NEOLITHIC CHINA (10,000 B.C to 2000 B.C.)


Neolith sites in China

Advanced Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) cultures appeared in the southwest by 30,000 B.C. and Neolithic (New Stone Age) ones began emerging around 10,000 B.C. in the north. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “About 20,000 years ago, after the last glacial period, modern humans appeared in the Ordos desert region. The subsequent culture shows marked similarity to that of the higher civilizations of Mesopotamia, and some scholars argue a Western origin for Chinese civilization. However, since the 2d millennium BC a unique and fairly uniform culture has spread over almost all of China. The substantial linguistic and ethnological diversity of the south and the far west result from their having been infrequently under the control of central government. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Neolithic period, which began in China around 10,000 B.C. and concluded with the introduction of metallurgy about 8,000 years later, was characterized by the development of settled communities that relied primarily on farming and domesticated animals rather than hunting and gathering. In China, as in other areas of the world, Neolithic settlements grew up along the main river systems. Those that dominate the geography of China are the Yellow (central and northern China) and the Yangzi (southern and eastern China). [Source: Department of Asian Art, "Neolithic Period in China", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.\^/]

As in other parts of the world, the Neolithic period in China was marked by the development of agriculture, including both the cultivation of plants and the domestication of livestock, as well as the development of pottery and textiles. Permanent settlements became possible, paving the way for more complex societies. Globally, the Neolithic Age was a period in the development of human technology, beginning about 10,200 B.C., according to the ASPRO chronology, in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world and ending between 4,500 and 2,000 B.C. The ASPRO chronology is a nine-period dating system of the ancient Near East used by the Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée for archaeological sites aged between 14,000 and 5,700 BP (Before.ASPRO stands for the "Atlas des sites du Proche-Orient" (Atlas of Near East archaeological sites), a French publication pioneered by Francis Hours and developed by other scholars such as Olivier Aurenche.

Development During the Neolithic Era in China

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Chinese Neolithic cultures, which began to develop around 5000 B.C., were in part indigenous and in part related to earlier developments in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Wheat, barley, sheep, and cattle appear to have entered the northern Neolithic cultures via contact with southwest Asia, whereas rice, pigs, water buffalo, and eventually yams and taro seem to have come to the southern Neolithic cultures from Vietnam and Thailand. The rice-growing village sites of southeastern China and the Yangtze Delta reflect linkages both north and south. In the later Neolithic, some elements from the southern complexes had spread up the coast to Shandong and Liaoning.It is now thought that the Shang state, the first true state formation in Chinese history, had its beginnings in the late Lungshan culture of that region. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Important themes in Neolithic Chinese history include: 1) the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic age; 2) Consumption of Pork and Millet, the rise and development of agriculture and animal husbandry in prehistoric China; 3) Changing Homes, the rise and spread of prehistoric settlements; 4) The Dawn of Civilization, the course of civilization and the unification of a pluralistic China. [Source: Exhibition Archaeological China was held at the Capital Museum in Beijing in July 2010]

According to the Princeton University Art Museum: “In China, Neolithic cultures emerged around the eighth millennium B.C., and were primarily characterized by the production of stone tools, pottery, textiles, houses, burials, and jade objects. Such archaeological finds indicate the presence of group settlements where plant cultivation and animal domestication were practiced. Archaeological research, to date, has led to the identification of some sixty Neolithic cultures, most of which are named after the archaeological site where they were first identified. Attempts at mapping Neolithic China have typically grouped the various archeological cultures by geographic location in relation to the courses of the Yellow River in the north and the Yangze River in the south. Some scholars also group Neolithic culture sites into two broad cultural complexes: the Yangshao cultures in central and western China, and the Longshan cultures in eastern and southeastern China. In addition, changes in ceramic production over time within a "culture" are differentiated into chronological "phases" with corresponding ceramic "types." While ceramics were produced by every Neolithic culture in China, and similarities existed between many different culture sites, the overall picture of cultural interaction and development is still fragmented and far from clear. [Source: Princeton University Art Museum, 2004 ]

