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The formation of Neolithic cultures in ancient China

The monuments that gave the name to the main Neolithic cultures of the Yellow River basin were discovered at the end of the XIX century and began to be seriously studied from the beginning of the XX century. Chinese archaeologists began systematic excavations that covered the Yangtze Basin in the 50s. Data were obtained indicating that the picture of the development and change of cultures was extremely complex and diverse, and the genesis of the vast ethno-cultural communities formed here occurred on a mixed basis in the conditions of overlapping cultural influences.

Yangshao Culture

The origin of agriculture in the Yellow River Valley can now be attributed to the chronological boundary of the VII-VI thousand BC. It was based on chumiz, which, according to N. I. Vavilov, was one of the endemic plants of this area.

Vessels with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ornaments. Ill thousand BC

Vessels with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ornaments. Clay. Neolithic Banpo pottery. Xi’an. Shaanxi. III thousand BC.

The most important stage of the development of this territory is associated with the monuments of the developed Neolithic culture, named after the place of the first finds, discovered in 1921 near the village of Yangshao (Mianchi County, Henan Province). Its sites are now found everywhere in the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, as well as in the vicinity of them. The central zone of this culture is connected with the lands lying at the junction of the provinces of Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi. Yangshao sites are located either on loess terraces or in alluvial river valleys. Yangshao belongs to the circle of painted pottery cultures. Yangshao tableware was made by hand. Before firing, the vessels were decorated with red and black ornaments: in the form of intertwining lines, spirals, lattices, triangles, rhombuses, or in the form of zoomorphic images.

The type of ornament serves as the basis for distinguishing a number of regions in the Yangshao culture, usually concentrated around large Neolithic settlements that give them their name.:

  • Miaodigou I (in prov. Henan),
  • Banpo (in prov. Shaanxi),
  • Qinwangzhai (in prov. Henan),Ho
  • ugan (in prov. Henan).

The basis for the reconstruction of the Yangshao paleoeconomy and its relations with the botanical and geographical environment of the Yellow River Valley and neighboring areas is the material culture complexes found here, including stone hoes, stone grain grinders, stone mortars and pestles, as well as carbonized remains of chumiz grains. In the construction of their homes, the Yangshaos used the simplest frame-pillar structures, covered with branches and smeared with clay with an admixture of straw. The dominant type of buildings were rectangular or rounded in terms of semi-dugouts. There are traces of deep defensive ditches around large settlements.

A number of specific features of the inventory of the Banpo settlement, excavated in 1954-1956, in particular the stylistic features of the painting of dishes: fish figures, geometric patterns, served as a reference for archaeologists, with the help of which it was possible to identify an extensive series of similar monuments found in various places in Northern China. For another group of settlements of the Yangshao culture, also connected by the distinct proximity of the characteristic features of the inventory, the reference was the lower layer of the Miaodigou I settlement, excavated in 1956-1957. There is an indubitable unity of material culture between these groups. The chronological relationship of these two groups of Yangshao monuments has been the subject of intense debate.

The head of the goddess. Hongshan. China. 3 thousand BC.

The head of the goddess. Painted clay, inlaid with jade. Neolithic culture. Hongshan. Liaoping. III thousand BC.

Stratigraphic data seem to be of crucial importance in this regard. The analysis of the stratigraphic data made by the scientists clearly indicated that the period of the existence of Banpo belongs to an earlier time than Miaodigou I. The chronological boundaries of the existence of Banpo-type monuments were determined based on a series of radiocarbon dates that correspond to 4770-4290 BC. The earliest sample from the lower layer of the Miaodigou I settlement is dated to 3910 (±125) BC. This, however, does not mean, as some believe, that the Weihe Valley was the area where the earliest Yangshao monuments were formed and where the flow of immigrants to other areas began. In Hougan, for example, layers similar in type to Banpo were discovered, which are dated to the 2nd half of the V millennium BC.

In 1977, excavations at the Yangshao settlement of Beishoulin near Baoji revealed a lower layer, undoubtedly earlier than Banpo. As a result of radiocarbon analysis, the date of the sample from this layer was obtained, corresponding to the end of the VI-beginning of the V millennium BC. Now, apparently, it is still too early to distinguish the zone where the core of the Yangshao culture was formed.

