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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Palaeolithic Asia
c.60,000 - 25,000 BC
Incorporating the East Asian Palaeolithic, Eastern Central Asia Palaeolithic, South Asian Upper Palaeolithic, & Zhoukoudian Tradition

FeatureEarly Asia's Palaeolithic period following early migration from Africa and the Near East is one of gradually encroaching human activity from coastal regions towards vast inland areas. India was reached around 70,000 BC, although that specific date is contested. Anatomically modern humans filtered from there into South-East Asia and Oceania by about 60,000 BC, reaching Australia at some point around or shortly after 50,000 BC (see feature link).

The early history of modern human infiltration into and habitation of East Asia is still very vague. The story has only been illustrated in relatively isolated pockets of research, concentrated especially in Early China (and then only primarily along its Early Yellow River until more recent decades), Early Japan, and the two Koreas.

From East Asia humans reached Berengia around 48,000 BC (now the north-eastern corner of Russia). Those early arrivals in East Asia set about exploiting the resources of today's China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Tibet. Russia's north-eastern corner can also sometimes be included in this group.

Since the start of the twenty-first century more collaborative efforts are being undertaken into exploring East Asia's Palaeolithic record, with Russia now being included in providing a better overview. Details regarding the settlement of China and Japan are covered separately, while early Central Asia enjoyed its own Palaeolithic period which seems to be largely unconnected.

The earliest Siberians split off from Western Eurasians around 36,000 BC, very shortly after Western Eurasians (generally of Europe) and East Asians themselves became genetically distinct.

Two of Central Asia's natural vegetation zones have played a prominent part in the continent's history. These are the forest belt, which is between eight hundred to sixteen hundred kilometres wide and, to the south of this, the steppe, a vast grassland which extends eastwards from Hungary to Mongolia.

The latter area facilitated ancient communications and provided an ample supply of grass, the only raw material which was absolutely essential to the creation of the early cattle-herding cultures (starting around the time of the Dnieper-Donets II culture). The vast forests played host to various forager cultures which were eventually influenced to some extent by the cattle-herder cultures. The frozen marshes of the north and the deserts in the far south played only a minor role in Central Asian prehistory.

It was East Asians who were largely responsible for the migration into the Americas. They also integrated with descendants of Ancient North Siberians to give rise to another group, dubbed the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians, who went on to generally supplant the existing Ancient North Siberians. They too were supplanted in time, by another band of East Asians which headed north about 9000-8000 BC and which gave rise to Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push. It is also the reason that there is no very close connection between contemporary Siberians and Native Americans.

There were no Neanderthals alongside modern humans in Siberia but there was another human species. The Altai Mountains at the junction between Siberia, Central Asia, and China were home to a species of human called Homo denisovan. It is still unclear what part - if any - this potential descendant of Homo Heidelbergensis and cousin of Homo sapiens played in the modern human occupation of the region.

FeatureKnowledge about them is only recent (since 2010), and is still undergoing a process of understanding and expansion. Early research does seem to show that, by around 18,000 BC, populations of H denisovan and H sapiens were interbreeding on mainland East Asia (see more on Homo denisovan via feature link).

FeatureThe early East Asians also found Homo erectus populations still extant, but quickly out-competed them so that this long-established early human species was extinct before about 30,000 BC (see feature link). It was Homo erectus which provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, in the form of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing municipality, where so-called Peking Man was discovered.

Various other cultural phases in Asia include the Eastern Central Asia Palaeolithic, South Asian Upper Palaeolithic, South-East Asian Upper Palaeolithic, and the Ordosian tradition, all of which exhibit similar Mousterian Levallois techniques. For the most part, localised cultures and traditions were yet to emerge.

Siberian cultural bone markings

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Palaeo-Anthropology and Palaeolithic archaeology in the people's republic of China, Wu Rukang & John W Olsen (Left Coast Press, 2009), and from External Links: Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe, Michael Balter (Science, 25 Oct 2013: Vol 342, Issue 6157, pp409-410), and From Siberia to the Arctic and the Americas, Douglas Wallace (DNA Learning Center), and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic), and The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene (Nature), and Ancient Denisovans (Archaeology Daily), and DNA from Mysterious 'Denisovans' Helped Modern Humans Survive (Live Science), and East Asia Palaeolithic (Claire Smith, Ed, Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 2014), and Zhoukoudian archaeological site (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Stone Age Asia (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Some of the first humans in the Americas came from China (The Guardian).)

c.60,000 BC

The Ordosian culture is an Upper Palaeolithic modern human culture which has its type name on the Ordos plateau, southern 'Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region' in China, close to Mongolia's border. The tools of this culture in today's China display points and sides which bear similarities to the Mousterian culture.

Ordos Plateau
The Ordos plateau lies along the Yellow River in what today is northern China, close to the border with Mongolia

c.50,000 BC

Hunter-gatherers seem to arrive on Japan during this period. Two routes are available, one being via a land bridge in the north while sea crossings may be possible in the south. DNA suggests that the Palaeolithic ancestors of the later-dominant Jomon people come from the north-eastern part of the East Asian mainland. Good quality finds, however, are rare thanks to Japan's highly acidic soil which soon destroys fossil matter.

c.36,000 BC

The earliest habitation of Siberia seems to take place around 40,000 BC - and perhaps even a little earlier. By this period those early inhabitants begin the process of becoming genetically distinct from both Western Eurasians (largely of Europe's Aurignacian culture) and East Asians, shortly after the latter two have also begun to develop their own genetic distinctions.

c.30,000 BC

FeatureEarly East Asians have existed alongside extant populations of Homo erectus for the past thirty thousand years. It is Homo erectus which has provided the archaeological predecessor to the East Asian Palaeolithic, that of the Zhoukoudian Tradition. The type site for this is Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien in older works), in China's Beijing Municipality, where so-called Peking Man is later discovered by archaeologists.

Homo ergaster, Turkhana Boy
In general, the use of Homo ergaster describes a species of hominid in Africa, but when examples of the same species leave Africa they are generally referred to as Homo erectus, although this is not a hard or fast rule - this example belongs to Turkana Boy, otherwise known as Nariokotome Boy, the most complete skeleton found to date and a perfect example of Homo ergaster of about 1.5 million years ago

c.25,000 BC

For the moment this is the earliest generally-accepted arrival date for the first migrants to enter the Americas from Siberia via the Bering land bridge. East Asians are included, in a period of migration which lasts from about 24,000 BC to 17,500 BC.

In Central Asia one of the earliest regional cultures to emerge is the Mal'ta-Buret' which extends into Siberia, starting around 22,000 BC and centred on a type site to the north of Lake Baikal. The Xianren Cave culture emerges in Early China around 18,000 BC.

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