Books About Ancient China

Books: 1) "A Companion to Chinese Archaeology," Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013; 2) “The Archaeology of Ancient China” by Kwang-chih Chang, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986; 3) “New Perspectives on China’s Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century,” edited by Xiaoneng Yang (Yale, 2004, 2 vols.). 4) “The Origins of Chinese Civilization" edited by David N. Keightley, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Iimportant original sources include the ancient Chinese texts: the “Shiji”, authored by the second century B.C. historian Sima Qian, and the "Book of Documents", an undated collection of texts purporting to be the most ancient historical records in China, but with some exceptions, likely to have been authored during the Classical era.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: The underlying source for much of the information about ancient China — "The Archaeology of Ancient China" (4th edition), by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1987) — is the now quite dated. “Like many people in the field, my understanding of Chinese pre-history was shaped by iterations of Chang’s excellent textbook, and no single successor has replaced it. Part of the reason for this is that from the 1980s on, archaeological exploration has exploded in China, and it would be extremely difficult to write a similar text now. Many important “new” Neolithic cultures have been identified, and for some regions we are beginning to get a picture of the way in which early culturally distinctive settlements gradually developed in complexity towards state-like organization. An excellent survey of the state of Chinese archaeology for the Neolithic is provided by appropriate sections of the lavishly illustrated "New Perspectives on China’s Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century", edited by Xiaoneng Yang (Yale, 2004, 2 vols.). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

China’s Oldest Artwork

20080319-yellow rive u wash.jpg
Yellow River, home of some
of the world's earliest civilizations
Jarrett A. Lobell wrote in Archaeology magazine: A tiny 13,500-year-old sculpture crafted from burned bone discovered at the open-air Lingjing site can now lay claim to being the earliest three-dimensional object of art found in East Asia. But what makes something a work of art or someone an artist? “This depends on the concept of art we embrace,” says archaeologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux. “If a carved object can be perceived as beautiful or recognized as the product of high-quality craftsmanship, then the person who produced the figurine should be seen as an accomplished artist.” [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2021]

Measuring only half an inch high, three-quarters of an inch long, and just two-tenths of an inch thick, the bird, a member of the order Passeriformes, or songbirds, was made using six different carving techniques. “We were surprised by how the artist chose the right technique to carve each part and the way in which he or she combined them to achieve their desired goal,” says d’Errico. “This clearly shows repeated observation and long-term apprenticeship with a senior craftsperson.” The artist’s attention to detail was so fine, adds d’Errico, that after finding that the bird was not standing properly, he or she very slightly planed the pedestal to ensure the avian would remain upright.

World's Oldest Boats and Pants, Found in China

The world's oldest recovered boats — dated to 8000-7000 years ago — have been found in Kuwait and China. One of the oldest boats or related artefacts was found in China's Zhejiang province in 2005 and was believed to date back about 8,000 years.

The world's oldest pants have also been found in China. Eric A. Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Radiocarbon dating of two pairs of trousers discovered in a cemetery in western China has revealed they were made between the thirteenth and tenth centuries B.C., making them the oldest known surviving pants by almost 1,000 years. German Archaeological Institute scholar Mayke Wagner, who led the study, says the dates amazed his team. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, September-October 2014]

“In most places on Earth, 3,000-year-old garments are destroyed by microorganisms and chemicals in the soil,” Wagner says. The two people who were buried wearing pants were likely prestigious warriors who functioned like policemen and wore trousers while riding on horseback. “The trousers were part of their uniform and the fact that they were made between 100 and 200 years apart means it was a standard, traditional design,” says Wagner, whose team worked with a fashion designer to re-create the garments. “They are surprisingly good-looking, but they are not particularly comfortable for walking.”

Oldest Evidence of Head-Shaping — a 12,000-Year-Old Boy with Cone-Shaped Head — Found in Northeast China

Twelve thousand years ago in northeast China some children had their skulls bound so they grew their heads to became elongated ovals. This oldest known example of human head-shaping. Laura Geggel wrote in “While excavating a Neolithic site (the last period of the Stone Age) at Houtaomuga, Jilin province, in northeast China, the archaeologists found 11 elongated skulls — belonging to both males and females and ranging from toddlers to adults — that showed signs of deliberate skull reshaping, also known as intentional cranial modification (ICM). [Source: Laura Geggel, ,, July 12, 2019]

"This is the earliest discovery of signs of intentional head modification in Eurasia continent, perhaps in the world," said study co-researcher Qian Wang, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Texas A&M University College of Dentistry. "If this practice began in East Asia, it likely spread westward to the Middle East, Russia and Europe through the steppes as well as eastward across the Bering land bridge to the Americas."

