Spirit Cave, Thailand

A delayed report from Thailand on our trip to the Spirit Cave near the Burma border. Speleothems have become a popular proxy in the past decade, making up many new contestants in Mann et al 2008. We’ve discussed speleothems on numerous occasions, making reference to Jud Partin’s speleo in Borneo, a number of Chinese speleos (Dongge, Wanxiang, Shihua, Hulu) and to a couple in Oman/Yemen. The usual speleo proxy is dO18, though Mann et al 2008 uses dC13 (without bothering to ensure that it’s a temperature proxy).

In the location map below, I’ve shown the location map of speleos in east Asia where I’ve located data plus the location of Spirit Cave. In addition, I’ve shown the locations of Asian ice core sites with dO18 analyses, most of which are execrably reported and archived Lonnie Thompson effusions. There are a few Indian speleos (not shown) where, like Lonnie Thompson, squiggles have been published in dead tree literature, but without archiving of sample results. Looks to me like this would be a relatively interesting location for a speleo study.

The cave itself was pretty interesting to visit. Here are a couple of pictures – one looking out the cave, showing that it’s a pretty cave; one with a picture of a couple of stalagmites. Stalactites (the ones from the top) tended to be long and pointy; impressionistically, stalagmites (the stumpy ones on the bottom) seem to be the ones used in dO18 studies, though I don’t guarantee this.


So this might be an interesting location for a Jud Partin expedition. It’s easily accessible from Pai, where there is good coffee (though no Starbucks) and there’s even a lodge at the cave. There are other caves in the area as well (e.g. Chiang Dao).

Googling Spirit Cave, Thailand turned up a number of interesting references. Our tour was done on bamboo rafts with local hill tribes people as guides. We were shown some very old rock paintings; according to url, archaeologists have dated occupation (the Hoabinhiam people) here as some of the very earliest civilization in the world.

As Gorman excavated the floor of Spirit Cave, he made several surprising discoveries. Amongst the dirt and stone lay the remains of several plant species including two probable beans, a possible pea, a pepper, a Chinese water chestnut, betel seeds, and bits of bottle gourd and cucumber. Carbon-14 dating of these remains placed them between 9000 and 6000 BC. Some of these plants could not be distinguished from wild varieties, but others such as gourds, water chestnuts, and betel seeds had probably been domesticated. The early dates of these plant remains places the domestication of plant life in Southeast Asia at least as early as the domestication in the Middle East and possibly earlier….

In a layer dated to approximately 6600 BC, well-developed pottery, stone tools, and small slate knives were found. The pottery was burnished and marked by the woven cords used to make it and many of the pots had plant fibers used as a temper to reduce breakability and improve workability. The stone tools, called adzes, were rectangular and partially polished. These tools challenged the then accepted theory that the Chinese introduced polishing to their more primitive neighbors in Southeast Asia in 3000 BC. The stone tools found at Spirit Cave, some dated as early as 7000 BC, predate discoveries from northern China by several millennium. This lead Gorman to hypothesize that the Chinese may have learned stone polishing techniques from the Southeast Asians and not the other way around. The discovery of these tools also supported the hypothesis of an early agricultural society as similiar tools were used elsewhere to harvest rice.

I don’t vouch for this,; I’m merely reporting.

Southeast Asia was a very interesting location in the post Ice Age period. Much lower Ice Age sea levels resulted in much presently submerged area being land (termed “Sundaland” in some literature.) One site suggested that some rivers deriving from Himalayan glaciers were much larger in the post Ice Age period than at present, which would provide an interesting explanation for the Saraswati River of the Vedas, which is placed more or less in the location of the moden dry Gharggar.


  1. Bernie
    Posted Apr 1, 2009 at 12:38 PM | Permalink

    Nice point about data over turning a widely accepted but difficult to prove hypothesis.

