rightThe oldest playable flute, a seven-holed instrument carved 8000 years ago from the hollow wing bone of a large bird, was unearthed in Jiahu, an archeological site in the Yellow River Valley in central China. The flutes were found in the late 1980s but were not described in the West until 1999. [Source: Zhang Juzhong and Lee Yun Kuem, Natural History magazine, September 2005]

Thirty-three flutes—including around 20 intact flutes and several broken or fragmented ones and several more unfinished ones— have been found at Jiahu. All are between seven and 10 inches in length and are made of wing bones from the red-crowned crane, a bird that stands five feet tall and has a wing span of eight feet and is famous for its courtship dance. It seems plausible that ancient flutes were also made from bamboo. Ancient myths described bamboo flutes but no ancient ones have been found in all likelihood because bamboo decays more quickly than bone and doesn’t survive burial for thousands of years like bone does.

The flutes were cut, smoothed at the ends, polished and finally drilled with a row of holes on one side. One of the broken flutes was repaired by drilling fourteen tiny holes along the breakage lines and then tying the section together with string.

The flutes have between five and eight holes. They play in the so-called pentatonic scale, in which octaves are divided into five notes---the basis of many kinds of music, including Chinese folk music and rock n' roll. The fact that the flute has a scale indicates that its original players played music rather than just single notes.

The flutes were probably used in some kind of ceremonial capacity but may have been played for entertainment. The flutes were found along with evidence early wine making (See Below), which suggests that the people who played them could have been a festive bunch.

In June 2009, a 35,000-year-old bird bone flute found in a cave in Tuebingen, Germany was declared the world’s oldest flute.

Good Websites and Sources: Ancient China Life Ancient China Life ; Longgupo Cave University of Iowa site ; Longgupo Mystery Nature.com ; John Hawks weblog /johnhawks.net/weblog/fossils/apes/lufengpithecus ; Peking Man: Zhoukoudian is where the Peking Man bones were discovered. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO Zhoukoudian site ; Wikipedia on Peking Man Wikipedia ; Wikipedia on Zhoukoudian Wikipedia ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom) UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; China.org China,org ; National Geographic National Geographic ; Links in this Website: HISTORY factsanddetails.com/china (Click History) ; CHINA'S EARLIEST CULTURES Factsanddetails.com/China

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 2) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 3) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; 4) Chinese Text Project chinese.dsturgeon.net ; 5) Minnesota State University site mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory ; 6) ChinaVoc.com ChinaVoc.com ; Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996)

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia

Types of Flutes in China

Archeologists have divided the flutes found in Jiahu into three groups: 1) the early phase, those between 9,000 and 8,600 years old; 2) the middle phase, those between 8,600 and 8,200 years old; 3) the late phase, those between 8,200 and 7,800 years old.

Only two flutes from the early phase were recovered, both from the grave of an adult male. One has five holes and can produce six distinct pitches. The other has five holes and can produce seven distinct pitches, including two notes repeated an octave apart.

About two dozen flutes from the middle phase were unearthed. Fifteen are intact or could be reconstructed. One has two holes. The others all have seven holes and can play eight pitches. Despite some difference in the range of pitches the intervals between them are similar.

Seven flutes from the late phase were unearthed. One of them can still played. These have eight holes and pitch intervals close together and are capable of a variety of melodic structures. A flute from the late phase found 80 miles from Jiahu in Zhinghanzhai has tens holes, staggered on two parallel lines with the intervals between them close to half steps.

Notes from the playable flute have been recorded and analyzed. The flute produces a rough scale covering the modern octave, beginning close to the second A above middle C, and appears to have been tuned---a tiny hole was drilled near the seventh hole, with effect of raising that hole's tone from roughly G-sharp to A, completing the octave.

Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals in China

The first agriculturalists outside of Mesopotamia lived in China. Crop remains, bones of domestic animals, as well as polished tools and pottery first appeared in China round 7500 B.C., about a thousand years after the first crops were raised in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia.

The earliest identified crops in China were two drought-resistant species of millet in the north and rice in the south (see below). Domesticated millet was produced in China by 6000 B.C. Most ancient Chinese ate millet before they ate rice. Among the other crops that were grown by the ancient Chinese were soybeans, hemp, tea, apricots, pears, peaches and citrus fruits.

