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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Majiayao Culture (Neolithic) (China)
c.3300 - 2000 BC

The view of the way in which Early China emerged into the historical record in East Asia has undergone a revolution of rethinking since the end of the twentieth century. The picture of China's history as one of smooth progression from start to finish has been replaced by one which accepts multiple points of emergence, some overlaps, and several strands of development.

Archaeological cultures along the Early Yellow River were once thought of as the only source of China's creation, although such cultures do still form a major part of the origins of early Dynastic China and are numerous enough to require a separate focus, as do the Early Yangtze River cultures.

The Majiayao until relatively recently was seen more as a later phase of the Yangshao than a culture in its own right (and not even that culture's final phase). More recent reappraisals have changed that view and it is now regarded as a culture in its own right.

It was prevalent along the upper Yellow River region of eastern Gansu, eastern Qinghai, and northern Sichuan, all on the broad western flank of the Yangshao. Flourishing between 3300-2000 BC, it saw the widespread first-time adoption of agriculture in this area, and its people created painted pottery which was highly distinctive. Such dedicated and advanced work clearly indicates the emergence of a labour force which contained specialist fields.

The Yellow River provided abundant rich loess, a fine-grained, yellowish-brown soil which was deposited by powerful winds from Central Asia. In places, this extremely fertile soil built up over thousands of millennia to depths of over ninety-one metres. Through this flowed the Yellow River which derived its name from the peculiar colour of the soil which permeates the river as it is carried eastwards toward the sea.

The culture had agriculture as its key focus, with the main crops being millet and chestnuts (the former becoming fully developed during the Yangshao's fifth millennium BC Banpo phase). Tools were made by grinding stones into useful shapes, including knives, millstones, axes, chisels, and arrowheads. Some tools were made of bone, such as harpoons, fishhooks, and similar items.

These people also engaged in fishing and foraging, as well as raising pigs and dogs as livestock. During this period agriculture and animal husbandry developed tremendously, much as it was doing across several succeeding cultures in Europe, starting with the later Dnieper-Donets I.

Peiligang culture tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China, Steven F Sage, from Beginnings of China, Stuart B Schwartz, 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 Transition to Agriculture at Dadiwan, R L Bettinger, L Barton, C Morgan, F Chen, H Wang, T P Guilderson, D Zhang (Current Anthropology 51(5), 2010), from Centripetal Settlement and Segmentary Social Formation of the Banpo Tradition, Y K Lee (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26, 2007), from Banpo Site at Xi'an and Jiangzhai Site at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, X Yang (Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, 2002), and from External Links: Travel China Guide, and the New World Encyclopaedia, and Majiayao Culture (Facts and Details).)

c.3300 BC

The Majiayao culture succeeds the Yangshao as a widespread western extension and development of that culture. The Yangshao itself is fading in the east as the Longshan soon emerges to succeed it there.

Map of China c.5000 BC
The Chinese city of Xi'an seemed to provide a focus point for the Yangshao culture along the Yellow River, with several important sites being found either close to or actually inside the modern city limits, including Banpo, Jiangzhai, and Yangshao

c.3000 BC

The Longshan culture now succeeds the Yangshao on the Yellow River. It begins with a transition phase between Yangshao to Longshan 'proper'. This is contemporary with the late phase of the Dawenkou culture on the coastal regions of the Yellow River delta, which it gradually absorbs.

It also coincides with the late phase of the Qujialing culture with which it trades, and with the early Majiayao which has succeeded the Yangshao on its vast western flank.

Three regional groups can be distinguished within the overall Majiayao culture. The difference is in burial postures, although in some cases these groups are also associated with specific burial pottery types. The analysis is that pottery is now being produced as a form of commodity, with a range of choices being offered.

Majiayao culture pottery
Decorated pottery, a two-handled jar from the Majiayao culture, Banshan type, adorned with painted black and red geometric patterns and standing forty-five centimetres high

2700 - 2000 BC

The main Majiayao phase is known as the Banshan (the Banshan type site is in Guanghe County, Gansu). This phase lasts between about 2700-2300 BC, while the late, or Machang phase is dated around 2400-2000 BC.

c.2000 BC

The Yellow River's Majiayao culture is succeeded to the east by the contemporaneous Longshan culture which itself is only a century away from fading. To the west it is succeeded by the Qijia culture.

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