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Prehistoric China: From Neolithic Cultures to the Dawn of Dynasties

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The Genesis of Chinese Civilization.

Prehistoric China, a period extending from the earliest human activities in the region to the dawn of the Dynastic Period, offers a fascinating glimpse into the origins and development of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. This era, predominantly characterized by the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages, witnessed significant transformations in human society, technology, and culture.

During the Paleolithic Age, the earliest inhabitants of what is now China made their mark as hunter-gatherers, utilizing simple stone tools and adapting to a variety of environmental conditions across the vast landscape. This age is marked by sites like the Zhoukoudian (周口店) caves near Beijing, famous for the discovery of Homo erectus pekinensis (北京猿人), known as “Peking Man”.

The advent of the Neolithic Revolution, a crucial turn in human history, saw the emergence of agriculture and permanent settlements. This period is distinguished by the development of pottery, advanced stone tools, and the beginnings of social stratification and ritualistic practices. The Yangshao (仰韶文化) and Longshan (龙山文化) cultures, among others, epitomize this era. The Yangshao culture is particularly noted for its painted pottery, while the Longshan culture is recognized for its polished black pottery and sophisticated jade artifacts.

These prehistoric cultures laid the groundwork for the complexities of later Chinese society, influencing everything from agricultural practices to social structures.

Geological and Environmental Background

Prehistoric China’s geological and environmental backdrop played a crucial role in shaping the human activities and cultural developments during the Neolithic period. The region’s diverse landscapes, from fertile plains to rugged mountains, significantly influenced the early human settlements and their way of life.

The vast territory of prehistoric China encompassed varied geographical features, each offering distinct resources and challenges to its inhabitants. The Ningshao Coastal Plain, in the Hangzhou bay, for instance, located in the subtropical region of eastern China, exemplifies the diverse environments where early cultures thrived. Influenced by the East Asian Monsoon, this area enjoyed a temperate climate with an average annual temperature around 16.3°C and average annual precipitation of about 1400 mm. The regional vegetation was characterized by subtropical mixed forests, including both evergreen and deciduous trees such as Cyclobalanopsis and Liquidambar formosana.

AI-generated image for illustrative purposes only, not historically accurate

The varied landscapes of prehistoric China offered diverse resources, influencing the patterns of human settlements and cultural developments. Areas like the Fenghua River basin in the Ningshao Coastal Plain, for example, provided fertile grounds for the development of significant cultures like the Hemudu, Liangzhu, and Qianshanyang. These cultures are distinguished by their unique responses to the environmental conditions, as reflected in their agricultural practices, settlement patterns, and cultural artifacts.

The research at sites like the Hejia Site is significant in understanding how environmental changes impacted human activities. Techniques like pollen and charcoal analysis provide insights into past vegetation and fire events, indicating how humans interacted with their environment. X-ray fluorescence scanning helps in analyzing geochemical elements in sediments, revealing changes in the environment and human activities. Additionally, magnetic susceptibility measurements are used to reconstruct paleoclimatic conditions. Together, these techniques allow for a comprehensive understanding of how prehistoric communities in China adapted to their changing surroundings over time.

The Paleolithic Age in China

The Paleolithic Age, marking the earliest period in Chinese history, extends from approximately 3,000,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago. This era is divided into three distinct phases: early, middle, and late, each characterized by the evolution of human beings from early forms like Homo erectus to earlier Homo sapiens, and eventually to later Homo sapiens.

Early Paleolithic Period

During this phase, humans lived primarily as hunter-gatherers. The tools of this era were simple and coarsely-made stone implements. A significant development of this period was the use of fire, which served for warmth and cooking.

Middle Paleolithic Period

The middle phase witnessed an advancement over its predecessor. The tools from this period were more diverse and finely crafted, indicating a progression in technological skills and understanding.

Late Paleolithic Period

In the late Paleolithic, the appearance of humans closely resembled that of modern humans. They were more advanced in their use of tools, with techniques such as beating, polishing, and drilling becoming widespread. This period saw the development of more sophisticated tools like bows and arrows, rock spears, drills, awls, and carving implements, along with utensils made from bone. Decorative items, created from materials such as rocks, bones, animal teeth, and ostrich eggshells, also emerged, some even colored with dyes. The social structure of this period was organized around clans, with marriage systems reflecting this clan-based organization.

Numerous human fossils and cultural relics have been unearthed from this era, with the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian in Beijing being one of the most famous. These findings are invaluable for understanding human evolution and culture, underscoring China’s role as one of the cradles of civilization.

The Paleolithic Age also saw the emergence of aesthetic and religious conceptions, including the earliest letter symbols. These developments laid the groundwork for the profound societal and cultural transformations that would follow in the subsequent Neolithic Age.

Major Paleolithic Cultures in China

The Xianren cave (仙人洞、吊桶环遗址, 18000–7000)

The Xianren Cave, along with the nearby Diaotonghuan rock shelter, is an archaeologically significant site in Dayuan Township, Wannian County, Jiangxi Province, China. This site holds considerable historical importance due to the discovery of prehistoric pottery shards and evidence of early rice cultivation. The cave’s name, “Xianren Dong,” is derived from “Xian,” referring to the legendary Chinese enlightened beings or immortals. The cave itself is notable in size, being 7 meters high, 11 meters wide, and 14 meters deep.

A groundbreaking discovery reported in a 2012 publication in the journal Science revealed that the earliest pottery known in the world was found at Xianren Cave. These artifacts were radiocarbon dated to between 20,000 and 19,000 years before the present, placing them at the end of the Last Glacial Period. The accuracy of this dating was ensured through meticulous analysis of the surrounding sediments.

Many of the pottery fragments unearthed at Xianren Cave bore scorch marks, indicating that the pottery was likely used for cooking purposes. This finding is particularly significant as it predates the invention of agriculture, which is dated between 10,000 and 8,000 BC. The pottery’s creators were mobile foragers who hunted and gathered their food during the Late Glacial Maximum, a period when the Earth’s climate was at its coldest and human groups were highly mobile.

