The Neolithic of Southern China – Middle and Lower Yangtze River basin

Sandwiched between the Yellow River and Mainland Southeast Asia, southern China lies centrally within eastern Asia. This geographical area can be divided into three geomorphological terrains: the middle and lower Yangtze alluvial plain, the Lingnan (southern Nanling Mountains)-Fujian region, and the Yungui Plateau. During the past 30 years, abundant archaeological discoveries have stimulated a rethinking of the role of southern China in the prehistory of China and Southeast Asia.

The history of archaeology in this region can be divided into two phases. The first phase (c. 1920s-1970s) involved extensive discovery, when archaeologists unearthed Pleistocene human remains at Yuanmou, Ziyang, Liujiang, Maba, and Changyang, and Palaeolithic industries in many caves. The major Neolithic cultures, including Daxi, Qujialing, Shijiahe, Majiabang, Songze, Liangzhu, and Beiyinyangying in the middle and lower Yangtze, and several shell midden sites in Lingnan, were also discovered in this phase.


During the systematic research phase (1970s to the present), ongoing major excavation at many sites contributed significantly to our understanding of prehistoric southern China. Additional early human remains at Wushan, Jianshi, Yunxian, Nanjing, and Hexian were recovered together with Palaeolithic assemblages from Yuanmou, the Baise basin, Jianshi Longgu cave, Hanzhong, the Li and Yuan valleys, Dadong and Jigongshan. Early rice remains were discovered in the Neolithic sites of Pengtoushan, Xianrendong, and Yuchanyan, creating a broader picture of the origin, development, and dispersal of early agriculture in southern China. In the Lingnan-Fujian region and the Yungui Plateau, new cultural discoveries included Tanshishan in Fujian, Shixia in Guangdong, and Baoduncun in Sichuan. Many other sites have also been discovered in Guangxi, Yunnan, and Chongqing. These new discoveries illuminate aspects of prehistoric societies in the region such as farming (e.g., Yan 1997), settlement patterns (e.g., C. Zhang 2003), social structure (e.g. Meng 1997), and pottery, lithics, and jade working (e.g., C. Zhang 2000c). Our knowledge of cultural chronology in southern China has also developed immensely.

The transition from Late Palaeolithic to Early Neolithic

During the late Palaeolithic, following the last glacial maximum, the Palaeolithic pebble tool industries of southern China became influenced by the northern China tradition of small flake tool production, characterized especially by scrapers and pointed tools (Y. Wang 2003, 2005). Some related studies also propose that there was a shift to more animal hunting at this time, with less emphasis on plant gathering than previously (Y. Wang 2005).

The period between 16,000 and 10,000 years ago was of uncertain significance in the rise of farming in China (c. Zhang 2000a: 190-198). During that period, referred to as early Neolithic by Chinese archaeologists, owing to the presence of pottery, most habitation sites appear to have been located in limestone caves in the foothills of the Nanling mountain range. Subsistence evidence comes mainly in the form of large numbers of riverine gastropods (N. He 1988: 158-166), seeds, and even a few rice remains. Excavations in the caves of Xianrendong in Wannian (Zhang and Liu 1996); Yuchanyan in Daoxian (J.-R. Yuan 1996); and Miaoyan (S. Chen 1999), Zengpiyan (Institute of Archaeology, CASS et al. 2003) and Dayan (Fu et al. 2001) in Guilin, have produced the earliest pottery in China (c. Zhang 2000a, 2000b, 2006). Most vessels are either round-based jars with linear incision or cord impressed surfaces, or deep bowls, sometimes with weaving impressions. Coarse quartz grit was used as a tempering agent. The lithic industry at this time was still characterized by pebble tools that included unifacial choppers, flaked hoes and axes, perforated pebbles, and a few cutting tools with polished edges. Small flake tools of chert and quartz are also present in some cave middens. Bone awls, needles, arrowheads, fishing spear points, and shell knives with one or two holes are also widespread. Associated calibrated 14C dates (excluding those on freshwater shell) from these sites fall between 16,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Hunted animals included deer, pigs, birds, fish, freshwater turtles, and shellfish, indicating that hunting and gathering were still major food procurement strategies during this phase (Institute of Archaeology, CASS et al. 2003: 341-346). Remains of several edible plants, such as Chinese gooseberries (Actinidia chinendia and Actinidia sp.), wild grapes (Vitis sp.), plums (Prunus mume), and Chinese hackberries (Celtis tetrandra) were discovered during flotation in Yuchanyan and Zengpiyan caves (Institute of Archaeology, CASS et al. 2003: 286-294; J.-R. Yuan 2000: 35). Three grains of rice unearthed from Yuchanyan in 1993 and 1995 have been identified both as morphologically wild by Crawford and Chen (1998), and as early cultivated rice (0. sativa L., subsp. ancient zhang) by Zhang (W. Zhang 2000: 122). Phytoliths of similar age found in Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan caves have been identified as morphologically wild (Z. Zhao 1998).

