thailand and Laos before the arrival of Tai people)
  • Mok (nearly extinct culture along the Wang River in Thailand with only 7 members able to speak their aboriginal language)
  • Palaung (indigenous to Burma where they have a population of 257,539, compared to a population of 5,000 in Thailand who arrived recently as refugees)

Karen arrival as refugees from Burma[edit]

The Karen left Tibet and migrated to Burma as refugees, establishing themselves along the Burmese border with Thailand. When during World War II the Japanese occupied Burma, long-term tensions between the Karen and Burmese turned into open fighting. After the war ended, Burma was granted independence in January 1948, and the Karen, led by the KNU, attempted to co-exist peacefully with the Burman ethnic majority. However, in the fall of 1948, the Burmese government, led by U Nu, began raising and arming irregular political militias known as Sitwundan. In January 1949, some of these militias went on a rampage through Karen communities.[12] In 2004, the BBC cited aid agencies estimates that up to 200,000 Karen were driven from their homes during decades of war, with 120,000 more refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the Burmese-Thai border. The conflict continues as of 2009.

Origin of the Karen[edit]

The Karen people's ancestors were from Tibet, and are Tibeto-Burman, and therefore distantly related to the Lolo.

Individual Karen ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

There are approximately 510,000 people of Karen descent living in Thailand.[10] A list of the Karen ethnic groups of significant size within Thailand are:[10]

Khmuic arrival as refugees from Laos[edit]

The Khmuic people are indigenous Southeast Asians. The center of their population cluster in present-day Laos. They were by and large absorbed by the later arriving Tai ethnicity, except for small populations that migrated to the mountainous regions of Laos during the Tai migration into the region. Most of these ethnic groups entered Thailand recently as refugees from Laos around the outset of the Vietnam War. An exception is the Mlabri, who are a nomadic people whose dwindling population has straddled the forests along the Thai-Laotian border for quite some time.

Origin of the Khmuic peoples[edit]

The Khmuic peoples are closely related to the Palaungic peoples. They are an Austroasiatic people of Laos.

Individual Khmuic ethnic groups in Thailand[edit]

The following is a list of Khmuic ethnic groups of significant size in Thailand:

Expatriate populations in recent times[edit]

In recent times, since the development of inter-continental modes of transport in Thailand, including air travel, populations of Bengalis, Japanese, Koreans, Europeans, and Africans have added to the ethnic pool in Thailand, particularly around Bangkok. The Thai often refer to those of European descent as farang (from the Indo-Persian word farangi, meaning foreigner), carrying the connotation of "outsider".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Negrito of Thailand-The Mani
  2. ^ Getting Here: The Story of Human Evolution, William Howells, Compass Press, 1993
  3. ^ a b ISBN 978-0-521-01647-6 A History of Thailand
  4. ^ a b Sagart, L. 2004. The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai–Kadai. Oceanic Linguistics 43.411-440.
  5. ^ Stratification in the peopling of China: how far does the linguistic evidence match genetics and archaeology?
  6. ^ Bertil Lintner. Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia. Macmillan Publishers. p. 234. ISBN 1-4039-6154-9. 
  7. ^ Rosalind C. Morris (2000). In the Place of Origins: Modernity and Its Mediums in Northern Thailand. Duke University Press. p. 334. ISBN 0-8223-2517-9. 
  8. ^ ARAdmin. "Chinese Migration to Thailand". Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  10. ^ a b c "Thailand". Ethnologue. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Genetic variation in Northern Thailand Hill Tribes: origins and relationships with social structure and linguistic differences". PubMed Central (PMC). Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  12. ^ Martin Smith (1991). Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. pp. 62–63,72–73,78–79,82–84,114–118,86,119.