A model of a Yangshao Village, source

The Neolithic Revolution

The Neolithic Revolution in China, starting around 18,000 years ago, signified a profound transformation in human society from the Paleolithic period’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian one. This period, marking the end of the Stone Age in Chinese history, brought about revolutionary changes in agriculture, domestication of animals, and establishment of permanent settlements.

Agricultural Development and Early Settlements

The advent of agriculture was one of the most significant aspects of the Neolithic Age in China. Humans transitioned from solely relying on nature for food to engaging in agricultural production and raising livestock. The period saw the beginning of seed cultivation and domestication of animals for food. Pottery, another hallmark of this age, emerged as a necessity for daily life. Early Neolithic sites like Nanzhuangtou in Hebei and Yuchanyan in Hunan provide evidence of these initial agricultural activities.

In the early phase of the Neolithic Age, grinding stone implements were prevalent, suggesting a basic form of agriculture and livestock rearing. As the period progressed, these implements diversified, indicating more advanced agricultural practices and enhanced stockbreeding. This development is evidenced by archaeological sites like the Hongshanhou in Inner Mongolia and the Yangshao in Henan.

Technological Innovations and Crafts

The Neolithic Age was also a time of significant technological innovation, particularly in pottery making, weaving, and tool production. The development of pottery craft reflects the social progress of the time. Initially, pottery was simple, with no decorations and typically round and flat bases. Gradually, the craft evolved, and more sophisticated pottery emerged, including red and brown wares and painted pottery, especially prevalent around the Yellow River region.

Handicrafts like jade wares and weaving skills also became prominent, significantly enriching the Neolithic lifestyle. The use of jade, in particular, made a lasting contribution to Chinese civilization. Jade artifacts from this period, especially those from the Liangzhu culture, are noted for their precision and craftsmanship. The polished stone implements, chosen for their hardness and attractiveness, highlight the advanced skill level of the Neolithic artisans.

The formation of clans, communities based on kin and ancestors, marked the social structure of the Neolithic Age. These clans, each represented by a totem, had an egalitarian social structure with shared resources. The marriage system evolved during this period, transitioning from pairing marriages to monogamous and polygamous forms.

Major Neolithic Cultures in China

The Neolithic period in China witnessed the emergence of major cultures that played a crucial role in shaping early Chinese civilization.

The Nanzhuangtou Culture (南莊頭遺址, 8500–7700, The northwestern Hunan area within the central Yangtze region)

Nanzhuangtou, located near Lake Baiyangdian in Xushui County, Hebei, China, is an early Neolithic site dating from approximately 10,700 to 9,500 BP. Discovered in 1986, it’s recognized as the oldest Neolithic site in northern China. The site has yielded over 47 pieces of pottery, evidence of domesticated dogs from 10,000 years ago, and indications of early millet cultivation around 10,500 BP. Stone grinding tools and bone artifacts were also found, providing insights into the lifestyle and technological development of the era.

The Pengtoushan Culture (彭頭山文化, 7500–6100, Henan’s Yi-Luo River Basin Valley)

The Pengtoushan culture, dating from about 7500–6100 BC, was a Neolithic culture in northwestern Hunan, China, contemporaneous with the Peiligang culture. Notable sites include Pengtoushan and Bashidang in Li County, with findings such as cord-marked pottery and evidence of rice cultivation. Rice residues from Pengtoushan, dated to 8200–7800 BC, indicate early domestication, with further evidence around 5800 BC and extensive rice cultivation signs by 4000 BC. Bashidang also revealed significant amounts of rice grains.

Peiligang culture (裴李崗文化, 7000–5000, Henan)

The Peiligang culture, a Neolithic civilization, flourished in the Yi-Luo river basin in modern Henan Province, China, from around 7000 to 5000 BC. Over 100 related sites, primarily clustered within a 100 square kilometer area south of the river, have been identified. Discovered in 1977, the culture is named after Peiligang, a village in Xinzheng County, Zhengzhou.

This egalitarian society practiced agriculture, notably millet cultivation, and animal husbandry, including pig and possibly poultry rearing. They also hunted deer and wild boar, fished for carp, and were among the earliest in ancient China to create pottery. The Peiligang culture had distinct residential and burial areas and produced various artifacts such as stone weapons, agricultural tools, and a wide range of pottery items.

The Houli Culture (後李文化, 6500–5500, Shandong)

The Houli culture (6500–5500 BC) was a Neolithic culture in Shandong, China. People of this culture lived in square, semi-subterranean houses and primarily relied on hunting and fishing, with early stages of dog and pig domestication noted. Common artifacts include pottery, stone, jade, and bone tools. Remains of rice and millet, some of the earliest in China, were found at Houli sites. Excavations occurred at the type site in Linzi District and other locations like Xihe and Yuezhang. Yuezhang particularly revealed domesticated millet dated to 8000 BP and carbonized rice, along with footed stone grinding slabs similar to those in the Peiligang culture. No evidence of domesticated animals was found at Yuezhang.

The Xinglongwa Culture (興隆洼文化, 6200–5400, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning)

The Xinglongwa culture (6200–5400 BC), a Neolithic culture in northeastern China, was mainly situated around the Inner Mongolia-Liaoning border in the Liao River basin. This culture is known for its cylindrical pottery, typically baked at low temperatures.

Distinctive for its communal planning, the Xinglongwa culture had settlements with houses built in rows and often featured a large central building. Additionally, several sites were surrounded by ditches. The type site, located at Aohan Banner, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, revealed 120 pit-houses with central hearths and a significant large building in the village center. This site is also notable as the earliest in China to be encircled by a ditch.

Unusual burial customs were observed, with some bodies buried directly under houses. Notable findings include jade objects and a lavish grave where a man was interred with pigs and jade artifacts.