Because of problems with the small sample sizes in these cave sites, Nakamura (2000: 1-11) believes that reliable evidence for rice cultivation in this phase is uncertain. It should also be noted that none of these early rice grains have been directly AMS dated. Fuller et al. (2007) commence wild rice food production during the basal phase at Hemudu (c. 5000 B.C.), or perhaps a millennium earlier, which is much later than the late Pleistocene phases discussed above.

Although these limestone cave habitation sites continue a Palaeolithic cave occupation tradition, the occurrences of pottery and possibly wild rice remains suggest a changing economic strategy. This phase thus overlaps with the following middle Neolithic phase of Chinese archaeologists in southern China. Its duration would appear to have been quite long, and future research on the transformation to the Neolithic is badly needed, especially on the palaeobotany of the period.


Middle and Late Neolithic cultures of the Middle and Lower Yangtze River basin

The Middle Neolithic (8000-5000 B.C.)

The first phase of pre-domestication cultivation in the middle and lower Yangtze basin occurred at this time. Although the number of discovered sites is not large, the overall cultural sequence is well established. The key sites belong to the Pengtoushan-Zaoshi Culture of the Li River basin (Dongting Lake region), the Datang culture of the middle and lower Xiang basin, and the Shangshan-Kuahuqiao culture of the Qiantang basin (lower Yangtze). Most sites are now located outside caves, on riverine terraces that could have supported cultivation.

In terms of economic developments, considerable quantities of rice husks were incorporated into pottery at Shangshan, dated c. 8000 B.C., and these have been identified as cultivated rice by Jiang and Liu (2006). However, Fuller et al. (2007) note that fully domesticated non-shattering forms were not yet present, indicating wild plant food procurement or production. At Kuahuqiao, several thousand husks and grains of ancient cultivated rice (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province and Xiaoshan Museum 2004: 273-277) and evidence of animal domestication, especially of dogs and pigs (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province and Xiaoshan Museum 2004: 249-254), were also recovered. Heavily exploited wild nut and fruit-bearing plants include Prunus persica, Prunus mume, Prunus armeniaca, Quercus acutissima, Quercus variabilis, Quercus fabri, Choerospondias axillaries, Trapa bicornis, Trapa quadrispinosa, and Euryale ferox. Seeds of Leguminosae, Cucurbitaceae, Theaceae, and Polygonaceae were also unearthed (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province and Xiaoshan Museum 2004: 271). In the middle Yangtze basin, 20,000 rice husks and grains were collected during a small-scale excavation at Bashidang. These have been identified as ancient cultivated rice, but not identical to any of the present-day indica or japonica varieties (Zhang and Pei 1997: 36-41).

Many rice remains have also been reported from Pengtoushan. Some doubt whether this was domesticated rice (Crawford and Chen 1998), yet it is evident from the quantity found in the site that food production was already beginning at this time. There is ambiguous evidence for domesticated pigs and chickens in sites of the Pengtoushan-Zaoshi culture (Pei 2000). In the later middle Neolithic, a spinning and weaving industry arose in the Kuahuqiao and Zaoshi cultures. Kuahuqiao alone has produced over 100 baked clay spindle whorls. Remarkably, a log boat made of pine was recently discovered at Kuahuqiao, 560 cm long and 52 cm in beam (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province and Xiaoshan Museum 2004: 375).