The earliest domesticated animals in China were pigs, dogs and chickens, which were first domesticated in China by 4000 B.C. and believed to have spread from China across Asia and the Pacific. Among the other animals that were domesticated by the ancient Chinese were water buffalo (important for pulling plows), silkworms, ducks and geese.

Wheat, barley, cows, horses, sheep, goats and pigs were introduced to China from the Fertile Crescent in western Asia. Tall horses, like we are familiar with today, were introduced to China in the first century B.C.

First Wine in China

20080211-1171 Oldest wine Institute of Cultural relics and Archeology.jpg
Vessels with the
oldest wine
The earliest evidence of wine making comes from China: traces of a fermented drink made with rice, honey, and either grapes or hawthorne fruit found in Jiahu and dated to 7000 B.C. The previous earliest evidence of wine making comes from artifacts dated to 5400 B.C. from Firuz Tepe in Iran.

Analysis by University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology of the pores of 9000-year-old pottery shards jars unearthed in Jiahu turned up traces of beeswax, a biomarker for honey; tartaric acid, a biomaker for grapes, wine and Chinese hawthorne fruit; and other traces that ‘strongly suggested” rice.

Grapes were not introduced to China from Central Asia until many millennia after 7000 B.C., so it is reasoned the tartaric acid likely comes from hawthorne fruit which is ideal for making wine because it has a high sugar content and can harbor the yeast for fermentation. Wine traces has also been found in a pottery sample from a Chinese tomb dated to 5000 B.C.

20,000-Years-Old Pottery Found in a Chinese Cave

In June 2012, AP reported: “Pottery fragments found in a south China cave have been confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world, archaeologists say. The findings, which will appear in the journal Science, add to recent efforts that have dated pottery piles in east Asia to more than 15,000 years ago, refuting conventional theories that the invention of pottery correlates to the period about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gathers to farmers. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, June 28, 2012]

“The research by a team of Chinese and American scientists also pushes the emergence of pottery back to the last ice age, which might provide new explanations for the creation of pottery, said Gideon Shelach, chair of the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies at The Hebrew University in Israel. "The focus of research has to change," Shelach, who is not involved in the research project in China, said by telephone. In an accompanying Science article, Shelach wrote that such research efforts "are fundamental for a better understanding of socio-economic change (25,000 to 19,000 years ago) and the development that led to the emergency of sedentary agricultural societies." He said the disconnection between pottery and agriculture as shown in east Asia might shed light on specifics of human development in the region. [Ibid]

“Wu Xiaohong, professor of archaeology and museology at Peking University and the lead author of the Science article that details the radiocarbon dating efforts, told The Associated Press that her team was eager to build on the research. "We are very excited about the findings. The paper is the result of efforts done by generations of scholars," Wu said. "Now we can explore why there was pottery in that particular time, what were the uses of the vessels, and what role they played in the survival of human beings.” [Ibid]

“The ancient fragments were discovered in the Xianrendong cave in south China's Jiangxi province, which was excavated in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, according to the journal article. Wu, a chemist by training, said some researchers had estimated that the pieces could be 20,000 years old, but that there were doubts. "We thought it would be impossible because the conventional theory was that pottery was invented after the transition to agriculture that allowed for human settlement." But by 2009, the team---which includes experts from Harvard and Boston universities---was able to calculate the age of the pottery fragments with such precision that the scientists were comfortable with their findings, Wu said. "The key was to ensure the samples we used to date were indeed from the same period of the pottery fragments," she said. That became possible when the team was able to determine the sediments in the cave were accumulated gradually without disruption that might have altered the time sequence, she said. [Ibid]

‘scientists took samples, such as bones and charcoal, from above and below the ancient fragments in the dating process, Wu said. "This way, we can determine with precision the age of the fragments, and our results can be recognized by peers," Wu said. Shelach said he found the process done by Wu's team to be meticulous and that the cave had been well protected throughout the research. [Ibid]

The same team in 2009 published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they determined the pottery fragments found in south China's Hunan province to be 18,000 years old, Wu said. "The difference of 2,000 years might not be significant in itself, but we always like to trace everything to its earliest possible time," Wu said. "The age and location of pottery fragments help us set up a framework to understand the dissemination of the artifacts and the development of human civilization.” [Ibid]

First Rice in China

The Jiahu site also yielded the oldest known domesticated rice, also dated to 7000 B.C. The rice was a kind of short-grained japonica rice. Scholars had previously thought the earliest domesticated rice belonged to the long-grain indica subspecies.