Studies of human remains from this culture indicated a predominance of male individuals and provided insights into the physical stature of the population. The Xinglongwa might be the distant ancestors of modern Northeast Asian peoples, though this connection is subject to debate. The Xinglonggou site, unique within this culture, showed evidence of agriculture, specifically millet cultivation. Additionally, the Xinglongwa culture produced some of the oldest Comb Ceramic artifacts and a bone flute with five finger holes.

Tha Kuahuqiao Culture (跨湖桥文化, 6000–5000, Zhejiang)

The Kuahuqiao site, an early Neolithic site in Xiaoshan District, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China, dates back 8,000 years. Discovered in the 1970s, professional excavations began in 1990. The site, near where the Qiantang River flows into Hangzhou Bay, was inundated by rising sea levels around 7,550 years ago.

Archaeologists, including Yan Wenming, uncovered wooden dwellings built on stilts in marshy wetlands. The site yielded stoneware, unpainted and painted pottery, jade artifacts, and pottery made with wild rice. A second excavation in 2001 led to the recognition of Kuahuqiao culture as one of China’s top archaeological discoveries that year.

Key finds include well-preserved organic remains indicating early domestication of rice, dogs, and pigs. The site has the earliest evidence of paddy rice cultivation in China, dating back 7,700 years. Additionally, a very early dugout canoe and the earliest domesticated peach were discovered at Kuahuqiao.

The Cishan culture (磁山文化, 6000–5500, Hebei)

The Cishan culture (6500–5000 BC) was a Neolithic culture in northern China, near the Taihang Mountains. It was notable for early farming of broomcorn millet, with cultivation dating back 10,000 years, and foxtail millet around 8,700 years ago. Common artifacts include stone grinders, sickles with uniform serrations for harvesting grain, and tripod pottery with cord markings. The Cishan site in Wu’an, Hebei, featured semi-subterranean, round houses, and evidence of domesticated pigs, dogs, chickens, and fishing practices. Over 500 storage pits were found, used for storing large quantities of millet. The culture is linked to the origin of the Sino-Tibetan language family and shows similarities with neighboring Peiligang and Beixin cultures.

The Dadiwan Culture (大地灣文化, 5800–5400, Gansu, Shaanxi)

The Dadiwan culture (5800–5400 BCE) in eastern Gansu and Shaanxi, China, is known for its thin-walled, cord-marked pottery. Excavations revealed a history of human occupation dating back 60,000 years and evidence of millet cultivation and domesticated pigs and dogs. A large communal building from this period was also discovered at the site.

The Xinle Culture (新樂文化, 5500–4800, Liaoning)

The Xinle culture (5500–4800 BC) was a Neolithic culture in northeast China, centered around the lower Liao River in Liaoning. Discovered in Shenyang’s Huanggu District, it is named after the Xinle Dormitory where the remains were first found. Excavations revealed 40 Neolithic houses, artifacts like stone tools, pottery, jade, bone tools, wood carvings, and one of the world’s oldest wooden carvings, dated around 7,200 years old. The site also included two Khitan tombs from 1,000 years ago. In 1984, the Museum of the Xinle Civilization was established, featuring artifact displays and a reconstructed Xinle village.

The Zhaobaogou culture (趙宝溝文化, 5400–4500, Inner Mongolia)

The Zhaobaogou culture (5400–4500 BC) was a Neolithic culture located in northeast China, primarily in the Luan River valley in Inner Mongolia and northern Hebei. Known for producing sand-tempered pottery with geometric and zoomorphic designs, the culture also created stone and clay human figurines. The type site, excavated in 1986 in Aohan Banner, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, spans about 90,000 m².

The Hemudu Culture (河姆渡文化, 5000–4500, Zhejiang)

The Hemudu culture (5500–3300 BC) was a Neolithic culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, China, south of Hangzhou Bay. Discovered in 1973, it’s known for its stilt houses and rice cultivation. Artifacts include lacquer wood, the world’s earliest known, and pottery with plant designs. The culture, with possible matrilineal origins, later shifted to patrilineal. Hemudu people worshiped a sun spirit and practiced shamanistic rituals. The environment was tropical to subtropical, with evidence of significant climate change impacting the culture.

The Daxi Culture (5000–3000, 大溪文化, Hubei, Chongqing)

The Daxi culture (5000–3300 BC) was a Neolithic culture in the Three Gorges region around the middle Yangtze, China, extending from western Hubei to eastern Sichuan and the Pearl River Delta. Discovered in the 1920s by Nels C. Nelson, the type site is located in Qutang Gorge, Wushan, Chongqing. Characteristic artifacts include cylindrical bottles (dou), white plates (pan), and red pottery. The Daxi people were among the earliest in China to show moats and walled settlements, indicating advanced settlement planning. There’s evidence of cultural interactions with the Yangtze River Delta region, as seen in the artefacts found at Daxi and Majiabang culture sites. Genetic studies suggest that the Daxi people might be ancestors of Hmong–Mien speakers. The culture was succeeded by the Qujialing culture.

Majiabang Culture (馬家浜文化, 5000–3000, Zhejiang)

The Majiabang culture (5000–3300 BC) was centered in the Yangtze River Delta, primarily around Lake Tai in modern-day Jiangsu and Zhejiang, China. It was characterized by rice cultivation, pottery with geometric designs, and jade artifacts. Sites like Caoxieshan and Chuodun revealed paddy fields, indicating advanced rice farming. Besides agriculture, the Majiabang people also relied on hunting and fishing. The culture later evolved into the Songze culture and was succeeded by the Liangzhu culture. The climate during this period was warmer and wetter than today, conducive to rice cultivation. The Majiabang culture is notable for its influence on the development of Neolithic societies in the Yangtze River region.

The Yangshao Culture (仰韶文化, 5000–3000, Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi)

The Yangshao culture, named after the first excavated site of this culture in Yangshao town, Mianchi County, Sanmenxia, western Henan Province, was a pivotal Neolithic culture that thrived along the middle reaches of the Yellow River in China from around 5000 BC to 3000 BC. Discovered in 1921 by Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, the Yangshao culture mainly flourished in the provinces of Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi.

