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Chapter 7- East Asian Agriculture and its Impact
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.

    describe the development of pre-state and early state societies from the Neolithic village and town cultures that preceded them.

    describe how archaeologists study settlement organization, burial traditions, and material culture in order to assess and explain culture change

The Transition to Agriculture in East Asia
In East Asia, the Pleistocene-Holocene transition occurred between about 14,000 and 6000 BC. Climate fluctuated and eventually became warmer and wetter, and available plants and animals changed. In this context, hunter-gatherers began to harvest and propagate new plants. Between 8000 and 6000, farming arose in two areas that differed in their environments and the plants available for experimentation. In the south, wild rice was domesticated, and in the contiguous region of Central China wild millet became the primary domesticated grain.

The Origins of Millet Cultivation: the Yellow River Valley
In the Yellow River region, hunter-gatherers lived in caves and on open river terraces during the last Ice Age (c. 36,000-16,000 BC). Arrowheads found at sites here were probably used to hunt wild sheep and cattle, the bones of which are present. Several important sites are representative of the late hunter-gatherer way of life (before 7500 BC), which incorporated more and more wild or transitional millet seed resources, a pre-adaptation for later farming. Important sites include Shunwangpin, Xueguan and Shizitan, Menjiaquan, and Nanzhuangtou.

Agricultural Sites after c. 6000 BC
There are no true transitional sites which reveal when hunter-gatherers adopted agriculture, but the transition occurred between c. 8000 and 6000 BC, since by 6000 BC there are many sedentary Neolithic villages. This led to a cultural transformation: permanently occupied villages led to higher populations, houses, and inhumation cemeteries. New crafts and skills developed, seen in the production of stone jewelry, polished axes, wooden and bone spades, fine ceramics, and woven fabric, soon used to mark social stratification. The following sites are important in the sequence: Dadiwan, Cishan, the Peiligang series of sites, especially Jiahu, and the Houli culture sites, especially Xihe.

The Origins of Rice Cultivation: The Yangzi River Valley
The origins of rice cultivation occurred in the middle Yangzi Valley and perhaps the Huai River valley to the north, the northern limit of wild rice's natural habitat. Before 13,000 BC wild rice probably was not available to local hunter-gatherers, but by about 8000 BC the climate was warming and it would have been present. Several important cave sites have long stratigraphic records showing the stages in the domestication of rice and the changes in material culture and social organization that came with it, such as sedentism and increased crafts production. The following sites are important for this sequence: the Yuchan and Zhangnao cave sites, Diaotonghuan cave, and Xianrendong cave.

The Development of Permanent Villages in the Yangzi Valley
As in central China's millet-growing region, villages with houses, large cemeteries, and pits developed in the rice-growing areas, and accumulated in low mounds near lakes on the plains where remains of domestic activity are found. Farmers were not intrusive, and there is cultural continuity during the transition to agriculture. Sites with good evidence from this period, some with outstanding preservation, include Bashidang and Pengtoushan.


Neolithic Cultures in the Yellow River Valley
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: on the loess plateau and the central plains the Yangshao culture is found, while further east lies the Dawenkou culture.

The Yangshao culture, dated to approximately 5200-3000 BC, varied regionally but sites share semi-subterranean houses, millet-storage pits, kiln-fired ceramic vessels with distinctive geometric painted designs, and extensive inhumation cemeteries. This culture, which endured for over two millennia, saw increasing social stratification through time, especially recognizable in grave goods. Certain artifacts provide evidence for Yangshao shamanistic ritual, which were later to become important conduits for power in the region's early states. Important Yangshao sites include Liuwan and Banpo.

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.

Neolithic Cultures in the Yangzi River Valley
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.

The Daxi Culture
Between 4500 and 3300 BC, villages increased and spread, and are referred to as the Daxi Culture. Drier rises near wetlands were chosen for settlement, probably to facilitate the creation of wet rice fields, and rectangular, multi-roomed houses were constructed of clay mixed with bamboo, reeds, and rice husk. In the 4th millennium BC early evidence for plowing has been identified. Domestic cattle and pigs were augmented by hunting and fishing. Differentiated housing, sometimes in walled towns, and grave goods in the huge cemeteries at some sites indicate the presence of extraordinarily rich individuals whose burials may have commanded human sacrifice. A wide variety of crafts were produced, and evidence for boat and seafaring technology has been found, supporting the suggestion of the spread of farming along water-routes. Important sites include Chengtoushan and Daxi.

