History Files
 

Far East Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Early East Asia

East Asia is one of the five broad regions of Asia as a whole. Of those regions it would appear to be South Asia which witnessed the earliest presence of anatomically modern humans in the form of Homo sapiens - between about 70,000-60,000 BC. Other groups headed north to enter East Asia roughly around 60,000 BC.

East Asia incorporates all of the territory to the east of Central Asia. This includes territory which became ancient China (with a separate page covering its Early Cultures), plus modern Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan (which also has its own Early Cultures page), Taiwan, and Tibet. The north-eastern corner of Russia can sometimes also be included in this group, providing a cornerstone between that and Siberia. China and Tibet provide the regional border with the countries of South Asia and South-East Asia.

FeatureThe early East Asians also found Homo erectus populations still extant, but quickly out-competed them so that this long-established early human species was extinct before about 30,000 BC (see feature link). It was Homo erectus which provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, in the form of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing Municipality, where so-called Peking Man was discovered.

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

FeatureThe origins of 'Asia' as a name appear to lay in a confederacy in western Anatolia known as Assuwa or Assua (Arzawa). Certainly by about 1400-1300 BC this confederacy had already been formed by a number of regional minor states which, collectively, were allied to the Hittite empire which dominated Anatolia at that time. The city of Troy (or Wilusa) was also a member of this confederacy. However, a far older word could be the basis of the 'Asia' name. This option relates to the Indo-Europeans and their spread from the Pontic-Caspian steppe to dominate Central Asia (see the feature link, right, for a fuller exploration of this theory).

Siberian cultural bone markings

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), from Palaeo-Anthropology and Palaeolithic archaeology in the people's republic of China, Wu Rukang & John W Olsen (Left Coast Press, 2009), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic), and East Asia Palaeolithic (Claire Smith, Ed, Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 2014), and Stone Age Asia (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

Ordosian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.60,000 - 30,000 BC

FeatureAsia's Palaeolithic period is one of gradually encroaching human activity from the coastal regions towards the vast inland areas. India was reached around 70,000 BC, although that specific date is contested. Anatomically modern humans filtered from there into South-East Asia and Oceania by about 60,000 BC, reaching Australia at some point around or shortly after 50,000 BC (see feature link). The early history of modern human infiltration into and habitation of East Asia is still very vague. The story has only been illustrated in relatively isolated pockets of research, concentrated especially in China (and then only primarily along its Early Yellow River until more recent decades), Japan, and the two Koreas. From East Asia humans reached Berengia around 48,000 BC (now the north-eastern corner of Russia).

FeatureThe early East Asians also found Homo erectus populations still extant, but quickly out-competed them so that this long-established early human species was extinct before about 30,000 BC (see feature link). It was Homo erectus which provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, in the form of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing Municipality, where so-called Peking Man was discovered.

The Ordosian culture (or tradition, sometimes shown as the Ordos) is an Upper Palaeolithic modern human culture which has its type name on the Ordos Plateau, southern Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in China, close to Mongolia's border. The tools of this culture display points and sides which bear similarities to the Mousterian culture and its Levallois Technique, both of which were Neanderthal-led Near East traditions into which Homo sapiens intruded before forming its own distinctive cultural features. The tradition behind these tools, then, must have been carried here from the Near East without any notable development having taken place along the way. More recent analysis reveals a connection with the Yenisey–Baikal region in central Siberia, proof of a level of linkage between early modern human involvement in both regions. The culture can be vaguely dated to between about 60,000-30,000 BC.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Palaeo-Anthropology and Palaeolithic archaeology in the people's republic of China, Wu Rukang & John W Olsen (Left Coast Press, 2009), and from External Links: Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe, Michael Balter (Science, 25 Oct 2013: Vol 342, Issue 6157, pp409-410), and From Siberia to the Arctic and the Americas, Douglas Wallace (DNA Learning Center), and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic), and The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene (Nature), and Ancient Denisovans (Archaeology Daily), and DNA from Mysterious 'Denisovans' Helped Modern Humans Survive (Live Science), and East Asia Palaeolithic (Claire Smith, Ed, Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 2014), and Zhoukoudian archaeological site (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Stone Age Asia (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Origins of 'Transeurasian' languages (The Guardian).)

c.60,000 BC

Asia's Palaeolithic period is one of gradually encroaching human activity from the coastal regions towards the vast inland areas. The early history of modern human infiltration into and habitation of East Asia is still very vague. The story has only been illustrated in relatively isolated pockets of research, concentrated especially in China (and then only primarily as part of the Early Yellow River cultures until more recent decades), Japan, and the two Koreas.

