Neolithic China offers us great insight into pre-historical China as well as being important for the understanding of early rice farming. This time, place and people have fascinated scholars for decades. For this article, I will discuss three Neolithic cultures in the Yangzi River Valley, these being the Daxi, the Meudu and the Songze cultures.
Neolithic settlements in the Yangzi River Valley were based on millet cultivation proliferated, and a pattern of increasing cultural complexity that culminated in the formation of early states can be identified.
The Daxi culture can be dated around 4500 – 3300 BCE when village sites began to increase both in size and range. The Daxi culture is best known around the reign of Lake Dongting, which then spread out from there to both west and east. The terrain would have been swampy, suitable for the growing of rice fields and archaeological evidence for agricultural intensification through plowing has been established. Domestic pig and cattle were tended as well.
The Daxi Culture is contemporaneous with the Middle and Late Yangshao Culture (5200 – 3000 BCE) and at the Daxi site in Sichuan Province there are burials in narrow shafts apparently unique to the region. However, the most important Daxi site is at Chengtoushan where a series of excavations in the 1990’s revealed an early walled town. This was dated to 4000 BCE, with modifications to the walls undertaken at least three times. Here, 700 burials have been excavated. The majority of these burials were poor, but a number of them contained grave goods, including a body with two jade pendants and 50 pottery vessels (, p.246). Near the eastern wall, early rice fields were found, indicating the importance of rice farming at this time.
The Hemudu Culture had cultivated rice as early as 5000 BCE, as is shown by the archaeological evidence at the site of Hemudu, which, until Pengtoushan, was the oldest known site of rice cultivation.
The site is located around 3.3 ft above sea level, in the Lower valley of the Hangzhou River. Currently, only 5% of this site has been excavated (, p.247), yet the information revealed has been detrimental in the understanding of early rice farming. There are four layers to this site, beginning around 5000 BCE and ending around 3000 BCE. Houses have also been unearthed, one measuring 23 meters long by 7 meters deep with a veranda. It has been suggested by scholars that if these houses were built across the rest of the site, then Hemudu would have held a large population, possibly thousands of people.
The pottery manufactured by the Hemudu was handmade ware with black, tempered with charcoal powder from tempering with plant stems and leaves. The most common type of Hemudu pottery found is the cooking pot, sometimes with a waist ring. Other forms are urns, bowls, shallow plates, basins, vessel lids, and pot supports.
The economy of the Hemudu culture was based on rice cultivation, although it should be noted that these people attained a high level of technological skill. This is illustrated by the number of bone shuttles, needles and spindle whorls found at the site.
The Songze culture was located on the margins of Lake Tai, with sites in northern Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu provinces, dated around 4200 – 3000 BCE. The Songze Culture is considered a successor phase to Hemudu, which was immediately to the south and the later stage of the Majiabang culture.
The modern day city of Shanghai was first occupied by the Songze around 4000 BCE, and the cemeteries here have revealed interesting information. Burials were oriented with the head to the southeast, rather than, as before with earlier cultures, to the north. There were more grave goods buried with the bodies, with tripod vessels as standard. One of the earliest boat coffins found in China is from the Songze Culture at Jiaxing.
Houses were built on raised ground that allowed access to the wet lowlands for rice cultivation as well as marshes and lakes for hunting and fishing.
Pollen data from the Songze site in the Yangtze delta indicate that in the sixth millennium BCE temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees C higher than at present and that the Yangtze delta was at an early stage of formation. The final period of the Neolithic the annual mean temperature is thought to have been 1 to 2 degrees C higher.
The history of Neolithic cultures in the Yangzi River Valley is important to the study, not only of Neolithic China, but also of rice cultivation and Chinese history as a whole. These cultures are important as they pave the way for the later Chinese Dynasties that make China so fascinating to all audiences.
Higham, Charles (2005) The Human Past – East Asian Agriculture and It’s Impact, Thames & Hudson, London.
Pearson, Richard (1981) Social Complexity in Chinese Coastal Neolithic Sites, Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Zhimin, An (1988) Archaeological Research on Neolithic China, Current Anthropology, The University on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.