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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Peiligang Culture (Neolithic Farmers) (China)
c.7000 - 5000 BC
Incorporating the Jiahu Culture

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 The picture of China's history as one of smooth progression from start to finish has been replaced by one which accepts multiple points of emergence, some overlaps, and several strands of development.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 Peiligang culture was one of the very earliest Chinese cultures, contemporary with Europe's Elshanka and Khirokitia, but predated locally by the Nanzhuangtou. It was located mainly in the Yi-Luo river basin (Henan Province), immediately to the south of the Yellow River and also south of the core territory of the Nanzhuangtou. The culture's spread seems not to have extended beyond an area of a hundred square kilometres on the river's southern bank.

In China's Neolithic period (between about 8000-1800 BC) people gradually learned 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, and it followed a long drift towards the increased use of early crop plants in the forager diet in China, just as was happening simultaneously farther west.

Many groups gravitated towards land which makes up the base of the Ordos Desert bulge, where conditions were surprisingly suitable for sedentary agriculture and human settlement. Thanks largely to the Yellow River, the region abounded in 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 type site for the culture was discovered in 1977 at the village of Peiligang in Xinzheng County. Findings there suggested to archaeologists that this society was an egalitarian one, with the people of each village working together with little political organisation.

These people cultivated millet and herded or raised cattle, pigs, and poultry. Alongside early farming efforts, deer and wild boar were hunted, and fishing (using hemp-fibre nets) was also undertaken. Its pottery is amongst China's earliest, with an assortment of types which catered specifically for cooking and storage.

A site at Jiahu has revealed the earliest finds which can be associated with the Peiligang. However, although there are many similarities between the main Peiligang settlements and those at Jiahu, the latter was semi-isolated to the south of the main Peiligang sites by several days of travel.

At Jiahu rice was cultivated, a development which the main Peiligang sites failed to follow, while the Jiahu site was in use for several hundred years before any Peiligang settlements appeared. There is the possibility in the future that the Jiahu could be detached as a separate culture (dated to 7000-5700 BC).

Peiligang culture tools

(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), and from External Links: Travel China Guide, and the New World Encyclopaedia, and Jiahu (Met Museum), and Chinese Roots (Global Times), and Peiligang & Jiahu (Facts and Details).)

c.7000 BC

The Peiligang culture appears as an indirect successor to the Nanzhuangtou which had witnessed Neolithic foragers adopt the earliest farming techniques in the region. Peiligang society appears to be egalitarian, with the people of each village working together with little political organisation and, apparently, no kings.

Peiligang culture pottery
The people of the Peiligang practiced agriculture in the form of cultivating millet, and animal husbandry in the form of raising pigs, cattle, and poultry, while also hunting deer and wild boar, fishing for carp in the nearby river, and making China's oldest examples of pottery

c.6000 BC

FeatureBy now Peiligang people have mastered wine-making using rice, millet, and wheat as ingredients. This is contemporaneous with the beginnings of true wine-making in the Caucasus (see feature link for more).

The culture also provides the earliest known example (in 2022) of ang-khak rice mould wine-brewing to be found in China, although in fact this belongs to the Jiahu site which predates the earliest Peiligang finds and sits some way to the south of Peiligang itself.

The Jiahu site is occupied between about 7000-5700 BC, before being abandoned for some six millennia. In addition to yielding the world's oldest wine and some of the oldest rice and earliest playable musical instruments, it may also contain the earliest examples of Chinese writing.

Jiahu culture pottery
Pictograms, signs which were carved on tortoise shells, were uncovered at the Jiahu site - in later Chinese culture (from about 3500 BC) shells were used as a form of divination

c.5000 BC

The Yellow River's Peiligang and Jiahu culture is succeeded by the Yangshao. This continues the region's farming success by extending far to the east and south of the Peiligang's area of focus.

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