By middle Neolithic times, therefore, the food producing subsistence system of Neolithic southern China was in formation. Rice was under cultivation in predomesticated form, incipient domestication of pigs and chickens was under way, but various aquatic and non-cultivated forest plants, such as water caltrop, lotus, and oak (acorns), together with wild animals, were still probably of major importance in the diet.

The Early Phase of the Late Neolithic (5000-3500 B.C.)

This phase is characterized by a major increase in site numbers, indicating rapid population growth in the middle and lower Yangtze basin. Relevant cultures include Daxi in the Two Lakes region (Jianghan plain and Dongting Lake plain), Yangshao in the Han Valley, Beiyinyangying and Xuejiagang on the plains of the Su-Wan region, Shinianshan in the Gan-Po region, and Hemudu, Majiabang and Songze in the Jiang-Zhe regionS (Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces).

In the early phase of the late Neolithic, the first evidence appears for increasing hierarchy in settlement size and increasing complexity of social organization. Settlements now average 2-3 ha in size, such as Tangjiagang in Hunan (Hunan Provincial Museum 1982; Pei 1992), with presumably more than 100 residents in each village. Xiawanggang (Institute of Archaeology, Henan Province 1989: 166183) and Baligang (Archaeological Team of the Peking University 1989: 31-45) in the middle Han Valley are both 1000-2000 sq. m in size, and each has two rows of houses.

Burials occur in clusters that can hold more than 100 or even 1000 graves (such as at Sanxingcun in Jiangsu, National Bureau of Cultural Relics 2000: 11-19), potentially for separate lineage/clan groups. The quantities of grave goods now begin to vary between burials and between clusters.

The largest settlements are between 10 and 20 ha in size; Lingjiatan in Hanshan, the most extensive settlement of this phase ever excavated, covers more than 1 sq. km (Institute of Archaeology, Anhui Province 1989, 1999, 2006; J. Zhang 1991). These large settlements reveal evidence for craft specialization, for example the pottery workshop at Chengtoushan (Institute of Archaeology, Hunan Province 1999, 2007) and the jade workshop at Lingjiatan. At Chengtoushan, eight pottery kilns were excavated, with working areas and clay collecting areas nearby.

Lingjiatan was a very important jade workshop during this phase. In the northern cemetery in this site, many burials contained more than 100 exquisite jade and stone artifacts as mortuary objects, sometimes together with large numbers of manufacturing tools for jade production, and discarded jade fragments. Such rich discoveries are so far absent in the cemeteries of smaller settlements. Chengtoushan also has evidence for ceremonial platform construction, suggesting that the large settlements probably served as regional ceremonial centers.

Remains of rice fields have been unearthed in some lower Yangtze Majiabang-Songze sites, such as Caoxieshan (H. Zou et al. 2000: 97-113). On average, these very small fields enclose 3 to 5 sq. m and are surrounded by low earthen banks. Large numbers of spades made of bone or wood come from the contemporaneous Hemudu site, but there is no evidence for plow cultivation until the late Songze. In the early phase of the middle Yangtze Daxi culture, a phase often referred to as Tangjiagang (Hunan Provincial Museum 1982; Pei 1992), rice fields were much larger and enclosed more than 2000 sq. m, indicating that the scale of field agriculture in the alluvial plain of the Two Lakes region was larger than in the lower Yangtze basin. Between 15 and 26 percent of consumed meat from settlements of this phase belong to domesticated pigs (J. Yuan 1999: 8). Because of the local absence of raw materials for manufacturing stone tools, farmers living on the alluvial plains obtained stone artifacts by exchange. Lithic and jade artifacts that originated in the Su-Wan region became very widespread (c. Zhang 2003: 123-134).


The Late Phase oJthe Late Neolithic (3500-2500 B.C.)

