China’s Neolithic archaeology began with the 1921 discovery of Yangshao culture -- a prototypical Chinese culture of the Neolithic period first found in Yangshao village, Mianchi County, Henan Province. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, by means of stratigraphy (soil dating), typology (index dating), as well as radiocarbon dating (half-life carbon dating), excavations at over 10,000 Neolithic sites, archaeologists have been able to work out a timeline of China’s Neolithic culture from 10,000 BP to 2,100 BC (Xia Dynasty).
Since 1977, pre-Yangshao (10,000 BP to 6950 BP) cultures such as those at Cishan, Peiligang and Dadiwan have been found in north China’s Yellow River Valley, filling the missing link in archaeological chronology and offering resources for the study of the origin of agriculture, animal husbandry and pottery production in China.
Pre-Yangshao cultures in south China have been found at Yuchanyan in Daoxian County, Hunan Province and Xianrendong in Wannian County, Jiangxi Province, providing evidence that China’s Neolithic originated at 10,000 BP.
It has long been argued by Chinese archaeologists that China is probably one of the birthplaces of agriculture, and this has been given persuasive authority by the discovery of crop ruins at the Nanzhuangtou site in Xushui County, Hebei Province, which dates back to 10,000 years ago. In addition, Neolithic cultures spread over north China at such sites as Houli-Beixin, Xinglongwa and those spread over south China including Hemudu, Songze, Daxi, Qujialing, and Shijiahe dating to 6,000 years BP have presented varied and colorful cultural panoramas with distinctive regional flavors.
Bamboo buildings with railings and paddy ruins found at Hemudu (7,000 BP) in Zhejiang Province demonstrate that the Yangtze River Valley boasts a history of exploitation as long as what’s in the Yellow River Valley.
Cemeteries and cave dwelling-like buildings excavated at Banpo (6,800-6,300 BP), Jiangzhai (4,000 BP) in Shaanxi Province and Qijia in Qinghai Province shed new light on prehistoric settlement patterns and social organization in northwest China in this period.
A pottery cauldron containing boiled medicinal herbs unearthed in 2001 at Kuahuqiao in Xiaoshan County, Zhejiang Province indicates that Neolithic people had realized some natural herbal medicine use as early as 8,000 BP.
2001 excavations at Jiahu in Henan Province show that paddy (rice field) cultivation had been invented 9,000 years ago by Neolithic people living in the Huaihe River Valley, a region lying between the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys.
Over a dozen excavations at Yuchisi in Anhui Province since 1989 have produced 10,000 plus examples of earthenware, graves, and the largest prehistoric housing remains ever found in China. This 5,000-year-old site also produced a bird-shaped pottery figure -- the best-preserved totem from Neolithic China, which has been acclaimed by archaeologists as “an amazing find that can leave people gasping with wonder.”
Meanwhile, the discovery of numerous jade articles produced by the Zhejiang-based Liangzhu culture and sacrificial altars characteristic of the Liaoning-based Hongshan culture have attracted worldwide attention in regard to the origin of Chinese civilization.
The appearance of bronzeware casting industry is also closely related to the origin of Chinese civilization. Archaeology shows that China entered the Bronze Age no later than the terminal period of Qijia culture dating back to 4,000 years ago. Thus the Neolithic Qijia culture has been linked to the 3,000-year-old bronzeware culture represented by Yin ruins (ruins of the capital city of the late Shang or Yin Dynasty near Xiaotun village, Anyang city, Henan Province).
Neolithic people also left their footprints in Tibet. Cave-like housing, painted pottery, millet ruins, and pig bones unearthed at Karuo -- Tibet’s only Neolithic site with an elevation of 3,100 meters and an area of 10,000 square meters -- show strong similarities to what has been found in Neolithic cultures in the Yellow River Valley, indicating their ancestor-descendant relations.
In June, 2000, an ancient town belonging to the time of Yao and Shun (legendary rulers in ancient China) was excavated for the first time in Taosi village, Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province. Archaeological work at this town site produced new evidence to reconfirm the three universally recognized symbols of the appearance of the state, i.e. written language, metal implements, and city. Later, Shun’s mausoleum was found at Jiuningshan in Ningyuan County, Hunan Province. Then a stony meteorite was unearthed near the Mausoleum of Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) in Huangling County, Shaanxi Province. These striking discoveries have turned the legend of three sage “kings” (Fuxi, Suiren, and Shennong) and five virtuous “emperors” (Huangdi, Zhuanxu, Di Ku, Yao, and Shun) into an authentic historical record.
To trace sources of Chinese civilization, China’s first archaeological research project -- the “Origins of Ancient Chinese Civilization” -- has been ranked as the country’s key research project during the 10th Five-year Plan period (2001-2005).
(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, March 21, 2003)