“The Houtaomuga site is a treasure trove, holding burials and artifacts from 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. During an excavation there between 2011 and 2015, archaeologists found the remains of 25 individuals, 19 of which were preserved enough to be studied for ICM. After putting these skulls in a CT scanner, which produced 3D digital images of each specimen, the researchers confirmed that 11 had indisputable signs of skull shaping, such as flattening and elongation of the frontal bone, or forehead.The oldest ICM skull belonged to an adult male, who lived between 12,027 and 11,747 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating. Archaeologists have found reshaped human skulls all around the world, from every inhabited continent. But this particular finding, if confirmed, "will [be] the earliest evidence of the intentional head modification, which lasted for 7,000 years at the same site after its first emergence," Wang told Live Science.

T”he 11 ICM individuals died between ages 3 and 40, indicating that skull shaping began at a young age, when human skulls are still malleable, Wang said. It's unclear why this particular culture practiced skull modification, but it's possible that fertility, social status and beauty could be factors, Wang said. The people with ICM buried at Houtaomuga were likely from a privileged class, as these individuals tended to have grave goods and funeral decorations."Apparently, these youth were treated with a decent funeral, which might suggest a high socioeconomic class," Wang said.

“Even though the Houtaomuga man is the oldest known case of ICM in history, it's a mystery whether other known instances of ICM spread from this group, or whether they rose independently of one another, Wang said. "It is still too early to claim intentional cranial modification first emerged in East Asia and spread elsewhere; it may have originated independently in different places," Wang said. More ancient DNA research and skull examinations throughout the world may shed light on this practice's spread, he said. The study was published online June 25 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Yellow River and Yangtze River: Centers of Chinese Civilization?

The Yellow River basin has long been considered to be the source of the first Chinese culture and civilization. A thriving New Stone Age culture raised crops in the fertile yellow soil of Shaanxi Loess region around Yellow River before 4000 B.C., and began irrigating this land at least around 3000 B.C. By contrast, people in Southeast Asia at this time were still mostly hunter gatherers that used pebble and flake stone tools.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the north covered in loess and yellow earth, the flowing Yellow River gave birth to the splendid ancient Chinese culture. Inhabitant in this area excelled in pottery with patterns of multi-colored twisting and turning patterns. Compared to the animal motifs popular among the inhabitants in the coastal area to the east, they instead created simple yet potent jade objects with geometric designs. Their circular pi and square "ts'ung" were concrete realization of a universal view, which saw the heavens as round and he earth as square. The segmented pi disk and large circular jade designs may represent the concepts of continuity and eternity. The existence of edged jade objects in great numbers seems to bear out what is recorded in the annals of the Han Dynasties: "In the times of the Yellow Emperor, weapons were made were made of jade." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Archaeologists now believe that the Yangtze River region was just as much of a birthplace of Chinese culture and civilization as the Yellow River basin. Along the Yangtze archeologists have discovered thousands of items of pottery, porcelain, polished stone tools and axes, elaborately carved jade rings, bracelets and necklaces that date back to at least 6000 B.C.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Among the ancient cultures around the world, the great Yangtze and Yellow Rivers of East Asia gave birth to the longest and one of the world's most vital civilizations, that of China. Chinese forebears accumulated knowledge about husbandry, farming, stone grinding, and pottery making. Five or six thousand years ago, following the gradual stratification of society, a unique ritual system based on shamanism also developed. Rituals made it possible to pray to the gods for good fortune and to maintain a system of human relations. The use of concrete ritual objects is a manifestation of these thoughts and ideals. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Beyond the “Out of the Yellow River” Model

Traditionally it was believed that Chinese civilization arose in the Yellow River valley and spread out from this center. Recent archaeological discoveries, however, reveal a far more complex picture of Neolithic China, with a number of distinct and independent cultures in various regions interacting with and influencing each other. The best known of these is the Yangshao culture (5000-3000 B.C.)of the middle Yellow River valley, known for its painted pottery, and the later Longshan culture (2500-2000 B.C.)of the east, distinguished for its black pottery. Other major Neolithic cultures were the Hongshan culture in northeastern China, the Liangzhu culture in the lower Yangzi River delta, the Shijiahe culture in the middle Yangzi River basin and primitive settlements and burial grounds found at Liuwan in Qinghai Province, Wangyin in Shandong Province, Xinglongwa in Inner Mongolia, and the Yuchisi in Anhui Province, among many others. [Source: University of Washington]

