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Prehistory

Paleolithic Period

replica of the Peking Man Skullreplica of the Peking Man SkullSeveral places of early hominid habitation (inhabited by Homo erectus, the predecessor of modern humans) have been discovered in China so far, some of which have achieved a certain fame.

The oldest paleolithic site on Chinese territory that is known today was discovered at the Xihoudu Site (near Xihoudu Village in Ruicheng County, Shanxi Province) and is estimated to be 1.8 million years old. It is also the site where evidence was found for the earliest recorded use of fire by Homo erectus (dated 1.27 million years ago). The remains of the Yuanmou Man that were found near Danawu Village in Yuanmou County (Yunnan province) were dated as 1.7 million years old. Stone tools that were discovered at the Xiaochangliang site (in the Nihewan Basin in Yangyuan County, Hebei province) have been dated as 1.36 million years old. Further hominid remains (530,000 to 1 million years old) of the Lantian Man were found at the Chenjiawo site (see page 138 of linked pdf) as well as the Gongwangling site in Lantian County (Shaanxi province, approximately 50km southeast of the city of Xi'an).

The remains of Peking Man (680,000 - 780,000 years old) that were found in a cave near Zhoukoudian (near Beijing) are however by far the most famous hominid remains ever found in China. These hominid ancestors who were physically distinguished by a heavy brow ridge and large teeth already used fire and stone tools and had an erect posture. Many other questions (were they cannibals?) remain unanswered until this day, also due to the fact that the original remains were mysteriously lost in 1941 during World War II and may never be rediscovered. Destined for safekeeping in the United States, the fossils are presumed to have vanished en route to the port city of Qinhuangdao.

Based on fairly recent findings, Homo sapiens appeared on the scene of what is now China about 100,000 years ago. A series of primitive hunting and gathering civilizations appeared all across this part of Asia that began to use more and more sophisticated stone tools.

Peking Man Site

The world-famous Peking Man Site and its attached Peking Man Museum is located about 42km southwest of Beijing at Zhoukoudian in Fangshan County. Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis) is the name that was given to the ancient Homo erectus hominids that are estimated to have lived at the Zhoukoudian site during prehistoric times as far back as about 700,000 years ago.

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Opening Hours

April - October: 8.30am - 4.30pm
November - March: 9am - 4pm
Peking Man Museum is closed on Mondays

Entrance Ticket Prices

30 yuan
Peking Man Museum: + 30 yuan
Tickets sold until 30 min before closing time

Bust of Peking Man outside the Peking Man Site in Zhoukoudian

Neolithic Period

Neolithic stone sickle,Peiligang CultureNeolithic stone sickle, Peiligang Culture, National Museum of China, Beijing.About 12,000 years ago, during a period that we now call the Neolithic transition, the domestication of grain (and particularly rice) established village cultures and therefore created a settled agricultural society (whereas previously people were hunters and gatherers). Early societies appeared all over the territory that is now China during the neolithic period. What distinguishes the neolithic from the paleolithic period is the beginning of plant cultivation, animal husbandry and pottery making.

Damaidi rock carvingsDamaidi rock carvingsOne of these early societies has left its mark in a fairly remote area that is now the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region where 3172 cliff carvings, featuring 8453 individual figures (e.g. sun, moon, stars, gods, scenes of hunting or grazing) were discovered in the late 1980s near the small village of Damaidi (Zhongwei County).

Some of the engraved pictographs bear a strong resemblance to the ancient forms of written Chinese characters. The carvings are estimated to be between 7000 to 8000 years old but that is disputed. If proven correct, they might represent the origins of the Chinese writing system.

Another culture that has left its mark in early Chinese history is the Peiligang culture. The Peiligang people may have been the first ones that lived in constructed buildings instead of caves. They cultivated millet and raised pigs, cattle and poultry while continuing to hunt and to fish.

Painted earthenwear basin with fish design, Yangshao Culture, Excavated at Banpo site in Xi'anPainted earthenwear basin with fish design, Yangshao Culture (excavated at Banpo site in Xi'an)It is hotly debated when rice was first domesticized (some scientists even believe that millet was cultivated first), estimates seem to range from about 11,000 BC to 4000 BC. What is clear though is that the emergence of rice farming played a major role in the transformation from a nomadic hunting and gathering culture to a culture of more and more permanent settlements/villages.

