An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Prehistoric Cultures in China

Feb 9, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Palaeolithic China

Although the development of the biological ordo of primates (apes and monkeys) took place in Africa, there are hominoid (man-like) fossils found in Europe and Asia from 17 to 11 million years ago. Early human primates were Australopithecus, 4.5 million years old and able to walk, and Paranthropus, both known from African discoveries, like the oldest human fossil of Homo habilis that is 2.5 million years old. Gorilla, chimpanzee and the oldest humans thus came from Africa, while there were already earlier primates that migrated to north and northeast, like Lufengpithecus (also called Ramapithecus), an ape discovered in Lufeng 祿豐, Yunnan, with fossils being 11 to 7 million years old. Only the species of Homo erectus migrated out of Africa and distributed over the Eurasian continent.

The first human relics being discovered in China were bones of the so-called Peking Man (Beijing yuanren 北京猿人; Sinanthropus pekinensis, now Homo erectus pekinensis) at Zhoukoudian 周口店 in 1927, with an age of 0.5 million years. The explanation of the Peking Man's existence was that Homo erectus had, like Homo sapiens later, migrated out of Africa and populated East Asia. Surprisingly the Chinese Homines erecti did not have an Acheulean industry (hand-axes or celts) as the African Homines erecti. Furthermore, finds in Java were made with 2 million years-old Homines erecti.

Near Xi'an 西安, Shanxi, a Homo erectus was discovered in the village of Lantian 藍田, the so-called Lantian Man. Much later, around 100,000 years ago, a second species migrated out of Africa, Homo sapiens, the modern man. Archaeological evidence and tests concerning mitochondrial DNA led to the hypothesis that there was not a single-cradle development of mankind but rather a multiregional development. The East Asian Homo sapiens might be a descendant of earlier East Asian Homo erectus species, not of the African tribe. But this problem is still not resolved today. In north China, relics of Acheulean cultures can be seen in the fragments of microlithic tools (xi shiqi 細石器).

Major Cultures of Neolithic China

The dividing line between the palaeolithic (jiu shiqi shidai 舊石器時代) and the neolithic age (xin shiqi shidai 新石器時代) is the beginning of plant cultivation, animal domestication, and the creation of pottery around 10,000 years ago (the so-called Neolithic revolution). That plants did not only serve as food (like millet and rice) but also as medicine can still be seen in the long tradition of Chinese medicine (see the book Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經 "Materia Medica of the Divine Farmer"). A third use of plants consists in their property to provide fibers, fuel, or even poison.

The oldest cultural traces demonstrating that mankind in China cultivated plants and domesticated animals were found in Cishan 磁山, Hebei, Peiligang 裴李崗, Henan, and Nanzhuangtou 南莊頭, Hebei. In Jiahu 賈湖, Henan, the oldest musical instrument of China was discovered: a bone flute. The most important sites in the south - not as old as those in the north - are Hemudu 河姆渡, Zhejiang, Zengpiyan 甑皮岩, Guangxi, Xianrendong 仙人洞, Jiangxi, Pengtoushan 彭頭山, Hunan, and Wannian 萬年, Jiangxi. Pottery is an important material for man to store and to transport eatables and liquids, but it is also a decisive means by which modern archaeologists are able to discern different cultures from each other. In China, north and south, the emergence of agriculture, pottery and stone polishing occurred approximately at the same time. Although the differences between the vessel decorations and shapes are very small (cord marks, shell-edge impressions, vessels with three legs in the north), it is possible to distinguish several regional cultures in China from about 5,000 BC.

Yangshao Culture 仰韶 (5000-3000 BCE)

The first neolithic culture discovered in China was the Yangshao Culture 仰韶 (5000-3000 BCE). Finds stretch from the Yellow River 黃河 plain in the east into Gansu in the west. All ceramics are of reddish color and painted with various black designs, geometric patterns, but also figures of animals. The Yangshao people were led by shaman-chiefs that were buried flanked by dragon and tiger figures formed of clam shells. Very famous are the finds of the Yangshao village of Banpo 半坡 near Xi'an.

Dawenkou Culture 大汶口 (5000-3000 BCE)

East to the Yangshao communities the Dawenkou Culture 大汶口 (5000-3000 BCE) was located, in modern Shandong. A distinctive feature of the Dawenkou culture are the rich grave furnishings that were added to the tombs of chiefs. Their coffins were buried in a small pit that was located at the bottom of a larger pit (the two-layer platform, ercengtai 二層臺), a grave type that was inherited by the Shang cultures 商.

Majiabang 馬家浜, Hemudu 河姆渡 and Qingliangang 青蓮崗 cultures

In the lower Yangtze 長江 area three distinctive cultures are found: Majiabang 馬家浜, Hemudu 河姆渡 (5000-3500 BC) and Qingliangang 青蓮崗 (4500-3000 BC). The pure existence of these three cultures proves that civilisation was by no means confined to the Yellow River plain. In addition to millet, these southern civilisations made use of different water plants, like caltrop, fox nuts, lotus seeds, water chestnut, rice, water spinach, and so on. Houses were often built along lakeshores with the floor above the water, the houses standing on piles (lacustrine dwellings). The patterns incised on the brown and black pottery are very rich and show fish, flowers and probably shamanistic motifs.

Daxi 大溪 and Qujialing 屈家岭 cultures

In the middle Yangtze valley the Daxi 大溪 and Qujialing 屈家岭 cultures (5000-3000 BC) were located. Stone utensils are highly polished and even perforated, some villages were protected by walls. Tombs of the Daxi culture are also decorated with dragon images laid out on the ground.