Gideon Shelach and Teng Mingyu wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Over the past 30 years, the discoveries of early sedentary villages in different regions of China have challenged commonly held views about the origins of agriculture and the development of Chinese civilization. Those and other discoveries led scholars to reject the traditional “out of the Yellow River” model in favor of such models as the “Chinese Interaction Sphere,” arguing that the dominant mechanisms that catalyzed socioeconomic change were contemporaneous developments in different geographical contexts and interactions among those regional Neolithic societies (Chang 1986: 234–251; and see also Su 1987; Su and Yin 1981). [Source: “Earlier Neolithic Economic and Social Systems of the Liao River Region, Northeast China” by Gideon Shelach and Teng Mingyu,A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013; PDF ~|~]

“First viewed as heterodoxy, the new model has since gained almost unanimous acceptance among sinologists and archaeologists. We think that it is time to advance beyond questions of origins and regional diversity and to use this growing database to address anthropologically meaningful issues pertaining to, for example, the social structure of those early sedentary societies. Trying to reconstruct and analyze socioeconomic trajectories in different parts of China is of utmost importance, not only for Chinese history, but also for the contribution it could make to a more varied and comparative perspective on some of the most fundamental developments in human history.” ~|~

Diversity of Neolithic China

Some 7,000 neolithic sites (some as old as ca. 9000 B.C.) have been found in North China, the Yangtze (Changjiang or Yangzi) River Valley, and southeast coastal areas. These sites include a neolithic agricultural village in Shaanxi Province dating from around 4500 B.C. to 3750 B.C., which had a moat for security and evidence of wood-framed, mud and straw houses, colored pottery, slash-and burn farming, and burial sites in nearby cemeteries. The oldest neolithic city found in China was uncovered by archaeologists in Henan Province and dates back to between 4,800 and 5,300 years ago. [Source: Library of Congress]

As an illustration of how many Neolithic cultures there are in China and how chronolically and geographically diverse they are check out the Table of Contents of “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology,” edited by Anne P. Underhill: Part I: Chapter1) Introduction: Investigating the Development and Nature of Complex Societies in Ancient China 3 by Anne P. U nderhill; Chapter 2) “Despoiled of the Garments of Her Civilization: Problems and Progress in Archaeological Heritage Management in China” 13 by Robert E. Murowchick. [Source: “The Kuahuqiao Site and Culture” by Leping Jiang, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013 ~|~]

Part II: the Northeast 35: Chapter 3) Earlier Neolithic Economic and Social Systems of the Liao River Region, Northeast China 37 by Gideon Shelach and Teng Mingyu; Chapter 4) Understanding Hongshan Period Social Dynamics 55 by Christian E. Peterson and Lu Xueming; Chapter 5) the Lower Xiajiadian Culture of the Western Liao River Drainage System 81 by Wang Lixin.~|~

Part III: the Upper Yellow River and Upper Yangzi River Regions 103: Chapter 6) the Qijia Culture of the Upper Yellow River Valley 105 by Chen Honghai; Chapter 7) the Sichuan Basin Neolithic 125 by Rowan Flad; Chapter 8) the Sanxingdui Culture of the Sichuan Basin 147 by Sun Hua. ~|~

Part IV: the Western Central Plain Region and Environs 169: Chapter 9) the Early Neolithic in the Central Yellow River Valley, C.7000–4000 B.C. 171 by Zhu Yanping; Chapter 10) the Jiahu Site in the Huai River Area 194 by Zhang Juzhong and Cui Qilong; Chapter 11) the Later Neolithic Period in the Central Yellow River Valley Area, C.4000–3000 B.C. 213 by Li Xinwei; Chapter 12) the Longshan Culture in Central Henan Province, C.2600–1900 B.C. 236 by Zhao Chunqing; Chapter 13) the Longshan Period Site of Taosi in Southern Shanxi Province 255 by He Nu; Chapter 14) Production of Ground Stone Tools at Taosi and Huizui: a Comparison 278 by Li Liu, Zhai Shaodong, and Chen Xingcan; Chapter 15) the Erlitou Culture 300 by Xu Hong; Chapter 16) The Discovery and Study of the Early Shang Culture 323 by Yuan Guangkuo; Chapter 17) Recent Discoveries and Some Thoughts on Early Urbanization at Anyang 343 by Zhichun Jing, Tang Jigen, George Rapp, and James Stoltman; Chapter 18) Archaeology of Shanxi During the Yinxu Period 367 by Li Yung-ti and Hwang Ming-chorng. ~|~