  2. pyromancer76
    Posted Apr 1, 2009 at 1:44 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for the report. Good to have the different study sites together on a map plus your comments on the quality of science of some of the studies.

  3. dearieme
    Posted Apr 1, 2009 at 1:56 PM | Permalink

    Stalactite/stalagmite mnemonic:-
    The tites come down when the mites go up.

    • Dan White
      Posted Apr 2, 2009 at 8:39 PM | Permalink

      Re: dearieme (#3),

      The mnemonic I like is that stala”C”tites grow from the “C”eiling and stala”G”mites grow from the “G”round. Hard to forget after learning that.

  4. Dave Andrews
    Posted Apr 1, 2009 at 3:33 PM | Permalink


    From the look on their faces are you sure those stalgmites were’nt just posing for the camera? 🙂

  5. Posted Apr 1, 2009 at 4:39 PM | Permalink

    The cave opening reminds me of Natural Bridge in Virginia.

  6. christopher booker
    Posted Apr 1, 2009 at 5:41 PM | Permalink

    Stve, I thought you were meant to be on holiday in Thailand! But a very interesting post, not least providing you with first-hand evidence of yet another twist on the labyrinthine world of Mannomatology.

  7. christopher booker
    Posted Apr 2, 2009 at 5:30 AM | Permalink

    Sorry, I should have phrased that better, by saying that when Steve had been in Thailand I thought he was meant to be on holiday. I saw him in New York putting on a first-class presentation at the Heartland conference and was well aware he was now back from his caving trip. Also my apologies for my computer calling him ‘Stve’. I’m not into texting.

  8. David L. Hagen
    Posted Apr 2, 2009 at 9:45 PM | Permalink

    For those eager to explore more on climate change associated with tree rings and stalagmites, See: This Week in SCIENCE April 3 2009, 324 (5923)
    Warm in the Past

    Figure 1 During the Medieval Climate Anomaly (approximately 800 to 1300 A.D.) temperatures in Europe were generally warmer than immediately before or after. The source of that warmth is hotly debated. Trouet et al. (p. 78) present a reconstruction of the North Atlantic Oscillation–the dominant mode of atmospheric circulation variability in the North Atlantic region–that extends back to the middle of the Medieval Climate Anomaly, based on data from Moroccan tree rings and a Scottish stalagmite. The North Atlantic Oscillation, it seems, was in a persistently positive state during the Medieval Climate Anomaly. The authors suggest that prevailing La Niña-like conditions during medieval times was initiated by high levels of irradiance and amplified by enhanced Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

    See: Persistent Positive North Atlantic Oscillation Mode Dominated the Medieval Climate Anomaly

  9. mpaul
    Posted Apr 3, 2009 at 7:05 PM | Permalink

    Here’s a interesting blurb about dO18.

    You’ll need to scroll down the page a bit to the dO18 section.

    There seems to be some concern at NOAA about contamination of dO18 samples due to “isotropic exchange” with water vapor.

    • Paul Dennis
      Posted Apr 4, 2009 at 9:15 AM | Permalink

      Re: mpaul (#11),

      This refers to the oxygen isotope composition of atmospheric CO2 and has no bearing what-so-ever on the oxygen isotope composition of speleothem carbonate.

  10. John
    Posted May 29, 2009 at 8:17 PM | Permalink

    The photograph shown & description are of Tham Lot, near the village of the same name, a well-known tourist cave attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year, through which raft trips are available. This is NOT the Spirit Cave described by Chester Gorman, which is about 10km further north-west, is dry and less easy of access. There are numerous Spirit Caves (Tham Phi) in Thailand.

  11. Posted Mar 9, 2010 at 11:09 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for report.

  12. Posted Apr 24, 2010 at 12:18 AM | Permalink

    I’ve heard about this cave but have never been but now I kind of feel like I have. Also have you ever heard of Erawan Cave in Isan? It’s a temple/cave and very nice as well.

    Take Care,
    David from Thailand Tourism and Living

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