Throughout the long period of existence of the Yangshao culture, embracing the V and IV millennia BC, in all areas of the vast area of its distribution, a stable typological unity of stone tools, forms of ceramics and its ornamentation, techniques of construction equipment, etc., was preserved, which indicates that the carriers of this culture belong to a single ethno-cultural community.

Yangtze Basin Cultures

Apparently, the emergence of agriculture in the Yangtze River basin can be hypothetically attributed to the chronological horizon that runs on the border of the VII and VI millennia BC. The initial stages of this process are just beginning to be studied. Relatively recently, early monuments were discovered in the southern part of the coastal zone (Zhejiang Province), which record the archaic stage of the formation of the producing economy here. It is a multi-layered Hamudu settlement near Yuyao City. Its lower layer contains monuments that have no parallels among the Neolithic finds of this area. The remains of land-based wooden dwellings were found, indicating their structural originality, agricultural tools made of animal bones, bones of domesticated dogs, pigs and buffaloes. The ceramics of the lower layer of Hamudu are black in color, made of clay with an admixture of crushed coal. In the materials of these layers, traces of cultivation of aspic rice, introduced, apparently, from the mountainous East Himalayan botanical and geographical center, are found. There are dates of two samples from early Hamudu subjected to radiocarbon analysis: 5005 (±130) BC and 4770 (±140) BC. In the lower layer, Hamudu is now seen as the ancestor of the Neolithic monuments of the southern part of Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province, which were previously united with the monuments of the northern part of Jiangsu Province in the Qingliangang culture.

This culture is divided into at least two separate areas, the centers of which are located south and north of the Yangtze River. In the southern region there are a number of sites and burial grounds that characterize different aspects of economic life, social structure and ideological ideas of its Neolithic population, clearly divided into three chronological stages —

  • The first includes such monuments as Majiabin (Zhejiang Province), Qiucheng (Zhejiang Province) and Caoxeshan (Jiangsu Province),
  • the second belongs to the Beiyin-yangying burial ground (near Nanjing),
  • the third is associated with the burial grounds in Songze (near Shanghai), Qiucheng, Yuecheng (near Suzhou).
A vessel made of clay. Neolithic. China. 4 thousand BC.

A vessel made of red clay. The Neolithic culture of Davenkou. Shandong. Mid-IV-late III millennium BC.

Here they found buffalo bones, polished stone tools: hoes, axes, adzes. The ceramics of the settlement, as well as the ceramics of other centers of this culture, are made by hand molding, followed by polishing the surface. Vessels of dark gray color predominate, and there are also vessels of red color. The basis of the economy of the local tribes was the cultivation of aspic rice. Neolithic sites located south of the Yangtze River are called the Majiabin culture. The chronological framework of the existence of this culture, based on a number of radiocarbon dating of samples from different layers of its settlements and burial grounds, is determined by 4750-3700 BC.

As for the monuments located to the north of the Yangtze River, the territory of the Shandong Peninsula, which was previously an area dominated by an independent Neolithic culture, now turns out to be one of the provinces of the cultural and ethnic community, which also occupies the northern part of the Jiangsu province. The monuments of Shandong Province and the northern part of Jiangsu Province were proposed to be combined in one common Davenkou culture. The culture is divided into four stages, named after the places of the most significant and memorable finds (all in Jiangsu Province):

  • Liulin,
  • Huating,
  • Davenkou,
  • Qingliangang.

The internal evolution of the Davenkou culture was accompanied by the gradual displacement of painted and the expansion of the production of gray and black polished ceramics. The period covering all four stages of the existence of these monuments is now limited to the time from the middle of the V to the middle of the III millennium BC.

A fairly active role belongs to the Neolithic culture of Qujaling, discovered in the basin of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, in the basin of Hubei province. The pieces of baked clay found here contain an admixture of rice husk. This indicates that one of the main occupations of the Qujalingians was the cultivation of aspic rice. Some of the pottery they owned was painted. It was made already on a potter’s wheel, covered with black or gray angob, on which the ornament was applied. Qujalingian ceramics differed from the stucco painted ceramics of Yangshao both in the shape of the vessels and in the style of ornamentation. The obtained three dates of 14C for the Qujiala monuments allow us to attribute the time of their existence to the first half of the third millennium BC.