Demon face jade

Part V: the Eastern Central Plain Region and Environs 387: Chapter 19) the Houli and Beixin Cultures 389 by Wang Fen; Chapter 20) the Dawenkou Culture in the Lower Yellow River and Huai River Basin Areas 411 by Luan Fengshi; Chapter 21) the Longshan Culture of Shandong 435 by Sun Bo; Chapter 22) A Study of Lian Sickles and Dao Knives from the Longshan Culture Site of Liangchengzhen in Southeastern Shandong 459 by Geoffrey Cunnar; Chapter 23) The Eastern Territories of the Shang and Western Zhou: Military Expansion and Cultural Assimilation 473 by Fang Hui. ~|~

Part VI: the Middle Yangzi River Region 495: Chapter 24) The Pengtoushan Culture in the Middle Yangzi River Valley 497 by Pei Anping; Chapter 25) the Qujialing–shijiahe Culture in the Middle Yangzi River Valley 510 by Zhang Chi. ~|~

Part VII the Lower Yangzi River Region 535: Chapter 26) the Kuahuqiao Site and Culture 537 by Jiang Leping; Chapter 27) Recent Research on the Hemudu Culture and the Tianluoshan Site 555 by Sun Guoping; Chapter 28) The Liangzhu Culture 574 by Qin Ling. ~|~

Part VIII: the Southeast 597: Chapter 29) the Neolithic Archaeology of Southeast China 599 by Tianlong Jiao; Chapter 30) First Farmers and Their Coastal Adaptation in Prehistoric Taiwan 612 by Li Kuang-to. ~|~

Civilization Developments in China

Fortified towns first appeared in China in the third millennium B.C. Outside these towns were cemeteries with simple graves and elaborate decorated tombs which are viewed as evidence of class differences. The first evidence of war is the construction of rammed earthen walls around 2600 B.C.

Around 3000 B.C. a Yangtze settlement produced silk and carved jade. By 2500 B.C. the Yangtze and Yellow River culture "had evolved into hierarchal societies whose members employed full-time artisans and engaged in rudimentary metalworking." By 2000 B.C., villages on the North China Plain were governed by priest-kings who presided over ancestor cults. Around this time craftsmen elsewhere in China made elaborate bronze ritual vessels.

Bronze metallurgy in China dates back to 2000 B.C., significantly later than southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where it developed around 3600 B.C. to 3000 B.C. The oldest bronze vessels date back to the Hsia (Xia) dynasty (2200 to 1766 B.C.). According to legend bronze was first cast 5,000 years ago by Emperor Yu, the legendary Yellow Emperor, who cast nine bronze tripods to symbolize the nine provinces in his empire.

Unlike ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, no monumental architecture survives. What does remain are tombs and vessels and objects once used in religious, court and burial rituals, with some serving status symbols of the ruling elite.

Neolithic Artifacts from China

Important ancient Neolithic artifacts from China include 15,000-year-old ground stone spades and arrowheads excavated in northern China, 9,000-year-old rice grains from the Qiantang River basin, a sacrifical vessel with a standing bird figurine on the top excavated at the Yuchisi site in Anhui which date back almost 5,000 years, a 4,000-year-old vessel decorated with a red brush-written wen character and tiles discovered at the Taosi site, a plate with a black painted snake-like coiled dragon. According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: “A distinctly Chinese artistic tradition can be traced to the middle of the Neolithic period, about 4000 B.C. Two groups of artifacts provide the earliest surviving evidence of this tradition. It is now thought that these cultures developed their own traditions for the most part independently, creating distinctive kinds of architecture and types of burial customs, but with some communication and cultural exchange between them. \^/ [Source: Department of Asian Art, "Neolithic Period in China", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.\^/]

pottery from 6500 BC

“The first group of artifacts is the painted pottery found at numerous sites along the Yellow River basin, extending from Gansu Province in northwestern China (L.1996.55.6) to Henan Province in central China. The culture that emerged in the central plain was known as Yangshao. A related culture that emerged in the northwest is classified into three categories, the Banshan, Majiayao, and Machang, each categorized by the types of pottery produced. Yangshao painted pottery was formed by stacking coils of clay into the desired shape and then smoothing the surfaces with paddles and scrapers. Pottery containers found in graves, as opposed to those excavated from the remains of dwellings, are often painted with red and black pigments (1992.165.8). This practice demonstrates the early use of the brush for linear compositions and the suggestion of movement, establishing an ancient origin for this fundamental artistic interest in Chinese history. \^/

