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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


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

The East Asian Ordosian culture had formed the region's primary Palaeolithic culture. Its fading around 30,000 BC had allowed Mesolithic cultures gradually to emerge. One of these was the Jeulmun pottery period. This flourished across territory in the south of the Korean peninsula, extending northwards but not covering the entire peninsula.

The Mumun pottery period succeeded the Jeulmun across 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 foragers. Kim Jangsuk describes a process which involves a gradual loss of hunting grounds at the hands of the Mumun incomers who possessed 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, although the populating of Japan remains shrouded in unknowns.

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.

Egtved girl of the Bronze Age

(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 Korean chiefdoms can be traced to this point, fully seven hundred years after the emergence of the Mumun pottery period but only a century or so after the emergence of the Seo Dansan.

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.

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 also 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 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 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)

c.300 BC

The Bronze Age Mumun pottery period and contemporary Seo Dansan culture are succeeded in East Asia by the Iron Age Samhan period. This coincides with Korea's 'Three Kingdoms' period and the crossover between Jin and Samhan confederacies.

All located in Korea's southern and central regions, these in turn beget the Gaya confederacy, and the kingdoms of Baekje and Silla, placing the Samhan at the beginning of recorded Korean history.

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