Recent research suggests that the Sino-Tibetan languages may have a common origin with the Yangshao, Cishan, or Majiayao cultures. The primary food source for the Yangshao people was millet, with variations in cultivation between foxtail and proso millet. There’s also evidence of rice cultivation. The nature of their agriculture, whether it was small-scale slash-and-burn or more intensive in permanent fields, is a matter of current debate. Settlements like Jiangzhi from the Middle Yangshao period indicate surplus grain storage, and the culture’s stone tools were polished and highly specialized, indicating advanced craftsmanship.

The Yangshao people domesticated pigs and dogs, with sheep, goats, and cattle being less common. Their meat sources also included hunting and fishing. In terms of crafts, the Yangshao culture is renowned for its fine pottery, characterized by white, red, and black painted designs depicting human faces, animals, and geometric patterns. Unlike the later Longshan culture, they did not use pottery wheels. The influence of Yangshao pottery style extended westward to the Majiayao culture and even further to Xinjiang and Central Asia. In addition to pottery, the Yangshao people also produced silk and wove hemp, with distinct clothing styles for men and women.

Yangshao Culture Painted Pottery, source

Housing in the Yangshao culture involved the construction of pit houses with rammed earth and wattle and daub walls, and thatched roofs with millet stalks. Furniture was minimal, with a focus on functionality. Yangshao villages were typically built around a central square and covered an area of ten to fourteen acres.

The social structure of the Yangshao culture has been a subject of debate, with early reports suggesting a matriarchal society, while other theories propose a transition to patriarchy or an inherently patriarchal structure. This debate largely stems from differing interpretations of burial practices.

One of the most significant discoveries in the Yangshao culture is the world’s oldest known dragon depiction, dating back to the fifth millennium BC, underscoring the long-standing cultural significance of dragons in Chinese civilization.

Archaeologically, the Yangshao culture is divided into three phases: the Early Yangshao or Banpo phase, the Middle Yangshao or Miaodigou phase, and the Late Yangshao period. Each phase marks an expansion and development in the culture, with the Late Yangshao period witnessing the construction of China’s first rammed earth wall in Xishan, central Henan. The Majiayao culture to the west, developing from the Middle Yangshao, is now recognized as a separate entity.

Notable archaeological sites include Banpo near Xi’an and Jiangzhai, with both sites yielding incised marks on pottery that some interpret as early numerals or precursors to Chinese characters. However, these interpretations are not widely accepted.

The Beixin culture (北辛文化, 5300–4100, Shandong)

The Beixin culture, flourishing between 5300 and 4100 BC, was a notable Neolithic culture in Shandong, China. It succeeded the Houli culture (6500–5500 BC) and preceded the Dawenkou culture (4100–2600 BC). Notably, it contains the first example of dental ablation in China, a practice that became prevalent in the Dawenkou culture.

The type site of the Beixin culture was discovered in Tengzhou, Shandong, China, and was excavated between 1978 and 1979. Archaeological excavations unearthed around fifty sites associated with the culture, mainly distributed across central and southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu provinces. These sites provided substantial evidence of millet cultivation and the domestication of water buffalo, pigs, and chickens. The Beixin people also engaged in fishing for carp, deer hunting, and foraging for wild pears, roots, and tubers. They extensively used hemp fibers for weaving fabric, making baskets, and creating various forms of thread, twine, and rope, including fishing nets. Interestingly, there is no evidence of hemp cultivation, suggesting that the Beixin people might have harvested wild hemp.

The housing structures of the Beixin culture were predominantly semi-subterranean and circular. This culture exhibited a clear separation between living and burial areas within settlements, indicative of an early Neolithic trend. The clustering of houses and burial sites suggested a family or clan-based social structure. Later graves showed evidence of ceremonial burials, with tools, weapons, and other items buried alongside the deceased.

Analysis of human remains from the Beixin culture indicates a steady population growth and an increase in lifespan, suggesting improvements in nutrition and overall health. Chemical analysis of the abundant pottery shards found at Beixin sites revealed a diet primarily consisting of pork and millet, supplemented by venison, chicken, eggs, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, indicating a diverse and nutritious diet for the time.

Interestingly, the Beixin culture appears to have been relatively peaceful, with few indications of violent deaths compared to other Neolithic cultures. Deaths were primarily due to disease or old age, suggesting minimal internal strife or conflict with neighboring cultures.

Typical artifacts from the Beixin culture include stone axe heads, spearheads, arrowheads for hunting, and stone sickle blades for grain harvesting.

The Hongshan Culture (紅山文化, 4700–2900, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Hebei)

The Hongshan culture was a Neolithic culture in Northeast China from about 4700 to 2900 BC. It’s known for its jade artifacts, including pig dragons and embryo dragons. The culture practiced millet farming and had unique religious structures, such as the Goddess Temple. Genetics studies show predominant haplogroups in the region during this time. Some believe the culture influenced early Chinese civilization and settlements in ancient Korea, but this remains debated.

The Dawenkou Culture (大汶口文化, 4100–2600, Shandong, Anhui, Henan, Jiangsu)

The Dawenkou culture, flourishing from 4300 to 2600 BC, was a prominent Neolithic culture primarily situated in China’s eastern province of Shandong, with its influence extending to Anhui, Henan, and Jiangsu. This culture existed alongside the Yangshao culture and is renowned for its artifacts made of turquoise, jade, and ivory. Dawenkou is notably the site of the earliest alligator drums and features Neolithic signs on pottery that could be precursors to scripts used in later dynasties, like the Shang.

Archaeologists have divided the Dawenkou culture into three phases: the early phase (4100–3500 BC), marked by egalitarian societal structures and distinctive long-stemmed cups; the middle phase (3500–3000 BC), where the emphasis in grave goods shifted from diversity to quantity; and the late phase (3000–2600 BC), characterized by the introduction of wooden coffins and increasing social stratification.