Many early civilizations in the area that is now China settled in the Yellow River Valley but neolithic cultures appeared elsewhere too. These early civilizations can be distinguished through the pottery that they made. The four possibly most significant (based on archeological discoveries until now) cultures that appeared in China about 6000 or 7000 years ago were the Yangshao culture, the Longshan culture, the Liangzhu culture and the Daxi culture.

The Yangshao people settled in villages near the northward bend of the Yellow River. Their huts were surrounded by defensive trenches and mostly consisted of two levels, one at or slightly below soil level and another one above that. The Banpo Museum in Xi'an is a highly recommended place to see how the Yangshao people had lived. The Yangshao culture pottery is usually elaborately decorated with geometric designs as well as images of animals (especially fish). Despite this elaborate design, it is usually quite heavy and colored a pale yellow-brown.

Banpo Museum

The Banpo Museum is located in Xi'an (Shaanxi Province) right next to the excavated Banpo village, a neolithic village that was inhabited by people of the Yangshao Culture about 6000 years ago (approximately between 4800 BC - 4000 BC). The Banpo Museum consists of two exhibition halls and a 3000 square meter site hall that provides a good view of the excavated sections of the Banpo site.

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Opening Hours

March - November: 8am - 6pm
December - February: 8am - 5.30pm

Entrance Ticket Prices

March - November: 55 yuan
December - February: 40 yuan

Entrance of the Banpo Museum in Xi'an

Its burial sites show some interesting characteristics. We know from excavations that some of their people were buried in possibly ritually significant postures alongside higher quality grave objects, whereas other (presumably common) people just appear to have been randomly buried in the ground. That is a significant hint that some sort of hierarchy among the people began to develop during the Yangshao culture period. Interestingly, most of the individuals who seem to have been accorded a higher status burial were women, suggesting that women provided some sort of leadership functions (as shamans?) during that time. The possible conclusion that the Yangshao culture was a matriarchal society (just like the present day Mosuo people in southern Yunnan) is contested by many scholars though.

At the lower end of the Yellow River, another significant culture, named Longshan (Dragon mountain) culture, emerged at approximately the same time. Their pottery was black, undecorated and the thin walls of their pots suggest a more highly developed production method.

The pots that we associate with the Longshan culture began to appear in areas that were previously a center of the Yangshao culture and eventually spread all over North China. This suggests that somewhere between 4000 and 6000 years ago, the Longshan culture began to take control of the entire North China Plain.

Left: Black Pottery Goblet, Shandong Longshan Culture, Late Neolithic Period Middle: Liangzhu Jade Cong (a piece of square jade with a round hole) Right: Painted earthenwear cylindrical vase (ping), Daxi culture, Excavated from Daxi in Wushan county, Sichuan province. National Museum of China, BeijingLeft: Black Pottery Goblet, Shandong Longshan Culture, Late Neolithic Period (ca. 2500 - 2000 BC) Middle: Liangzhu Jade Cong (a piece of square jade with a round hole) Right: Painted earthenwear cylindrical vase (ping), Daxi culture, Excavated from Daxi in Wushan county, Sichuan province. National Museum of China, Beijing

The third significant culture that developed in this early period was the Liangzhu culture, which developed near the mouth of the Yangtze River, not too far from the present metropolis of Shanghai. Their pottery was also quite elaborately produced and it had marks on their pots and other objects that many scholars consider to be an ancestral system to the Chinese written script.

They also engraved symbols onto their master pieces of jade, which are perhaps even more renowned than their pottery. These little symbols and markings on the Liangzhu jades and pottery are assumed to be identifiers of either the craftsman, owner, clan or tribal group associated with this object. This graphic identification system of just one or two characters or symbols per object reappears in later inscriptions and therefore might be considered the earliest form of writing (if the Damaidi rock carvings were only pictures after all).

The Daxi culture that emerged in the valleys of Sichuan is less well known than the previously mentioned cultures but some promising discoveries were made in recent times. The culture got its name from the fact that its main archeological site was found on the territory of Daxi Village.

The Daxi people are presumed to have lived in matriarchal clan communes, largely based on the discovery that statistically more funerary objects were found in women’s tombs than in men’s.

Some large settlements in the area have been recently excavated revealing yet another different form, design and decoration of pottery. The most common designs of Daxi Culture pottery are characterized by their decoration with black lines on the red clay, feather and net designs, rope impressions or horizontal V designs.

Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues with the story of the Xia dynasty in the next section. Long thought to be mere myth, there are more and more signs that seem to prove the existence of this mysterious dynasty of which not much is known so far.