“The second group of Neolithic artifacts consists of pottery and jade carvings (2009.176) from the eastern seaboard and the lower reaches of the Yangzi River in the south, representing the Hemudu (near Hangzhou), the Dawenkou and later the Longshan (in Shandong Province), and the Liangzhu (1986.112) (Hangzhou and Shanghai region). The gray and black pottery of eastern China is notable for its distinctive shapes, which differed from those made in the central regions and included the tripod, which was to remain a prominent vessel form in the subsequent Bronze Age. While some pottery items made in the east were painted (possibly in response to examples imported from central China), potters along the coast also used the techniques of burnishing and incising. These same craftsmen are credited with developing the potter's wheel in China. \^/

“Of all aspects of the Neolithic cultures in eastern China, the use of jade made the most lasting contribution to Chinese civilization. Polished stone implements were common to all Neolithic settlements. Stones to be fashioned into tools and ornaments were chosen for their harness and strength to withstand impact and for their appearance. Nephrite, or true jade, is a tough and attractive stone. In the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, particularly in the areas near Lake Tai, where the stone occurs naturally, jade was worked extensively, especially during the last Neolithic phase, the Liangzhu, which flourished in the second half of the third millennium B.C. Liangzhu jade artifacts are made with astonishing precision and care, especially as jade is too hard to "carve" with a knife but must be abraded with coarse sands in a laborious process. The extraordinarily fine lines of the incised decoration and the high gloss of the polished surfaces were technical feats requiring the highest level of skill and patience. Few of the jades in archaeological excavations show signs of wear. They are generally found in burials of privileged persons carefully arranged around the body. Jade axes and other tools transcended their original function and became objects of great social and aesthetic significance." \^/

World's Oldest — 20,000-Years-Old — Pottery Found in a Chinese CaveI

n 2012, Pottery fragments found in a south China were confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world. The findings, which appeared in the journal Science, was part of an effort to date pottery piles in east Asia and refutes conventional theories that the invention of pottery correlates to Neolithic Revolution, a period about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gathers to farmers. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, June 28, 2012 /+/]

millet field

Samir S. Patel wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The invention of pottery for collecting, storing, and cooking food was a key development in human culture and behavior. Until recently, it had been thought that the emergence of pottery was part of the Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 years ago, which also brought agriculture, domesticated animals, and groundstone tools. Finds of much older pottery have put this theory to rest. This year, archaeologists dated what is now thought to be the oldest known pottery in the world, from the site of Xianrendong Cave in the Jiangxi Province of southeastern China. The cave had been dug before, in the 1960s, 1990s, and 2000, but the dating of its earliest ceramics was uncertain. Researchers from China, the United States, and Germany reexamined the site to find samples for radiocarbon dating. While the area had particularly complex stratigraphy — too complex and disturbed to be reliable, according to some — the researchers are confident that they have dated the earliest pottery from the site to 20,000 to 19,000 years ago, several thousand years before the next oldest examples. “These are the earliest pots in the world,” says Harvard’s Ofer Bar-Yosef, a coauthor on the Science paper reporting the finds. He also cautions, “All this does not mean that earlier pots will not be discovered in South China.” [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2013]

AP reported: “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. /+/

“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." /+/

“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. /+/

“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. /+/

“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." /+/

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. Millet was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in China around the same time the first crops — wheat and barely — were domesticated in the fertile Crescent.

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. Before the cultivation of rice and millet, people ate grasses, beans, wild millet seeds, a type of yam and snakegourd root in northern China and sago palm, bananas, acorns and freshwater roots and tubers in southern China.

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.

According to the ancient Chinese myth, in 2853 B.C. the legendary Emperor Shennong of China declared the five sacred plants to be: rice, wheat, barley, millet and soybeans.