The Dawenkou site in Tai’an, Shandong, excavated in various years, revealed a complex stratigraphy, with the middle layer being most relevant to the Dawenkou culture. Interestingly, the culture exhibited practices like dental ablation and cranial deformation, which disappeared in China by the Bronze Age.

Politically, the Dawenkou might best be described as a chiefdom, where a dominant kin group likely exerted influence, more through religious authority than coercion. Unlike their Beixin ancestors, the Dawenkou were engaged in violent conflicts, possibly for resources like land and prestige goods.

In terms of agriculture and diet, the Dawenkou successfully farmed millet and, in some southern regions, rice, especially during the late period of their culture. They domesticated animals like chickens, dogs, pigs, and cattle, but interestingly, there’s no evidence of horse domestication. The diet varied across classes, with upper-class individuals primarily consuming rice and ordinary people eating millet. Seafood also played a crucial role in their diet.

Culturally, the Dawenkou were among the earliest practitioners of trepanation in prehistoric China. Their interactions with the Yangshao culture were significant, and they displayed similarities with the Liangzhu culture and other cultures along the Yangtze River basin. While some scholars suggest a link with pre-Austronesian languages and cultural practices, genetic studies indicate that the Dawenkou were distinct from the pre-Austronesian cultures to their south.

Physically, the Dawenkou people were similar to the Jiahu and exhibited a primarily Sinodont dental pattern. They practiced body modification in the form of dental ablation and cranial deformation, with no significant gender differences observed in these practices. Over time, however, the frequency of dental ablation among the Dawenkou decreased. Genetic testing has revealed closer ties to ancient Northern East Asians, differentiating them from Neolithic inhabitants of regions like Hemudu, South China, and Taiwan.

Dog-shaped vessel
Neolithic Dog-Shaped Pottery Gui from the Dawenkou Culture in Shandong, 1974. Currently housed at the National Museum of China

The Songze culture (崧澤文化, 3800–3300, Jiangsu)

The Songze Culture thrived from 3800 to 3300 BCE in the Lake Tai region near Shanghai. Notable sites include Songze, Nanhebang, Pishan, and Dongshan. Excavations unveiled cultural layers and burial grounds. It’s considered the successor of the Majiabang culture, with some suggesting connections to the Hemudu culture.

The Liangzhu culture (良渚文化, 3400–2250, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jiangxi)

The Liangzhu culture, dating from 3300 to 2300 BC, marked the final Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta. It exhibited a highly stratified society, with elite burials containing jade, silk, ivory, and lacquer artifacts, while pottery was more common in poorer burials. This division reflects early statehood, with distinct social classes in funeral structures.

The culture’s core was the Liangzhu site near Hangzhou, Zhejiang, where elites presided over local centers. Its influence extended to regions as far as Shanxi and Guangdong, making it one of East Asia’s earliest state societies. The Liangzhu site was discovered in Yuhang County, Zhejiang, in 1936.

In 2019, Liangzhu was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Around 2300 BC, the Liangzhu culture vanished from the Taihu Lake area. Research suggests that environmental factors, such as floods and heavy monsoon rains, played a role in its decline.

The Liangzhu culture displayed advanced agriculture, including rice cultivation and aquaculture. Houses were often built on stilts near waterways to counter flooding. A prominent Liangzhu city with clay walls, palace structures, and flood protection was discovered.

Artifacts included finely crafted ceremonial jade objects, such as cong (cylinders), bi (discs), and Yue axes. These jades were of exceptional quality and influenced later Chinese cultures. The culture also worked with diamond tools, the earliest known use of such tools worldwide.

The Liangzhu culture showcased an elaborate religion, with neolithic altars and ritual practices. Genetic studies indicate a possible connection to Austronesian and Kra-Dai peoples, suggesting multiple migration routes in ancient Eastern Asia.

The Majiayao culture (馬家窯文化, 3100–2700, Gansu, Qinghai)

The Majiayao culture, existing from 3300 to 2000 BC, thrived in the upper Yellow River region in China. Known for its painted pottery, it emerged due to favorable climatic conditions but declined as the climate turned arid. This culture introduced bronze technology and may have played a role in bringing pastoralism to China. Climate changes were linked to its development, with wet periods aiding growth and droughts contributing to decline, coinciding with the Piora Oscillation during the transition from Yangshao to Majiayao.

Th Qujialing culture (屈家嶺文化, 3100–2700, Hubei, Hunan)

The Qujialing culture, from 3400 to 2600 BC, was a Neolithic civilization centered in the middle Yangtze River region of China. It followed the Daxi culture and extended to areas in southern Shaanxi, northern Jiangxi, and southwest Henan. Unique artifacts from this culture include ceramic balls and painted spindle whorls, which were passed down to the Shijiahe culture. The primary site, Qujialing in Hubei, yielded various findings including animal remains, fish, eggshell pottery, tripods, city walls, water systems, and residential sites. Many of these artifacts are housed in the Hubei Provincial Museum.

Longshan Culture Pottery
Longshan Culture Pottery, source

The Longshan Culture (龍山文化, 3000–2000, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan)

The Longshan, or Black Pottery Culture, was a significant culture located in the middle and lower Yellow River valley areas of northern China, spanning from about 3000 to 1900 BC. The culture is named after Longshan, meaning “Dragon Mountain,” in Zhangqiu, Shandong, where the first archaeological evidence was found at the Chengziya Archaeological Site in 1928. This culture is particularly noted for its highly polished black pottery, also known as egg-shell pottery.

The Longshan culture experienced a substantial population expansion during the 3rd millennium BC, with many settlements fortified with rammed earth walls. However, around 2000 BC, there was a notable decrease in most areas, eventually evolving into the Bronze Age Erlitou culture. This culture has been linked to the early Sinitic languages of the Sino-Tibetan family.