Those early arrivals in East Asia set about exploiting the resources of today's China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Tibet. Russia's north-eastern corner can also sometimes be included in this group. Since the start of the twenty-first century more collaborative efforts are being undertaken into exploring East Asia's Palaeolithic record, with Russia now being included in providing a better overview.

The Ordosian culture is an Upper Palaeolithic modern human culture which has its type name on the Ordos plateau, southern Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in China, close to Mongolia's border. The tools of this Early China culture display points and sides which bear similarities to the Mousterian culture.

Ordos Plateau
The Ordos Plateau lies along the Yellow River in what today is northern China, close to the border with Mongolia

c.50,000 BC

Hunter-gatherers seem to arrive on Japan during this period. Two routes are available, one being via a land bridge in the north while sea crossings may be possible in the south. DNA suggests that the Palaeolithic ancestors of the later-dominant Jomon people come from the north-eastern part of the East Asian mainland. Good quality finds, however, are rare thanks to Japan's highly acidic soil which soon destroys fossil matter.

c.36,000 BC

The earliest habitation of Siberia seems to take place around 40,000 BC - and perhaps even a little earlier. By this period those early inhabitants begin the process of becoming genetically distinct from both Western Eurasians (largely of Europe's Aurignacian culture) and East Asians, shortly after the latter two have also begun to develop their own genetic distinctions.

c.30,000 BC

FeatureEarly East Asians have existed alongside extant populations of Homo erectus for the past thirty thousand years. It is Homo erectus which has provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, that of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing Municipality, where so-called Peking Man is later discovered by archaeologists.

Homo ergaster, Turkhana Boy
In general, the use of Homo ergaster describes a species of hominid in Africa, but when examples of the same species leave Africa they are generally referred to as Homo erectus, although this is not a hard or fast rule - this example belongs to Turkana Boy, otherwise known as Nariokotome Boy, the most complete skeleton found to date and a perfect example of Homo ergaster of about 1.5 million years ago

c.10,600 BC

China's earliest regionally-specific culture emerges in the form of the Nanzhuangtou. Its type site lies near Lake Baiyangdian in Xushui County, Hebei Province. Evidence of pottery use here is plentiful, along with stone grinding tools for processing millet. Signs are also available to show that the immediate descendants of the Nanzhuangtou people domesticate the dog by about 8000 BC.

c.9000 - 8000 BC

As the Jeulman pottery period is beginning to emerge in the Korean peninsula, it is other East Asians who are largely responsible for the migration into North America which forms the Palaeo-Indians. East Asians have also mixed with other descendants of ancient Siberian groups to give rise to the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians.

Now another band of East Asians heads north to supplant that group and give rise to the Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push. Later bands of such incomers include the East Asian Tungusic people.

These groups all originate from the first Neolithic millet-farming communities in the Liao river valley in what is now covered by the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin and the region of Inner Mongolia. A 2021 study confirms the shared genetic history of all of the later Transeurasian language-speakers, from Japanese to Turkic (but excluding the Sino-Tibetan language family which has its own Early Yellow River origins).

Jeulmun Pottery Period (Mesolithic / Neolithic) (Korea)
c.8000 - 1500 BC

The East Asian Jeulmun pottery period covers territory in the south of the Korean peninsula, extending northwards but not covering the entire peninsula. Its origins are yet to be explained, with some experts arguing that pottery discoveries at Gosan-ni on Jeju-do Island should be dated to around 10,000 BC as a kind of pre-Jeulmun phase. Southern China had its own early pottery in the form of the Peiligang and Cishan cultures, as did the Japanese islands and Russia's Far East territory, all of which collectively formed one of the earliest expressions of pottery in the world.

The period is rather long, archaeologically speaking. It was created by Korean archaeologists to provide a framework which more closely matched that of prehistoric Europe. This is despite there being no visible signs of a Neolithic period until about 3500 BC. To allow better definition and cataloguing, the period has been sub-divided into four periods: Incipient (8000-6000 BC); Early (6000-3500 BC); Middle (3500-2000 BC); and Late (2000-1500, perhaps extending to 1000 BC where it intrudes into the Mumun pottery period).

The first two sub-periods cover the Korean peninsula's Mesolithic period, in which modern humans concentrated on hunter-gatherer techniques for their survival. Given the peninsula's long coastline, fishing became an especially important ingredient for that survival. The third and fourth sub-periods cover the Neolithic period. The culture was eventually displaced by the aforementioned Mumun period which brought with it differing pottery styles and more advanced cultivation techniques.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Jeulmun (Incipient) Pottery (National Museum of Korea), and Jeulmun (Middle) Pottery (National Museum of Korea).)

c.8000 BC

This marks the start of the 'Incipient' phase of the Jeulmun pottery period in the Korean peninsula, which lasts until 6000 BC. Despite the label of the Jeulmun pottery period being used to describe the entirety of the peninsula's Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, this is essentially a Mesolithic period alone.

