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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Seo Dansan Culture (Bronze Age) (East Asia)
c.900 - 300 BC

Early cultures in East Asian started with the Palaeolithic Ordosian which, when it faded around 30,000 BC, made way for Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures to emerge. The Jeulmun pottery period flourished in the Korean peninsula, to be followed by the Mumun which may have been brought in by new settlers.

The Seo Dansan culture developed precisely midway through the Mumun, occurring in the middle basin of the Second Songhua river in the tenth century BC. This was especially similar to Bronze Age cultures from the Liaodong peninsula (on the north-western edge of the modern North Korean border) and the Mumun itself.

It was part of a unique train of cultural development which was independent of Early Chinese cultural development in several areas of today's China. Instead it was located in northern Korea and southern Manchuria which, in the second century BC, became part of the semi-legendary state of Buyeo following the fracturing of the even more legendary Old Choson and the fall of its semi-historical replacement, Wiman Choson.

The Seo Dansan is somewhat difficult to research in the English language. At the time of writing no readily-available English-language texts seem to mention it, other than a statement which links proto-Korean development to it. However, placing it in the region which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries AD was termed 'Manchuria' (a term which is now falling out of favour) fits the few facts available regarding it.

This region is somewhat ambiguous in extent, but it certainly covered today's north-eastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. It could also be extended into what is now Russia's Pimorsky krai, and probably also the neighbouring Amur oblast and Khabarovsk krai.

This stretch of territory, which could even be extended west towards the Altai Mountains, has proven to be a melting pot of ethnic formation. The Korean people belong to the Tungusic branch of East Asians. Their polysyllabic, agglutinative language is a branch of the Altaic language family, which includes other tongues such as Turkic groups (which seem to have emerged from around the first century BC onwards), Mongolian, and Japanese.

Most archaeologists agree that the semi-nomadic people who fashioned comb-marked and plain-brown pottery under the influence of a Shamanistic culture during the Neolithic, from about 3000 BC to around 1000 BC (probably as a northern extension of the Jeulman), constitute the inhabitants of the main formation zone for today's Korean people. A 2021 study confirmed that all Transeurasian speakers originate with the Neolithic millet farmers of this area of East Asia, with a starting point of about 9000 BC.

Those people emerged out of a combination at various times of various smaller, identifiable groups which were doubtless all formed during this period. These include the proto-Koreans themselves. Other groups which either contributed to the continuation of this state and its successors or who were later joined to it, voluntarily or otherwise, include the Dongye, Mohe, Okjeo, and Yemaek. Tungusic influences existed in at least the Mohe, but as a group they were all related to some extent.

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), from Brief History of Korea: A Bird's-Eye View, Young Ick Lewand (The Korea Society, 2000), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Origins of 'Transeurasian' languages (The Guardian).)

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.

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

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.

c.300 BC

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 (with this perhaps not being a coincidence).

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 Mumun or Seo Dansan refugees from partially-conquered Korea who provide the final push towards ending the Jomon period there?

Korean comb-pattern pottery
This comb-pattern container with its pointy base was discovered in Amsa-dong, Seoul, a representative historic site of the Korean Neolithic period

c.300 BC

The Bronze Age Seo Dansan culture and the contemporary Mumun culture of East Asia are succeeded 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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