Regarding its regional variations, the Longshan culture can be divided into Shandong Longshan, including the Chengziya Site, and Henan Longshan, encompassing sites like Dengfeng Wangchenggang, Taosi, and Mengzhuang in Hougang. The culture’s advanced pottery-making skills, including the use of pottery wheels, were widespread across North China and even reached as far as the Yangtze River valley and the southeastern coast.

Initially, black pottery was the primary diagnostic feature for identifying Longshan culture sites. However, more recent discoveries have revealed significant regional diversity within what was initially considered a uniform culture. This led to a reevaluation of the “Longshanoid horizon,” a term initially used by Kwang-chih Chang to describe a uniform culture spreading from a core area in the Central Plain. Now, many local cultures within this horizon are recognized as distinct, and the term “Longshan culture” is more narrowly applied to the middle and lower Yellow River valley.

In agriculture, the Longshan culture primarily cultivated foxtail millet, though traces of broomcorn millet, rice, and wheat have also been found. Pig was the most common source of meat, supplemented by sheep, goats, and dogs, particularly in Shandong. Cattle were less important. The culture is also known for its early sericulture, producing silk by domesticating silkworms.

Ritual practices in the Longshan culture included the heating of animal scapulae for divination and evidence of human sacrifice in the late period, particularly in Shaanxi and the Central Plain. The Miaodigou II phase (3000 to 2600 BC) marked a transitional period between the preceding Yangshao culture and the later Henan Longshan. This phase showed an intensification of agriculture and an increase in the consumption of domesticated animals.

In the late period of the Longshan culture, a rise in social stratification and population growth led to the formation of competing chieftainships and increasingly complex societal structures. Settlements developed into cities with distinct sections for different classes and occupations. Advances in technology, such as well construction and rudimentary plumbing, were evident, alongside the production of copper tools and early bronze objects.

The Shandong Longshan, evolving from the Dawenkou culture, was characterized by a less pronounced wealth gap and less violence compared to other Longshan sites. In contrast, the Hougang II variant in northern Henan and Southern Hebei and the Wangwan III variant in western and central Henan showed distinct regional characteristics and settlement patterns. The Taosi site in southern Shanxi, one of the largest Longshan settlements, indicated at least three social ranks in its mortuary practices.

The decline of the Longshan culture around the end of the 3rd millennium BC, marked by a sharp population decrease and the abandonment of large centers, paved the way for the emergence of the Erlitou culture in central Henan. This period’s significance lies in its role in the development of social productive forces and the emergence of class antagonisms, setting the stage for the subsequent Bronze Age in China. Notably, the Longshan culture included individuals of extraordinary stature, with some male remains from Shandong being among the tallest for Neolithic populations worldwide.

Primitive symbols depicted on pottery artifacts
Primitive symbols depicted on pottery artifacts

The Erlitou culture (二里頭, 1900-1500, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hubei)

The Erlitou culture, flourishing in the Yellow River valley from approximately 1900 to 1500 BC, marks a significant early Bronze Age urban society and archaeological culture in China. Radiocarbon dating suggests a narrower date range of 1750 to 1530 BC. Discovered at Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan, this culture spread throughout Henan and Shanxi and later appeared in Shaanxi and Hubei. It is widely regarded by archaeologists as the first state-level society in China and is often associated with the Xia dynasty, though definitive evidence like writing to substantiate this link is absent, as the earliest Chinese writing dates to the late Shang dynasty.

The Erlitou culture may have evolved from the Longshan culture matrix and initially centered around Henan and Shanxi before spreading to Shaanxi and Hubei. Following the rise of the Erligang culture, Erlitou, although diminished in size, remained inhabited. The site, discovered in 1959 by Xu Xusheng, features palace buildings and bronze smelting workshops, indicating advanced societal structures and technological capabilities. Erlitou monopolized the production of ritual bronze vessels, including the earliest dings, and was a significant center for bronze production and trade.

The site, located on the Yi River, covered an area of 2.4 by 1.9 kilometers, but flood damage has left only 3 square kilometers. The Erlitou Relic Museum in Luoyang, Henan, houses over 2,000 items excavated from Erlitou and opened in October 2019.

Erlitou’s growth is categorized into four phases. Phase I saw Erlitou as a rapidly growing regional center, not yet an urban civilization. Urbanization began in Phase II, with a significant population increase and the establishment of a palatial area. The city reached its zenith in Phase III, characterized by extensive palatial complexes surrounded by a two-meter-thick rammed-earth wall. In Phase IV, despite a population decrease, construction continued, overlapping with the Lower Phase of the Erligang culture. Around 1600 BC, a walled city was built at Yanshi, near Erlitou.

The Erlitou culture played a pivotal role in the early development of bronze technology in China, producing not only tools and musical instruments but also weapons and unique animal-faced plaques. The bronzes from Erlitou are distinct for their pottery-imitating features and simple geometric patterns. Significant artifacts, including the earliest bronze ding and dagger-axe or ge, were first found in Erlitou culture sites.

Symbols on ceramics from Erlitou sites have led to speculation about early Chinese characters, but no definitive link has been established, rendering these symbols as proto-writing or markings. The debate continues regarding the identification of Erlitou sites with traditional historical accounts of the Xia and Shang dynasties. While some associate Erlitou with the Xia dynasty, others argue that the focus on historiography in Chinese archaeology might be restrictive, as definitive evidence linking Erlitou to these ancient dynasties is still lacking.

Archaeological evidence of a massive flood around 1920 BC, preceding the rise of Erlitou, has led to theories linking this event to the transition of cultures and possibly to the Xia dynasty’s legendary basis. However, the absence of evidence for widespread flooding in the North China Plain during this period leaves room for ongoing research and debate in this aspect of Chinese ancient history.