Jeulmun pottery
Pottery with the raised Jeulmun period designs has mainly been found in the eastern and south-eastern coastal regions of the Korean peninsula, with its main production period being between around 6000-4000 BC, predating the appearance of comb-pattern pottery.

Pottery first appears in the Korean peninsula (although see the introduction above for a proposed earlier date of 10,000 BC). Known in modern Korean as Yunggimuntogi (Yunggimun pottery), it is flat-bottomed, decorated with relief designs and various impressions to create a pattern. Also known as 'Pre-Slant' earthenware, it may reach a height of creation and distribution around 5000 BC. Comb pattern pottery of the Jeulmun appears after 7000 BC.

c.6000 BC

The 'Early' phase of the Jeulmun pottery period in the Korean peninsula begins around this time, covering the later Mesolithic and lasting until 3500 BC. The same period in China falls midway through the regionally-limited Peiligang culture of the Yellow River. Deep-sea fishing and coastal foraging become key food providers for the Mesolithic population in the peninsula.

c.3500 BC

This date marks the start of the 'Middle' phase of the Jeulmun pottery period in the Korean peninsula. Essentially covering the beginnings of a true Neolithic period in the peninsula, it lasts until 2000 BC. Comb-patterning on pottery comes to encompass the entire outer surface of the pot up until the end of this period. Similar pottery styles can be seen in communities across East Asia and in Japan's Jomon culture.

Jeulmun comb pattern pottery
Comb-pattern pottery (bitsalmunui togi) began in the mid-western region of the Korean peninsula before quickly spreading to the rest of the peninsula.

c.2000 BC

This point marks the start of the 'Late' phase of the Jeulmun pottery period in the Korean peninsula, which lasts until a point around 1500 BC (or perhaps as late as 1000 BC). The focus is now on subsistence farming and a move into the peninsula's interior, with the coast being less exploited than during the Early Jeulmun. It is roughly contemporaneous with China's Lower Xiajiadian culture.

This phase would seem to occur largely to the south of the semi-legendary state of Old Choson which is much more heavily tied to the proto-Korean Seo Dansan culture. The Jeulmun is succeeded around 1500 BC by the Mumun pottery period, possibly as an incursion by new arrivals rather than a local progression.

Mumun Pottery Period (Bronze Age) (Korea)
c.1500 - 300 BC

The Mumun pottery period succeeded the Jeulmun pottery period, occurring in the Korean peninsula. It witnessed the arrival of agriculture and increasingly complex social structures which heralded the rise of the earliest kingdoms. It should probably include Wiman Choson as the earliest fully historical Korean kingdom and the Seo Dansan as its obscure cultural expression, but both of those may have taken place beyond its northernmost reach. Rice cultivation took off in a big way, both dry-field and paddy (wet) styles.

The introduction of the Mumun has been theorised as an intrusive arrival rather than a progression by the local Jeulmun hunter-gatherers. Kim Jangsuk describes a process involving a gradual loss of hunting grounds at the hands of the Mumun incomers who possess more advanced cultivation techniques which include slash-and-burn clearances. The Jeulman populations would either have been absorbed or marginalised. Some, having picked up these new techniques, may have made the journey to the Japanese islands to become the Jomon rice farmers who appeared after about 900 BC.

Despite the use of a date of 1500 BC to mark the start of the Bronze Age in the Korean peninsula, bronze technology only appeared after about 700 BC. Even then its application was limited until after about 400 BC. The Mumun pottery period was succeeded by the peninsula's Iron Age, which is specifically focussed on the Samhan confederacies of the south.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from Land-Use Conflict and the Rate of Transition to Agricultural Economy: A Comparative Study of Southern Scandinavia and Central-Western Korea, Kim Jangsuk (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2003), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria.)

c.800 BC

The existence of early chiefdoms can be traced to this point. Elite burials which become increasingly ostentatious by about 500 BC show clear signs of social stratification and a ruling body, albeit not on the political scale of the semi-legendary state of Old Choson to the north. Village life gradually expands for much of this period, before suffering a period of contraction towards the end of the Mumun which can tentatively be tied to a period of Chinese intrusion.

