Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • describe the hunter-gatherers who occupied East and Southeast Asia before the introduction of agriculture, and understand the difference between mobile and complex hunter-gatherers
  • understand the climate and environmental changes at the end of the Pleistocene and the relationship to domestication, as well as Holocene differences between northern and southern regions and how these affected the type of domesticates that evolved in each area
  • explain the links between sedentism, agriculture, and social complexity, and how this was expressed in the early farming cultures in various subregions of East and Southeast Asia
  • understand how Neolithic rice farmers migrated from the Yangzi area to other parts of China and to Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan; and also be able to explain their interactions with the hunter-gatherer peoples they encountered
  • explain how historical linguistics and genetics can augment our understanding of the complex migrations and interactions that took place during the origins and spread of farming in the region
  • describe the development of pre-state and early state societies from the Neolithic village cultures that preceded them
  • describe how archaeologists study settlement organization, burial traditions, and material culture in order to assess and explain culture change.

Chapter Summary


In East Asia changes that took place in climate, flora, and fauna in between about 14,000 and 6000 bc, the period spanning the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age and the first few millennia of the postglacial period, are vital for an understanding of the origins of agriculture. Climate fluctuated and eventually became warmer and wetter, and the availability of particular plants and animals was affected by this change. In this context, hunter-gatherers began to harvest and propagate new plants.

Between 8000 and 6000 bc, farming arose in two areas that differed in their environments and the plants available for experimentation. In the south, in the Yangzi Valley, wild rice was domesticated, while in the contiguous region of the Yellow River Valley in Central China wild millet became the primary domesticated grain.


Millet-farming villages in the Yellow River region multiplied, and increasing social complexity eventually culminated in the formation of early states. Two major cultures developed: the Yangshao culture is found on the loess plateau and the central plains, while further east is the Dawenkou culture.

In the lower Yellow River Valley, the Dawenkou culture, c. 4300–2400 bc, saw increasing population densities and social ranking. Craft specialization increased production of prestige items such as jade and fine ceramics, and this continued uninterrupted into the next phase, known as the Longshan culture, during early state formation. Sites that display good evidence for these processes include Liulin and the Dawenkou culture sites.

In the rice cultivation region of the Yangzi River Valley, a few sites have revealed conditions in the early Neolithic. Sedentary settlements with increasing numbers of cemeteries and grave goods include Fenshanbao and Hujiawuchang.


Attempts to identify the transition to rice cultivation in this area have not produced positive results: all the early village sites reveal fully developed agriculture. Work has suggested that a series of thrusts were involved in the expansion of rice farming into Southeast Asia. Excavations in the 1960s led some to believe that farmers had arrived by migration rather than developing in situ from local hunter-gatherers, since early village sites reveal fully developed agriculture in association with a range of skilled crafts. This notion was initially rejected, but may now turn out to be correct in light of new evidence. The recovery of wooden oars and strong rope from Tianluoshan and the presence of riverine and sea migration routes show that both the technology and transport routes were available.



Early Korean sites along rivers and coasts show much evidence for fishing and hunting, but also some agriculture, although little is known about its relative importance. Called the Chulmun (comb ware) culture, after the pottery found there, the inhabitants occupied pit houses and only a few burials have been found. A few sites provide more significant evidence. Sites that are important to know include: Osanni, Tongsamdong, and Sopohang.


Foraging groups known collectively as the Jomon culture occupied Japan fom 10,500 to 300 bc. These “complex” hunter-gatherers were sedentary, and hunted, gathered and fished, and were one of the earliest people to make ceramic vessels in the world. An ongoing debate exists over whether rice was brought to Japan by intrusive immigrants from Korea, known as the Yayoi Culture, or integrated slowly by the Jomon people. The Yayoi were taller than the Jomon and had differently shaped skulls. Estimates of the population of Japan for the late Jomon period and that at the end of the Yayoi, based on settlement sizes and numbers, indicate there must have been a considerable degree of immigration. Intrusive rice farmers expanded to Honshu but not Hokkaido, which was colder and harsher and where hunter-gatherers persisted, probably the ancestors of the modern Ainu people. An important site with a sophisticated system for rice growing is Itazuke.