Dapenkeng Culture 大坌坑 (5000-2500 BC)

Far in the south, including sites in Taiwan, was the region of the Dapenkeng Culture 大坌坑 (5000-2500 BCE) whose representatives lived of fishing, hunting and farming. Their pottery is characterized by patterns made by impressing different natural materials, like shell edges or chords (yinwen 印紋). The inhabitants of this area were possibly Austronesian speakers and ancestors of the aborigines of Taiwan and other Non-Chinese people of southern China that have merged with the Chinese.

Xinglongwa 興隆洼, Xinle 新樂 and Hongshan 紅山 cultures

In northern China, in the Liao River basin 遼河, three successive cultures occupied this once fertile area: Xinglongwa 興隆洼 (8500-7000 BC), Xinle 新樂 (7000-5000 BC), and Hongshan 紅山 (3000-2500 BC). These cultures were the first to make intensive use of jade as workable material, carved with dragon motifs.

Longshan Culture 龍山 (3200–1850 BCE)

For a long time the general theory was that the Yellow River plain or "Central Plain" (Zhongyuan 中原) was the cradle of Chinese people (Xia 夏) and Chinese culture. From here culture and civilisation spread into the four directions. The cultures of the other regions (Yi 夷), either north or south, were relatively backward and were able only to achieve a higher stage of civilisation with the help of the Yellow River cultures (nuclear hypothesis). Although the cultures in the Central Plain (those in the west are called Xia, cultures in the east are called Hua 華; from these two the term Huaxia 華夏 for China is derived) played an important role, the prehistoric cultures of the other regions were also developing simultaneously with their own characteristics, as is increasingly proven by archaeological finds. Influence between these different cultures of prehistoric China was always mutual and by no means only one-directional.

During the 4th millennium BCE there occurred a spread of certain ceramic and handicraft styles that become increasingly common in all different cultural regions: ding 鼎, dou 豆, rectangular and semilunar knifes, and (during the 2nd millennium) bronze casting. Only when a great part of these prehistoric cultures exhibited increasing similarities, around 3000 BC, it should be allowed to speak of one "China" and a Chinese "mega-civilisation."

The discovery of the black pottery Longshan culture 龍山 in Chengziya 城子崖, Shandong, revealed artifacts that were the basis of important features of the Shang cultures 商 of the late 2nd millennium: scapulimancy and stamped-earth (hangtu 夯土) constructions for palaces and tombs. China's civilisation was divided by the Yangshao culture in the west (cultures bearers were called Xia 夏) and the Longshan culture in the east (bearers called Yi 夷), a theory that was valid into the 1950es when it was revised by the discovering of Longshan cultural sites within the Yangshao area. It became evident that Longshan sites were younger than Yangshao communities and had developed out of them. These archaeological finds gave way to the new nuclear hypothesis that Chinese civilisation spread out from the Yellow River valley to the four cardinal directions. This theory was supported by the traditional sinocentric historiography of China and by the simple fact that archaeology in China's south was far less developed as in the Central Plain. Only in the early 1980es this theory had to be replaced by the multiple-center theory of Su Bingqi 蘇秉琦 (1909-1997).

Characteristics of the Longshan culture that dominated the Central Plain from the late 4th millenium on are town enclosures made of stamped-earth, thin and polished black pottery produced with a wheel, oracles made of burned and cracked scapulas.

Liangzhu Culture 良渚 (3400–2000 BCE)

The Liangzhu culture 良渚 in the lower Yangtze region can be seen as a kind of offspring of the Longshan culture. In the relics of Liangzhu culture it becomes clear that these neolithic societies were already stratified in ruling class and that of the ruled, because for the first time it was only the tombs of political and religious leaders as found in Taosi 陶寺, Shanxi, and Fanshan 反山, Zhejiang. These tombs were equipped with rich tomb offerings, consisting of jade objects like cong 琮 tubes and bi 璧 disks or yue 鉞 ritual axes, pottery, ivory, stone axes, shark teeth, lacquerware, and even mural paintings within the grave chamber. An archaeological survey has detected hundreds or thousands of towns in Shandong and Henan provinces, communities that might have been the "ten thousand states" (wanguo 萬國) of legendary history of China. Some of these states rose to political supremacy and might have been the states of Xia 夏 and Shang 商 of antique historiography. The mythological accounts of the prehistoric period gives us the names of dozens of places and states that could have existed in the 3rd and 2nd millennia. Younger relics of the Longshan culture have come to light that are incised with precursors of the Chinese script.

In the west, in Gansu, there are late neolithic cultures like Majiayao 馬家窑 (3200-2700 BC) and Qijiaping 齊家坪 (1800-1500 BC).

Chang, Kwang-chih (1999). "China on the Eve of the Historical Period", in Michael Loewe, Edward L. Shaugnessy, ed. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Cilivization to 221 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 37-73.

Further reading:
Chang, Kwang-chih (1985(4)). The Archaeology of Ancient China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
Chang, Kwang-chih et al. (2005). The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
Cheng, Te-k'un (1959). Archaeology in China, Vol. 1. Prehistoric China (New York: Heffer).
Li, Feng (2014). Early China: A Social and Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Liu, Li (2004). The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to early States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Liu, Li, Chen Xingcan (2012). The Archaeology of China: From the Late Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Shelach-Lavi, Gideon (2015). The Archaeology of Early China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Underhill, Anne P. (2013). A Companion to Chinese Archaeology (Chichester / Malden, MA: Wiley).
Watson, William (1960). Archaeology in China (London: Parish).