Baodun culture (寶墩文化, 2800–2000, Sichuan)

The Baodun culture, which thrived from 2700 BC to 1700 BC, was a Neolithic civilization centered on the Chengdu Plain in Sichuan, China. The culture is divided into four phases (I-IV), with radiocarbon dates suggesting its existence around 2467 ± 347 BC and 1993 ± 335 BC. This culture is associated with ten settlements, including the type site at Baodun in Xinjin County. These settlements were located along the Min River and featured unique pebble-covered walls. Baodun culture pottery showed similarities to the Sanxingdui culture. The inhabitants lived in wattle and daub houses, and the type site at Baodun revealed early evidence of rice and foxtail millet agriculture in southwest China. The largest of these sites, Baodun, had a walled area that was encircled by two walls and featured evidence of rice and foxtail millet cultivation, along with various other crops and plants.

Shijiahe culture (石家河文化, 2500–2000, Hubei)

The Shijiahe culture (2500–2000 BC) was a late Neolithic civilization in the middle Yangtze River region, known for its unique artifacts like painted spindle whorls, pottery figurines, and advanced jade craftsmanship. Its type site, Shijiahe site cluster, was densely populated with possibly 15,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. They relied on watercraft for travel, dug moats, and practiced rice and millet agriculture.

Some scholars suggest it might have been an ancient state due to its advanced socio-political structure, although the extent of centralized control is unclear. Jade artifacts, similar to the Liangzhu culture, were found.

The culture declined around 2000 BC, possibly due to warfare with the Longshan culture, flooding, social order collapse, or a combination of factors. Drought also affected rice cultivation.

The Yueshi culture (岳石文化, 1900–1500, Shandong)

The Yueshi culture, dating from 1900 to 1500 BC, was an archaeological culture in the Shandong region of eastern China. This culture, spanning the Late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age, succeeded the Longshan culture (c. 2600–1900 BC) in Shandong and was later replaced by the Erligang culture, associated with the historical Shang dynasty.

Geographically, the Yueshi culture was found in Shandong, eastern Henan, and north Jiangsu province. The type site at Dongyueshi Village in Pingdu, Shandong, gave the culture its name. The culture was contemporary with the Erlitou and early Erligang cultures. In central Shandong, particularly in the Tai-Yi Mountains region, the Yueshi culture was predominant. However, as the Erligang state expanded, the Yueshi culture declined and retreated to the eastern Shandong Peninsula.

In the Shandong area, notable sites like Daxinzhuang in Jinan and Qianzhangda in Tengzhou were early regional centers of the Erligang culture. The coexistence of early Shang and Yueshi pottery traditions in some areas suggests these cultures were living side by side. The Panmiao site in Shangqiu, eastern Henan, shows evidence of Yueshi culture during the early Bronze Age.

The Yueshi culture is characterized by a decline in cultural development, with a dissolution of groups of settlements and a loss of the advanced pottery technology seen in the Shandong Longshan culture. While Yueshi ding-dou type vessels were present in the Longshan culture, many other vessel types differed. The bronzes of Yueshi mostly consisted of small, portable items, with no bronze vessels, indicating that the decline in ceramics was not due to the adoption of bronze.

This culture is often compared to the contemporaneous Lower Xiajiadian culture in Liaoning, the Shuangtuozi culture of the Liaodong Peninsula, and the Dianjiangtai culture in Rongyang, Henan Province.

There is a historical connection made between the Yueshi culture and the Dongyi, mentioned in Zhou dynasty documents. Oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang period mention campaigns against the Renfang, a group believed to be in southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu, often identified with the Dongyi. However, this identification is debated due to frequent migrations in the region’s prehistoric populations.

The Erligang culture (二里崗文化, 1600–1400, North China Plain)

The Erligang culture, a Bronze Age urban civilization in China, existed from approximately 1600 to 1400 BC. The primary site of this culture was discovered at Erligang within modern Zhengzhou, Henan. This culture centered in the Yellow River valley and expanded rapidly in its early years, even reaching the Yangtze River, before gradually shrinking from its early peak.

Zhengzhou, or Zhengzhou Shang City, was a major Erligang site, surrounded by walls made using techniques dating back to the Longshan culture. The city housed large workshops outside its walls, including those for bone, pottery, and bronze vessels. Other significant Erligang sites include Panlongcheng in Hubei and Xiaoshuangqiao and Huanbei in Henan. Panlongcheng, a large site on the Yangtze River, was possibly used to secure distant metal resources, while Xiaoshuangqiao and Huanbei reveal insights into the urban layout and cultural practices of the Erligang culture.

Erligang bronzes, which developed from the Erlitou style, were more widely used and uniform than those at Erlitou, marking a significant advancement in bronze casting in China. Despite the archaeological importance of the Zhengzhou site, no written records have been found linking Erligang remains to official histories, thus leaving its relation to traditional accounts of the Shang dynasty open to interpretation.

Miaodigou Culture mask, 3500 BCE
Miaodigou Culture mask, 3500 BCE. In the depiction of the earthenware mask, its A-line configuration suggests it was designed after the form of a wooden helmet, which would have been worn by exorcists during rituals to repel malevolent spirits and misfortune. A similar mask, dating back to around 3500 BCE, was discovered at Yangguanxhai Village near Xi’an. Genetic analysis of tomb occupants at the same location revealed a connection to the Mongols, descendants of the ancient Rong and Di people. Source

Religious Beliefs and Rituals in Neolithic China

The spiritual life of Neolithic China, particularly in the context of religious beliefs and rituals, reveals a rich and complex tapestry of practices centered around reverence for nature, ancestors, and a burgeoning pantheon of deities.

Related articles: Chinese Folk Religions

Burial Customs and Afterlife Beliefs

Neolithic Chinese communities paid significant attention to the burial and commemoration of their dead. This practice was not merely a matter of respect but also reflected a belief in the afterlife. Graves were often oriented and positioned based on regional customs, and kinship groupings were common in burial practices. Ritual offerings at gravesites, such as liquids and animal remains, indicate a form of communication or appeasement with the spiritual realm. Furthermore, the practice of collective secondary burial, where the bones of multiple individuals were reburied together, was prevalent, suggesting a communal approach to the afterlife​​.