The idea of migrating, expansionary movements of farmers must be tested with other methods, one of which is historical linguistics. Hundreds of languages and several major language families are found in East Asia, divided into five basic linguistic building blocks: Austroasiatic; Austronesian; Hmong Mien; Kadai with Tai; and Sino-Tibetan. The three major branches of the Austroasiatic family are distributed from eastern India to Vietnam, and south to islands in the Indian Ocean. By tracing the distribution of cognate words and related languages over East and Southeast Asia, linguists believe that a common homeland was on the Asian mainland. Archaeological evidence for the origin and spread of rice agriculture and crafts such weaving, traced through stylistic features of spindle whorls, helps support this.

In the future, genetic studies may also add to our knowledge about the relatedness of groups and their past migrations.

Box Features

Key Controversy: The Origins of Rice Cultivation

Key Development: Sedentism without Agriculture

Key Site: Cishan: The Transition to Agriculture in the Yellow River Valley

Key Site: Bashidang: An Early Agricultural Village

Key Site: Tianluoshan

Key Site: Ban Non Wat: Hunter-gatherers and Early Rice Farmers

Key Site: Khok Phanom Di: Sedentary Hunter-fishers

Key words and terms

Artifacts, Materials and Technology

  • axes
  • black incised ware
  • cong
  • denticulate tools
  • Ge
  • incised turtle carapaces
  • jade
  • kiln
  • microliths
  • nephrite
  • pedestalled pots
  • potter’s wheel
  • rice-husk tempered pottery
  • rope
  • sea-faring
  • shell
  • sickles
  • spades
  • spindle whorls
  • stone adzes
  • stone ornaments
  • tripod bowls
  • wooden oars
  • Yazhang


  • Post-Pleistocene
  • Younger Dryas
  • Neolithic
  • Bronze Age

Concepts & terms:

  • descent groups
  • female shaman leaders
  • human sacrifice
  • Shamanism
  • social stratification


  • japonica rice
  • millet
  • rice
  • wild foxtail millet
  • wild rice
  • sorghum


  • Ainu
  • Chengbeixi
  • Chulmun
  • Dadiwan
  • Dawenkou
  • Daxi
  • Hoabinhian
  • Houli
  • Jomon
  • Majiabang
  • Nianyuzhuan
  • Peiligang
  • Phung Nguyen
  • Songze
  • Tanshishan
  • Yangshao
  • Yayoi


  • Austroasiatic
  • Austronesian
  • Hmong Mien
  • Kadai with Tai
  • Sino-Tibetan

Sites & regions:

  • Korea
  • Japan


  • Yangzi River Valley
  • Yellow River Valley
  • Dadiwan
  • Cishan
  • Peiligang
  • Jiahu
  • Diaotonghuan
  • Xianrendong
  • Bashidang
  • Pengtoushan
  • Banbo
  • Fenshanbao
  • Chengtoushan
  • Daxi
  • Hemudu
  • Tianluoshan
  • Baiyangcun


  • Trang Kenh


  • Khorat Plateau
  • Bangkok Plain
  • Ban Non Wat
  • Non Nok Tha
  • Ban Phak Top
  • Ban Lum Khau
  • Khok Phanom Di
  • Ban Kao
  • Khok Charoen
  • Tha Kae


  • Mekong Delta
  • Cu Lao Rua
  • Cau Sat
  • Ben do


  • Itazuke
  • Yoshinogari

Structures & features:

  • walled towns
  • defensive ditches
  • dolmen tombs
  • fortifications
  • inhumation cemeteries
  • irrigation ditches
  • semi-subterranean houses
  • storage pits