The History of the Yangshao Culture

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The Yangshao was one of the many Neolithic cultures that emerged in the Yellow River Valley area which was based on millet cultivation. Archaeologists have dated the Yangshao culture approximately 5200 – 3000 BCE.

Houses of the Yangshao were typically semi-subterranean with storage pits for the millet harvest. At one archaeological site north of Zhengzhou, excavators found a house with four rooms, its walls made from posts set closely together and sheathed by wattle and daub. Both elements of this technique rows of closely set posts and wattle and daub continued in the Shang and early Zhou periods, but it is at Erlitou (a later Chinese culture dated to 2100 – 1500 BCE) that one first observes posts surrounded by pounded earth (Thorp, p.25).

The Yangshao culture was based on millet cultivation. However, rice also contributed to the human diet of some settlements, since its phytoliths were identified from Yulinzhuang, dating to the Late Yangshao period (Liu, Chen, Lee, Wright & Rosen, p.86).

The Yangshao Culture, which followed the Peiligang Culture, is extensively dispersed throughout the upper and middle areas of the Yellow River as well as taking place in parts of the middle course of the Yangtze River. The steady increase in site numbers and in occupation numbers from early to late phases suggests the increase of population in the region.  It is considered the ancestor of the Majiayao Culture and many of the later Neolithic agricultural settlements that emerged later on.

The best known Yangshao village is at Banbo (also spelt Banpo), just east of modern day Xi’an in Shaanxi province.  The site was discovered in 1963 and since then has been extensively excavated. It was circled by a defensive ditch, and beyond this laid the village settlements. Excavations of the graves have revealed a mass and variety of grave goods, indicating the poverty and wealth of each individual.

“An important feature of the Yangshao culture is the accumulating evidence for shamanistic rituals that formed the basis for later practices documented among the early states of this region” (Higham, p.245). We see this in Dadiwan, were a floor painting depicts two shamans performing a ceremony at a funeral.

Although much of the Yangshao culture is not known at this present time, the continuous study will reveal aspects on one of the most fascinating Neolithic cultures of China.


Higham, Charles (2005) The Huam Past – East Asian Agriculture and It’s Impact, Thames & Hudson, London.

Liu, Li., Chen, Xingcan., Lee, Yun Kuen., Wright, Henry & Rosen, Arlene (2004) Settlement Patterns and Development of Social Complexity in the Yiluo Region North China, Journal of Field Archaeology, Boston University.

Thorp, Robert L. (1983) Origins of Chinese Architectural Style: The Earliest Plans and Building Types, Archives of Asian Art, University of Hawai’i Press for the Asia Society.


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