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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Yangshao Culture (Neolithic Farmers) (China)
c.5000 - 3000 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 The picture of China's history as one of smooth progression from start to finish has been replaced by one which accepts multiple points of emergence, some overlaps, and several strands of development.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 Yangshao culture succeeded the Peiligang culture along the Yellow River. It was to be found mainly in Henan (the main focus of the Peiligang), plus Shaanxi, Shanxi, southern Hebei, and eastern Gansu provinces, and was especially prominent alongside the middle reach of the Yellow River.

People were gradually learning to cultivate the land as an alternative to foraging, with the Jiahu culture having taken several steps towards improving the available processes. 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 used of early crop plants in the forager diet in China.

The Yellow River provided abundant 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.

Relics from the Yangshao have been found in Yangshaocun in Mianchi County to the north-west (which gave the culture its name), and at the Erlitou Bronze Age site, both in Henan Province. It seems that the settlement at Erlitou was founded by the people of the Yangshao, although it only reached the peak of its achievements during the later Erlitou culture from around 2200 BC. Over a thousand other Yangshao sites have been found, including the Banpo site in Xian, and the Jiangzhai site in Lintong County near Xian.

The majority of Yangshao sites are in Shaanxi, which today is regarded as being the culture's centre. It saw agriculture become a key focus, with the main crops being millet and chestnuts (the former becoming fully developed during the Banpo phase).

Tools were made by grinding stones into useful shapes, including knives, millstones, axes, chisels, and arrowheads. Some tools were made of bone, such as harpoons, fishhooks, and similar items. These people also engaged in fishing and foraging, as well as raising pigs and dogs as livestock. Agriculture and animal husbandry developed tremendously, much as it was doing across several succeeding cultures in Europe, starting with the Dnieper-Donets II.

Far to the west, in Sichuan, the contemporary Daxi culture exerted an influence on local Neolithic cultures along the Jialing River. There was also some peripheral Daxi influence outside Sichuan and Hubei, with the Yangshao culture also displaying Daxi-like motifs on ceramic decoration.

Peiligang culture tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, 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 Transition to Agriculture at Dadiwan, R L Bettinger, L Barton, C Morgan, F Chen, H Wang, T P Guilderson, D Zhang (Current Anthropology 51(5), 2010), from Centripetal Settlement and Segmentary Social Formation of the Banpo Tradition, Y K Lee (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26, 2007), from Banpo Site at Xi'an and Jiangzhai Site at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, X Yang (Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, 2002), and from External Links: Travel China Guide, and the New World Encyclopaedia.)

c.5000 BC

The Yangshao people are foragers who begin utilising more permanent settlements than their predecessors. These early villages are divided into areas for living, for firing pottery, and for burying the dead.

Yangshao society is likely organised into autonomous egalitarian village communities with little or no social stratification - at least none which is reflected either in house size or mortuary treatments.

Map of China c.5000 BC
The Chinese city of Xi'an seemed to provide a focus point for the Yangshao culture along the Yellow River, with several important sites being found either close to or actually inside the modern city limits, including Banpo, Jiangzhai, and Yangshao

The archaeological site of Banpo village, near Xi'an, is one of the best-known ditch-enclosed settlements of the Yangshao. Another major settlement, called Jiangzhai (also near Xi'an), has been excavated out to its limits, and archaeologists have discovered that it is completely surrounded by a ring-ditch.

c.4800 - 4200 BC

The Banpo phase of the Yangshao culture takes place on the central plain. The settlement at Banpo on the Wei River in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, covers more than ten thousand square metres and is founded around 4800 BC.

Excavations in the 1950s uncover forty-six houses, most of which are circular. Many are semi-subterranean in nature, with the floor typically a metre below the ground's surface, supported by timber poles and with steeply-pitched thatched roofs.

The settlement is surrounded by a moat, with graves and pottery kilns located outside the moat perimeter. A cemetery includes a total of one hundred and seventy-four adult burials.

Yangshao culture pottery
This piece of painted pottery dates from around 4000 BC and was found in a Miaodigou site in western Henan Province, which saw the gradual progression of Yangshao culture into the Majiayao and Longshan

A further seventy-three urn burials are discovered inside the town's residential area, all of them the bodies of children placed within small conical jars. Keeping them in the residential area means that they remain close to their grieving parents. The settlement dies out around 4200 BC, ending this phase of the Yangshao.

c.4000 - 3000 BC

The Miaodigou I phase succeeds the Banpo until the Yangshao culture itself is eventually succeeded by the Majiayao phase or culture. It sees the Yangshao expand outwards from its original core.

A degree of hierarchy begins to appear in some areas, such as in settlements in western Henan Province. A late period sees hierarchies increase and the first rammed earth wall appears around the Xishan settlement in central Henan. Miaodigou II phase is a transitionary one which bleeds into the beginning of the Longshan culture.

However, successive Yangshao phases linger on afterwards in the north-west. The Majiayao phase is dated at around 3300-2000 BC in Gansu, Qinghai.

Majiayao culture pottery
Decorated pottery, a two-handled jar from the Majiayao culture, Banshan type, adorned with painted black and red geometric patterns and standing forty-five centimetres high

This appears to be a crossover with the Copper Age and Bronze Age, as it contains the earliest discoveries of copper and bronze objects in China. It may also be a reaction to regional drought which follows the earlier wet period in which the Yangshao had emerged.

c.3000 BC

The Yellow River's Yangshao culture is succeeded on its vast western flank by the already-extant Majiayao, while in its core eastern areas it transitions into the Longshan culture.

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