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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early Yellow River Cultures (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 regional history has been one smooth progression from start to finish.

Modern humans seemingly reached China at a surprisingly early stage of the general exodus from Africa via the Near East, a period which is covered under the entry for Early East Asia, and then under Early China.

Early cultures along the Yellow River are no longer being viewed as the only source of China's creation (although they do provide the foundation for the Sino-Tibetan language family which now dominates China and Tibet). Now a broader view is being taken which sees China evolving from the influence and input of many cultures from far afield, and not just along the Yellow River (such as the Sanxingdui).

Nevertheless, the Yellow River region played a vital role in shaping China. This area was less promising than the water-filled plains which gave birth to the Indus culture or that of the Sumerians. From its source on the Tibetan plateau, the Yellow River winds its way through the desolate Ordos Desert region - one of East Asia's earliest archaeological cultures can be found here in the form of the Ordosian - to reach the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea.

Like the semi-arid steppeland to the north and west, the great bend in the river around the desert's edge receives a limited and uncertain amount of rainfall. 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.

However, early Chinese cultures did develop here (or more specifically, along the desert's eastern border), and one of them was the Yangshao, which appeared around 5000 BC as a successor to the regionally-smaller Peiligang culture. This was seen as one of the key progenitors of the later Chinese state, but was contemporary with the Daxi culture on the Yangtze River to the south.

The later Longshan culture (from 3000 BC) succeeded the Yangshao along the Yellow River. This can be equated with China's traditional Legendary Period in terms of general dating. It was also seen as one of the main keystones of later China, further expanding a settlement at Erlitou which reached the peak of its achievements during the subsequent Erlitou culture. The latter appears to be largely contemporary with the semi-historical Xia dynasty.

China's Yellow River

(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 Peiligang & Jiahu Culture
(c.7000 - 5000 BC)

Findings for this culture suggest that its society was an egalitarian one, with the people of each village working together with little political organisation.

King list Yangshao Culture
(c.5000 - 3000 BC)

It seems that the settlement at Erlitou was founded by the people of the Yangshao culture, although it only reached the peak of achievement during the later Erlitou.

King list Majiayao Culture
(c.3300 - 2000 BC)

The culture witnessed the widespread adoption of agriculture in this region and created painted pottery which was highly distinctive.

King list Longshan / Black Pottery Culture
(c.3000 - 1900 BC)

Amongst many other sites, Longshan relics have also been found at the Erlitou Bronze Age site in Henan Province, which was founded during the Yangshao.

King list Erlitou Culture
(c.1900 - 1350 BC)

The Bronze Age Erlitou culture coincides with - and is generally accepted as being the archaeological expression of - the semi-historical Xia dynasty.

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