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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Nanzhuangtou Culture (Neolithic Foragers / Farmers) (China)
c.10,600 - 7500 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 The picture of China's history as one of smooth progression from start to finish has been replaced by one which accepts multiple points of emergence, some overlaps, and several strands of development.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 Nanzhuangtou culture is one of the very earliest to be undeniably Chinese in terms of its location. It is slotted into the beginning of a very early-starting Neolithic period in the region, although its early phase predates the adoption of agricultural practices. Glacial maximum conditions here had never been as harsh as they were in Northern Europe, where the people of the contemporary Ahrensburg culture were still pushing north into virgin lands as they gradually lost their ice cover.

The dating for this culture is subject to some debate at present, although this may in part be due to the current range of finds and in determining a specific 'core' period for the culture. The dates given here can be shortened by some scholars to about 9500-9000 BC, perhaps by excluding early, less specific finds or the pre-agricultural phase. They can also be extended down to 7500 BC, presumably to cover greater early farming development.

The type site lies near modern China's Lake Baiyangdian in Xushui County, Hebei Province, a little over a hundred kilometres to the south-west of Beijing. Evidence of pottery use here is plentiful, along with stone grinding tools for processing millet. Signs are also available to show that immediate descendants of the early Nanzhuangtou people had domesticated the dog by about 8000 BC. The archaeology lies around 1.8 metres below ground level, under millennia of silt and lake deposits.

China's later Neolithic period (between about 8000-1800 BC) saw people gradually learning to cultivate the land as an alternative to foraging. This was roughly at the same time as the Sesklo culture was introducing farming into Europe from Anatolia. It followed a long drift towards the increased used of early crop plants in the forager diet in China, just as was happening simultaneously farther west.

The Nanzhuangtou faded out without a direct local successor, but its ideas and developments would soon form part of the Yellow River's first specific culture, the Peiligang, just half a century or so after the Nanzhuangtou's final accepted date, and the Cishan soon after that.

Siberian cultural bone markings

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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 Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States, Li Liu (Cambridge University Press, 2005), from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, Timothy Darvill (Ed, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 2021), and from External Links: Travel China Guide, and the New World Encyclopaedia, and Chinese Roots (Global Times).)

c.10,600 BC

The Nanzhuangtou culture emerges in a changing landscape in China, even though the effects of the fading glacial maximum have not been as bad here as they have been in Northern Europe. Only the earlier Xianren Cave culture of Palaeolithic Asia precedes it.

Nanzhuangtou culture waterlogged seeds
Charred and waterlogged seeds which were recovered from the Nanzhuangtou type site, with (from left to right) water caltrop (Trapa incisa), wild grape (Vitis bryoniifolia) and pondweed (Potamogeton sp)

c.9280 BC

Unlike the current massive dry plain areas in northern China, around this time the environment has been a cold, dry glacial climate. Now, however it is rising, precipitation is increasing, and lakes and swamps are accumulating. No remains of grain can be found at the Nanzhuangtou site during excavations, indicating that this culture has not yet adopted agriculture.

c.8000 BC

It is the people of the Nanzhuangtou (or their immediate descendants if one accepts the shorter dates for this culture) who domesticate the dog in this part of East Asia. Similar domestication also takes place in the Near East. Pottery has also recently been adopted alongside the beginnings of early farming practices.

Nanzhuangtou remains
During the excavations at the Nanzhuangtou site, archaeologists found the remains of ash pits, pottery, stone and bone tools, wooden sticks, and plenty of animal bones and plant pollen, including the world's oldest chicken bones which have been dated to about 9000 BC

c.7500 BC

The Nanzhuangtou fades out without a direct local successor, but its ideas and developments soon form part of the Yellow River's first specific culture, the Peiligang, not far to the south.

In the broader picture of East Asian development, the Jeulman pottery period is already underway in the Korean peninsula, while other East Asians who have largely been responsible for the migration into the Americas have largely been replaced by the Neo-Siberians.

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