Ritual Specialists and Divination

The existence of ritual specialists is implied by evidence of divination practices using animal scapulae. This practice, dating back to the end of the 4th millennium BCE, suggests a structured approach to understanding and interacting with the supernatural​​.

Jade Carving and Symbolism

Jade carving was an advanced craft in Neolithic China, often associated with ritual or ceremonial use. Objects like axe heads, blades, and knives, as well as personal ornaments, were crafted from jade, highlighting its importance in Neolithic society. Notably, the Hongshan culture produced jade objects such as pig dragons and toothed pendants, found in burial sites and likely symbolizing power and status. These artifacts, alongside jade disks and tubes from the Liangzhu culture, were meticulously aligned around the deceased, underscoring their ritual significance​​.

Puyang Dragon Burial, with the earliest depiction of a Dragon in China, Yangshao culture
The Puyang Dragon Burial, featuring the earliest known depiction of a dragon in China, source

Development of Deities and Dragon Worship

Related article: Dragon paintings

Early Neolithic religious practices included the veneration of local earth spirits known as Tudi Gong, believed to be guardians of specific locales. The dragon, one of China’s oldest deities, emerged during this period, symbolizing protection and success. Dragon imagery on Neolithic pottery at sites like Banpo Village suggests the early significance of this motif in religious practices. Over time, the pantheon expanded to include more universal gods like Shangti, the god of law and order, and Nuwa, the goddess associated with the creation of humanity​​.

Worship Practices and the Role of Clergy

Religious practices in Neolithic China were diverse, often involving music, bell sounds, and incense burning. Monastic prayers were conducted thrice daily, reflecting a structured approach to worship. The concept of hygiene schools, teaching people about health and longevity, was also a significant aspect of religious practice, intertwining spiritual beliefs with everyday life​​.

Social Structure and Daily Life in Neolithic China

The social organization and daily life in Neolithic China were marked by a gradual transition from a simple, egalitarian society to a more complex, hierarchical one, as seen through various archaeological findings.

Neolithic societies in China showed a variety of social structures, influenced by their geographical location and economic activities. The emergence of social classes became evident through the burial practices. Important and wealthy individuals were often buried with elaborate pottery and jade objects, suggesting a belief in the afterlife and the existence of social stratification. These luxury items, like jade carvings and decorative pottery, required considerable resources and skilled labor, indicating the presence of a ruling class that controlled these resources. This differentiation in burial customs points towards an evolving social hierarchy within Neolithic communities​​.

Family and community were central to Neolithic life. The division of labor, dictated by gender and age, was crucial for the survival of these communities. Men primarily engaged in hunting, tool-making, and later in agriculture, while women were involved in gathering, food preparation, and childcare. As agriculture developed, settled communities formed, leading to more complex societal structures. Kinship played a significant role in social organization, and it is believed that clans or extended families were the fundamental units of society.

The daily life of Neolithic Chinese revolved around agriculture, crafting, and domestic activities. Agricultural practices like millet cultivation and animal husbandry were common. Crafting included pottery making and jade carving, with jade objects being particularly significant for ritual or ceremonial use. These crafts not only demonstrate technical skill but also indicate a well-organized society where certain individuals specialized in specific tasks, further implying a division of labor.

Personal Adornment and Tattoos

In Neolithic China, personal appearance and adornment were important, as evidenced by the presence of personal ornaments like bracelets, earrings, and pendants in burial sites. The treatment of the body and hair was seen as a reflection of respect for one’s ancestors. Tattoos, often associated with barbarian customs, were generally looked down upon and were sometimes used as a brand for criminals. However, there are records of individuals who chose to tattoo themselves as a form of artistic expression​​.

The Dawn of Civilization: Transition to the Dynastic Period

The transition from Neolithic village settlements to the dynastic period in China marks a significant chapter in the history of Chinese civilization. This period witnessed the end of the Neolithic era and the rise of the first Chinese dynasties, fundamentally transforming the social, political, and cultural landscape of ancient China.

End of the Neolithic Era

The Neolithic era in China, which began around 8000 BCE, was characterized by the development of settled communities primarily reliant on farming and domestication of animals. As these communities became more diverse and complex, several regional Neolithic cultures emerged, particularly along rivers and coasts. For instance, the Yangshao culture, concentrated along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, was known for its millet-farming village communities. Over time, these communities evolved into more complex societal structures, laying the groundwork for the emergence of dynastic states​​.

Rise of the First Dynasties

The transition from the Neolithic period to the dynastic era is marked by the emergence of the Xia Dynasty (c. 1900 – 1600 BCE), followed by the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE) and the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 256 BCE). These kingdoms were ruled by hereditary monarchs and represented a significant evolution from tribal and chiefdom organizations to more centralized and complex political structures. The development of these dynasties was closely tied to the Yellow River, which provided a stable supply of water for agriculture and supported the growth of these early states​​.

Technological and Cultural Developments

The transition period also saw technological advancements, particularly in bronze-making techniques. The Shang Dynasty, for example, was known for its piece-mold casting method used in bronze production, a technique that allowed for intricate designs on bronze vessels. This period also witnessed the high achievement of jade carving, a continuation of the art form developed during the late Neolithic cultures. These developments in material culture reflect the growing sophistication and complexity of society during this era​​.

Formation of Early Chinese States

The archaeological site of Erlitou, identified by many historians as the capital of the Xia Dynasty, shows evidence of a complex, Bronze Age civilization. The presence of a central, walled palace complex, workshops for bronze and pottery production, and elite burials containing bronze weapons and jade artifacts suggest a socially stratified society, moving beyond simple chiefdoms to more organized states. These early states laid the foundation for more powerful kingdoms and dynasties that would shape the course of Chinese history​​.

The dawn of civilization in China during the transition to the dynastic period was characterized by significant societal, technological, and cultural transformations. This era marked the end of the Neolithic age and the beginning of recorded history in China, setting the stage for the development of one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations.

Sources

Featured image: AI-generated image for illustrative purposes only, not historically accurate

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