During this late phase of the late Neolithic, c. 3500-2500 B.C., social structures and settlement patterns in the middle and lower Yangtze basin changed dramatically in the direction of greater hierarchy and complexity. Two nuclear areas developed, focused on the Qujialing-Shijiahe culture located in the Two Lakes region and the Liangzhu culture located in the Tai Lake region. Current evidence suggests that the adjacent regional cultures located in the middle Han Valley and in the Su-Wan, Gan-Po, and northern Jiangsu regions did not undergo such developments toward complexity.

The Two Lakes and Tai Lake regions had dense populations in this phase. In the Two Lakes region, the Shijiahe site complex covers a total area of over 8 sq. km. A one-sq.-km urban complex is located in the center, surrounded by a 60-80-m-wide trench. Many smaller settlements encircle this central area (Department of Archaeology, Peking University et al. 1992: 213-294). In the Tai Lake region, the Liangzhu complex includes over 130 settlements distributed through 40 sq. km (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province 2005a: 314-326). Interestingly, unoccupied zones occur between these big site complexes, suggesting that the domain of each cluster was almost as large as a modern Chinese county. Such large Neolithic settlement complexes never occurred in previous phases, and the uninhabited zones between them could suggest very tense social relations.

There is strong evidence from settlement hierarchies to suggest rank differentiation by this time. Large complexes such as Liangzhu contain specialized work shops for production ofjade ornaments. The smaller site clusters (1 to 2 ha) have not yet produced such evidence. There is also evidence for burial hierarchy. Most Liangzhu graves have very few mortuary objects, but rich graves placed in high artificial mounds usually have several hundred jade ornaments and items of lacquered woodwork. The most famous cemeteries of the Liangzhu phase, Yaoshan (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province 2003) and Fanshan (Institute of Archaeology, Zhejiang Province 2005b), are both located in high platforms built of multicolored layers of soil and stone.

Plow cultivation first appeared in the late Songze phase, and became very well developed in the Liangzhu phase (e.g., Mou and Song 1981 :75-84; You 1996 : 143-150). In Liangzhu, the evidence for plow cultivation comes from several new types of agricultural implement, such as the so-called winged implements believed to be plows by many Chinese archaeologists, and large triangular stone blades. There are also rectangular and semilunar knives with holes, and stone sickles. Domesticated pigs by this time contributed about 70 percent of the consumed meat (J. Yuan 1999: 8). During the Songze phase, production of domesticated crops became the major subsistence strategy, as emphasized by Fuller et al. (2007).

The Two Lakes and Tai Lake regions also became nuclear regions, in terms of settlement and population density, into which craft specialists migrated from outlying regions. For instance, the center of jade production moved from the Su-Wan region to the Tai Lake region (c. Zhang 2003 :220).


The Terminal Neolithic (2500-2000 B.C.)

In this phase, the Neolithic cultures in the middle and lower Yangtze basin evidently declined. The large Qujialing-Shijiahe and Liangzhu settlements appear to have been abandoned in favor of small settlements mostly located in the northern Yangtze Valley. These include the late Shijiahe and post Shijiahe sites of the Two Lakes region (Department of Archaeology, Peking University et al. 1992; Meng 1997), and the Nandang or Guangfulin culture of the lower Yangtze basin (Institute of Archaeology, Nanjing Museum et al. 1995, 1997; Longqiuzhuang Archaeological Team 1999).

The cause of the decline of the Neolithic cultures in this region is still uncertain, but one of the reasons could be related to the expansion of late Longshan cultures from the Yellow River Valley (c. Zhang 1997: 65). The late Dawenkou culture of the Yellow River Valley expanded as far south as the northern bank of the Yangtze (Nanjing Museum 1993: 87-88). The late Shijiahe culture maintained close relations with the late phase of the Dawenkou culture.

In this phase, site numbers in the Yangtze River basin are relatively few-only 28 in the middle Yangtze and 5 in the lower Yangtze. The jade and lacquer industries, so well developed in previous phases, are no longer in evidence. The Neolithic cultures of the middle and lower Yangtze apparently continued to decline, until the rise of Early Shang civilization during the Erligang phase (c. 1500 B.C.) in the north.

(Source: “The Neolithic of Southern China- Origin, Development, and Dispersal”, Zhang Chi, Hsiao-Chun Hung)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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