Other early evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang Province. When the rice grains were found there they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu. Some 8,000-year-old rice grains have been discovered in Changsa in the Hunan Province.

A team form South Korea’s Chungbuk National University announced that it had found the remains of rice grains in the Paleolithic site of Sorori, South Korea, dated to around 12,000 B.C. The discovery challenges the accepted belief that rice was first cultivated in China.

DNA “Map” Shows Mother of All Rice Came from China’s Pearl River

In October 2012, AFP reported: “The mother of all cultivated rice was grown on China’s Pearl River, according to a DNA “map” published in Nature. The first domesticated strain of rice was Oryza sativa japonica, which was grown thousands of years ago from wild rice in the middle of the Pearl River in southern China, said Nature study. [Source: Agence France-Presse, October 4, 2012]

Rice today has diverged into hundreds of varieties, with cultivated rice divided into two major sub-species---Oryza sativa japonica, which is short-grained and glutinous, and Oryza sativa indica, which is long-grained and non-sticky. The origins of rice have spurred long scientific debates. Researchers have wrangled over where and when the first domesticated variety was grown. Some in fact have argued domestication was a multiple event in which two rival strains emerged at the same time.

Researchers led by Bin Han of Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences put together a gigantic database to compare tiny single-letter changes in rice DNA. Their trawl covered 446 geographically diverse types of wild rice (Oryza rufipogon)---the ancestral progenitor of commercially farmed rice---and 1,083 varieties of japonica and indica.

By putting together a family tree, the researchers say they can disprove theories that indica rice was domesticated separately from wild rice. Instead, the first indica was a cross between japonica and wild rice. This mix then spread into Southeast and South Asia, where farmers bred varieties to cope with local conditions, thus creating the distinctive indica group. The genome comparison should be an important resource for plant breeders, helping them to pinpoint 55 genetic signatures that have entered the genome through human selection, say the authors.

The study in Nature did not put a precise date on domestication. However research published last year in the US journal Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences (PNAS) said the first rice was grown around 8,200 years ago, a date that tallies with archaeological evidence from China’s Yangtze Valley.

Jiahu Culture

20080211-1175 jiahu archeolohcal site met musuem.jpg
Jiahu is a rich but little known archeological site located near the village of Jiahu near the Yellow River in Henan Province in central China. About equidistant between Xian and Nanjing, the site was occupied from 9,000 to 7,800 years ago and then from 2,000 year ago to the present. In addition to yielding the oldest rice and wine and the earliest playable musical instruments, it may have also yielded the earliest examples of Chinese writing.

Jiahu villagers fished for carp; hunted crane, deer, hare, turtle and other animals; and collected a wide variety of wild herbs and vegetables such as acorns, chestnuts and broad beans and possibly wild rice. They also possessed domesticated dogs and pigs. Among the tools and utensils unearthed at Jiahu are three-legged cooking pots, arrows, barbed harpoons, stone axes, awls, and chisels.

Based on an examination of 238 skeletons Harvard forensic archeologist Barbara Li Smith concluded that the Jiahu villagers enjoyed fairly good health. The average age of death was around 40, late for Neolithic people. Sponge lesions on the skull indicate that anemia and iron deficiency were a problem. Hole bone lesions from disease and parasitic infections are rare.

Jiahu villagers practiced some unusual burial customs. In some graves the heads were severed from the body and pointed towards the northwest. Cut marks made when the bones were fresh indicates the heads were cut when the person was still alive or shortly after they died. Adults were generally buried whole in pits; juveniles were buried in pots. Most were buried in individual plots. Some were buried in groups up to six with a mix of sexes and ages.

Image Sources: 5) Flutes, Natural History magazine ; 6 ) First Wine Vessels, Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology in Henan; 7) Jiahu Culture map, Metroplitan Museum of Art.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2012

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