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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early China

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 and the Near East 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).

The view of what is now China's emergence into the historical record has been undergoing a revolution of rethinking and examination in recent decades. Gone (or as near so as makes little difference) is the view that Chinese history has been one smooth progression from start to finish.

Archaeological cultures along the Early Yellow River are no longer being viewed as the only source of China's creation, although such cultures do form a major part of the origins of China's early imperial dynasties and are numerous enough to require a separate focus, as do the early Yangtze River cultures.

They also provide the foundation for the Sino-Tibetan language family which now dominates China and Tibet. Those cultures which are claimed as Chinese but which lay outside its early control or influence are included in the general entry for East Asian cultures.

Now a broader view is being taken in which China can be seen to have evolved from the influence and input of many cultures from far afield, and not just along the Yellow River. Modern humans seemingly reached China at a surprisingly early stage of the general exodus from Africa via the Near East, well before Europe became subject to modern human integration.

Early cultures in ancient Korea and Japan seem to have evolved along roughly the same time span while seeming not to be heavily influenced by the generally less developed cultures of Central Asia. The latter initially seemed to concentrate largely on bleeding into Siberia while the East Asians of what is now China and Korea were also primarily involved in peopling the Americas.

The desolate Ordos Desert region is where one of East Asia's earliest archaeological cultures can be found in the form of the Ordosian. The wet monsoons which inundate much of south and coastal China are so spent by the time they reach the Ordos region that the northern part of the area is largely desiccated.

Early Chinese cultures developed along rivers which headed east from the desert and the Tibetan plateau, of which the Nanzhuangtou was just about the earliest. The later Yangshao was seen as one of the key progenitors of the Chinese state, but this was contemporary with the Daxi culture on the Yangtze River to the south.

A later Yellow River culture can be equated with China's traditional Legendary Period in terms of general dating, while the Shang dynasty period is contemporary with the western Sanxingdui culture. Following that, a series of kingly - and later imperial - dynasties ruled the growing Chinese state from the Yellow River.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Times Atlas of Past Worlds, Chris Scarre (Ed, 1988), from the Encyclopaedia of China - The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture, Dorothy Perkins (1999), from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999), and from Beginnings of China, Stuart B Schwartz.)


King list Nanzhuangtou Culture
(c.10,600 - 7500 BC)

Signs are available to show that the later Nanzhuangtou people were able to domesticate the dog (a former food source) by about 8000 BC.

King list Yellow River Cultures
(c.7000 BC)

Early cultures along the Yellow River are no longer being viewed as the only source of China's creation, with a more universal approach now being accepted.

King list Sanxingdui Culture
(c.1600 - 1000 BC)

The people of this civilisation were lost to history until 1929, living in a walled city on the banks of the River Minjiang, but without having developed any writing.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.