Text
Mumun pottery was generally less elaborate than that of the Jeulmun - it was principally the great changes in cultivation which included slash-and-burn techniques which set apart the start of the Mumun

c.400 BC

The Korean peninsula's Bronze Age can truly be said to begin around this time, after perhaps three centuries of increasing usage and spread. This can be said to be the approximate point at which the Jin confederacies being to coalesce in the peninsula's central and southern areas. The period, though, is brief, being replaced by the start of an Iron Age very soon after bronze has become widely used by all levels of society.

c.300 BC

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Chinese Yen/Yan kingdom conquers the dominant Korean state of Old Choson around this time, during China's 'Warring States' period - at the approximate start of the Yayoi period on Japan's islands. For the previous six hundred years or so increasing numbers of rice farmers had been settling areas of southern Japan and bringing with them their differing pottery style from that of the native Jomon people. Could it be refugees from conquered areas of northern Korea who provide the final push towards ending the Jomon period?

Map of Early Han (Western) China c.200 BC
The Han conquest of Qin China had to wait until the great Qin emperor himself was dead and it still took a year of fighting to destroy the Qin armies. Then the victors spent four more years and a civil war deciding that the Han would command the succeeding dynasty and reunite the fractured state (click or tap on map to view full sized)

At about the same time the Bronze Age Mumun pottery period is succeeded by the Iron Age Samhan period. This coincides with Korea's 'Three Kingdoms' period and the crossover between the Jin confederacies into those of the Samhan. All located in the southern and central parts of the Korean peninsula, these in turn beget the Gaya confederacy, and the kingdoms of Baekje and Silla, placing the Samhan at the beginning of recording history in this part of Korea.

Seo Dansan Culture (Bronze Age) (Korea)
c.900 - 300 BC

The Seo Dansan culture developed in the middle basin of the Second Songhua river in the tenth century BC. This was especially similar to Bronze Age cultures from the Liaodong peninsula (on the north-western edge of the modern North Korean border) and the Mumun culture of the Korean peninsula itself. It was part of a unique train of cultural development which was independent of Chinese culture, located in northern Korea and southern Manchuria which in the second century became part of the semi-legendary state of Buyeo following the fracturing of the semi-legendary Old Choson and the fall of its replacement, Wiman Choson.

The Seo Dansan is somewhat difficult to research in the English language. No readily-available English-language texts seem to mention it, other than a statement which links proto-Korean development to this culture. However, placing it in the region which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries AD was termed 'Manchuria' (a term which is now falling out of favour) fits the few facts available regarding it. The region is somewhat ambiguous in extent, but certainly covered today's north-eastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. It could also be extended into what is now Russia's Pimorsky krai, and probably also the neighbouring Amur oblast and Khabarovsk krai.

This stretch of territory, which could be extended west towards the Altai Mountains, has proven to be a melting pot of ethnic formation. The Korean people belong to the Tungusic branch of East Asians. Their polysyllabic, agglutinative language is a branch of the Altaic language family, which includes other tongues such as Turkic groups (which seem to have emerged from around the first century BC onwards), Mongolian, and Japanese. Most archaeologists agree that the semi-nomadic people who fashioned comb-marked and plain-brown pottery under the influence of a Shamanistic culture during the Neolithic, from about 3000 BC to around 1000 BC (probably as a northern extension of the Jeulman), constitute the inhabitants of the main formation zone for today's Korean people. A 2021 study confirmed that all Transeurasian speakers originate with the Neolithic millet farmers of this area of East Asia, with a starting point of about 9000 BC.

Those people emerged out of a combination at various times of various smaller, identifiable groups which were doubtless all formed during this period. These include the proto-Koreans themselves. Other groups which either contributed to the continuation of this state and its successors or who were later joined to it, voluntarily or otherwise, include the Dongye, Mohe, Okjeo, and Yemaek. Tungusic influences existed in at least the Mohe, but as a group they were all related to some extent.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from Land-Use Conflict and the Rate of Transition to Agricultural Economy: A Comparative Study of Southern Scandinavia and Central-Western Korea, Kim Jangsuk (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2003), from Brief History of Korea: A Bird's-Eye View, Young Ick Lewand (The Korea Society, 2000), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Origins of 'Transeurasian' languages (The Guardian).)

c.300 BC

The Chinese Yen/Yan kingdom conquers Gojoseon during China's 'Warring States' period. Is it coincidental that Japan's Yayoi period begins around the same time? For the preceding six hundred years or so increasing numbers of rice farmers have been settling areas of southern Japan and bringing with them their differing pottery style from that of the native Jomon people. Could it be Mumun or Seo Dansan refugees from partially-conquered Korea who provide the final push towards ending the Jomon period there?

Korean comb-pattern pottery
This comb-pattern container with its pointy base was discovered in Amsa-dong, Seoul, a representative historic site of the Korean Neolithic period