Ethnocultural processes in the third millennium BC.

In the third millennium BC, the evolution of the tribes that made up the Yangshao cultural community became much more complicated. At this time, the area of the middle course of the Yellow River became an object of invasion by carriers of a number of Neolithic cultures associated with other cultural and economic traditions. The genesis of the local Late Neolithic population occurred under conditions of overlapping cultural influences. The territory of Henan Province has become an active contact zone. Back in 1962, near the city of Yanshi, burial grounds with the inventory of the Davenkou culture were discovered. The development of the Yangshaos in the Late Neolithic period, which took place in conditions of constant and long-term interaction with the tribes moving from the territories of the Shandong Peninsula, led to the formation of the Miaodigou II culture on the lands of Henan province, where gray and red ceramics with the simplest rope or woven ornaments became the leading one, the set of stone agricultural tools expanded, and the production of livestock products significantly increased.

In the middle of the third millennium BC, the territory of the Henan province was invaded by the tribes-carriers of the Qujaling culture. At the same time, there are significant changes in the life of the tribes in the territory of the Shandong Peninsula. The Davenkou culture is gradually replaced by the Eneolithic Longshan culture. A wide penetration of its inherent features and features begins in the areas that once were the centers of Yangshao development, where such an important structural element for Longshan as black polished and gray pottery made on a potter’s wheel is becoming widespread. However, the development of qualitatively new forms and features was determined in it not only by the influence of impulses coming from the territory of Shandong, but also by the synthesis of local ethno-cultural factors. This is confirmed by the analysis of the differences between the Shandong and Henan complexes of the Longshan period.

The leading form of pottery in the Henan complex was the hollow-legged ding tripods. In Shandong province, they are unknown. In the Early Longshan period, it was dominated by the Ding tripods. Later, the vessels of a purely local type became dominant: rounded, on three conical legs, with a cylindrical throat equipped with a wide drain. Serious differences existed between the two zones and in the funeral rite. At the same time, both complexes had clearly expressed common features, which allows them to be united within the framework of the Longshan cultural community.

The evolution of material culture in Shaanxi Province during the Eneolithic period followed paths somewhat different from those that led to the emergence of the Shandong and Henan variants of the developed Longshan. Local tribes in the Late Neolithic and Eneolithic periods actively interacted with the tribes that lived in the territory of Gansu Province. The Eneolithic culture of Kesheng-zhuang II, which has developed here, is characterized by a significant identity. However, despite the significant differences from the synchronous monuments of the provinces of Shandong and Henan, most researchers tend to see it as a modification of the Longshan cultural community.

The creators of the latter, despite a number of local variants, maintained a certain economic and cultural unity throughout the entire period of its existence. In the vast territory, far beyond the three mentioned provinces, in the Longshan period, a similar technology of ceramic production spread, a potter’s wheel appeared, and the economic and cultural type of sedentary farmers who grew cereals became dominant everywhere. The tendency to expand the number of types of domestic animals is clearly evident.

In the area south of the Yangtze River, in the coastal zone, there is also a gradual change of the Majiabin culture to the Liangzhu culture. Its monuments were discovered in the area of Oz. Taihu. Liangzhu pottery mainly consists of polished black vessels made on a potter’s wheel. The tribes of the Liangzhu culture continued to cultivate aspic rice. The time of the culture’s existence is now determined by seven dates on 14C — from 3300 to 2300 BC. The tribes of the Liangzhu culture, along with the tribes of the Longshan cultural community, represented an environment in which progressive methods of tool production matured, leading to the appearance of copper and bronze, and elements of the future urban civilization and the emerging state were formed. The Longshan people and their closest neighbors, according to archaeological data, were the first to master the production and processing of metal. Very early copper products were discovered in 1955 at the Dachengshan site near Tangshan in Hebei Province. The inventory of this site, consisting of stone tools and Longshan ceramics, also included two small copper plates. Further acquaintance with copper smelting, combined with rich experience in the construction and operation of pottery furnaces, the manufacture of ceramics, allowed the Eneolithic tribes of different regions of East Asia to quickly switch to the production of bronze and master the original technology of casting bronze products in clay molds.

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