5000 to 4000-Year-Old Prehistoric Mass Grave and Possible Sacrifice Site in China

In July 2015, Archeology magazine reported from Changchun, China, about 300 kilometers north of North Korea: “At the 5,000-year-old settlement site of Hamin Mangha in northeast China, archaeologists have excavated the remains of 97 people whose bodies had been placed in a small dwelling before it burned, according to a report in Live Science. An epidemic or some sort of disaster that prevented the survivors from completing proper burials has been blamed for the deaths. “The skeletons in the northwest are relatively complete, while those in the east often [have] only skulls, with limb bones scarcely remaining. But in the south, limb bones were discovered in a mess, forming two or three layers,” the research team from Jilin University wrote in an article for the Chinese archaeological journal Kaogu, and in English in the journal Chinese Archaeology. [Source: Archeology magazine, July 31, 2015]

Banpo burial site

In March 2015, a local archeologist announced that mysterious stone formations found in a western Chinese desert may have been built thousands of years ago by sun-worshipping nomads for sacrifices. Ed Mazza wrote in the Huffington Post: “About 200 of the circular formations have been found near Turpan City in the northwestern part of the country, China Daily reported. Although they had been known to locals, especially those from the nearby village of Lianmuqin, the formations were first discovered by archaeologists in 2003. Some began to dig under the stones to search for graves. [Source: Ed Mazza, Huffington Post, March 30, 2015 -]

“Now one archaeologist has said he believes the circles were used for sacrifice. "Across Central Asia, these circles are normally sacrificial sites," Lyu Enguo, a local archaeologist who has done three studies at the circles, told CCTV. Dr. Volker Heyd, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, told MailOnline that similar circles in Mongolia were used in rituals. "Some might have served as surface marking of burial places," he was quoted as saying. "Others, if not the majority, might denote holy places in the landscape, or places with special spiritual properties, or ritual offering/meeting places." -

“Heyd estimated that some of the formations in China could be up to 4,500 years old. Some of the formations are square and some have openings. Others are circular, including a large one made up of stones that aren't found anywhere else in the desert "We could imagine that this was a site for worshiping the god of the sun," Lyu told CCTV. "Because we know that the sun is round and the things around it are not round, they are shaped like rectangles and squares. And this is a large-scale one. In Xinjiang, the main god to worship in Shamanism is the god of the sun." The formations are located near the Flaming Mountains, one of the hottest places in the world. -

Early Neolithic in the Central Yellow River Valley (7000–4000 B.C.)

Yanping Zhu wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Geographically, the central Yellow river valley starts in the north at the southern Yinshan mountains, reaches as far south as the Qinling mountains, as far west as the upper Weishui river, and includes the Taihang mountains in the east. The early Neolithic of this region refers to the period from around 7000 to 4000 B.C... This long period of approximately three thousand years can be roughly divided into early, middle, and late periods. The early period dates from about 7000 to 5500 B.C., the middle period from 5500 to 4500, and the late period from 4500 to 4000. [Source: “The Early Neolithic in the Central Yellow River Valley, c.7000–4000 B.C.” by Yanping Zhu, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013 ~|~]

The Lijiagou site is one of the few known sites for this period. It is located in the upper Zhenshui river in Xinmi city district of Henan province. The site was first investigated in 2009, and 175 square meters has been excavated so far. Overlying the Epipaleolithic deposits are remains predating the Peiligang culture (Jiahu, See Separate Article). The archaeological assemblage is dominated by chipped stone tools but also includes some pottery sherds. Very little is known about the subsistence strategies of the people who lived at the site. Stone tools were made from raw materials located far from the site, and most of them are different.

According to the article “Lijiagou and the earliest pottery in Henan Province, China” published in Antiquity: It has long been believed that the earliest ceramics in the central plain of China were produced by the Neolithic cultures of Jiahu 1 and Peiligang. Excavations at Lijiagou in Henan Province, dating to the ninth millennium B.C., have, however, revealed evidence for the earlier production of pottery, probably on the eve of millet and wild rice cultivation in northern southern China respectively. It is assumed that, as in other regions such as south-west Asia and South America, sedentism preceded incipient cultivation. Here evidence is presented that sedentary communities emerged among hunter-gatherer groups who were still producing microblades. Lijiagou demonstrates that the bearers of the microblade industry were producers of pottery, preceding the earliest Neolithic cultures in central China. [Source: “Lijiagou and the earliest pottery in Henan Province, China” by 1) Youping Wang; 2) Songlin Zhang, Wanfa Gua, Songzhi Wang, Zhengzhou Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology; 3) Jianing Hea1, Xiaohong Wua1, Tongli Qua. Jingfang Zha and Youcheng Chen, School of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University; and Ofer Bar-Yosefa, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Antiquity, April 2015]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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