Other important Neolithic sites and cultures, where similar cultural complexity, seafaring technology, and social differentiation are seen include the Hemudu culture sites, such as Hemudu and Luojiajiao. Also significant are the Majiabang culture, the Songze culture, especially Songze, Beiyinyanying and Xuejiagang, and the Chengbeixi culture.

The Expansion of Rice Farmers into Southeast Asia
Unlike the middle Yangzi, elsewhere in Southeast Asia no transitional settlements are known. 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 Hemudu and the presence of riverine and sea migration routes show that technology and transport routes were available.

Initial Dispersal into Southern China
The Tanshishan culture dated to about 3500 BC, lies south of the Hemudu complex but has similarities in material culture and may represent a southern expansion of farmers. To the west, sub-tropical Lingnan, in the Pearl River estuary between Hong Kong and Macao, was occupied over many millennia by large maritime hunter-gatherer groups, though interior occupation is found only in small rockshelters. Intrusive agricultural migrations are indicated by similarities between artifacts found at sites in the Yangzi and Lingnan areas, such as black, incised pottery that is similarly made and decorated. The migrating farmers certainly encountered and interacted with the large hunter-gatherer groups that inhabited the Pearl River delta. Important sites in southern China that provide evidence of this expansion through similarities in artifacts and culture include Shixia, the Nianyuzhuan culture, Baiyangcun, and Dadunzi.

From Southern China into Vietnam
In northern Vietnam there were two groups of hunter-gatherers: maritime hunter-gatherers on the coast, and in the uplands the Hoabinhian hunter-gatherers were found from between 16,000-14,000 and 5000 BC. In the same area, settlements of the Neolithic Phung Nguyen culture have been found. The material culture of the Phung Nguyen farmers include spindle whorls used in weaving and bone harpoons for hunting. Other finds include over 1000 stone adzes as well as small stone chisels and whetstones. Highly skilled crafts included the manufacture of nephrite bangles and beads found in a workshop dated to about 1650-1500 BC. There are many connections between Phung Nguyen and China, making it clear that the intrusive Neolithic groups remained in contact with the increasingly complex societies of the Yangzi and Yellow rivers. Evidence includes:

    the techniques and motifs used in decorating the black incised Phung Nguyen pottery are seen also at Baiyangcun and Dadunzi in Yunnan Province.
    the form and decoration of the spindle whorls resemble those of the Tanshishan sites in southeast China.
    nephrite and jadeite weapons match ones in the early urban states at Sanxingdui and Erlitou.
    some Phung Nguyen burials with deep graves are equipped with ledges, as in the Fubin culture of Lingnan.

The Khorat Plateau, Thailand
The Mekong River is a direct link between the Yangzi River Valley and the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand. Increasingly wet conditions between 4500 and 3700 BC created good conditions for rice cultivation, and rice-farming village's appear in Thailand at about 2300 BC. A site survey along the Mekong Valley revealed several early Neolithic settlements with the same black incised pottery as at Baiyangcun and in the Phung Nguyen sites. The Neolithic period on the Khorat Plateau lasted nearly a millennium, from c. 2300 to 1300 BC. Some important sites include Ban Chiang, Non Nok Tha, Ban Phak Top, and Ban Lum Khao.

Other customs brought by the first rice farmers include
    inhumation burial rites, with burial in the supine position and grave goods of pottery vessels, animal bones, and personal ornaments.
    weaving techniques
    domestic stock
    settlements located near wet terrain for rice cultivation, combined with hunting, fishing, and shellfishing.

Cambodia and the Mekong Delta
Further down the Mekong Valley in Cambodia, the Samrong Sen site has produced pottery vessels virtually identical in their decorative motifs to those of the Khorat Plateau. Other similar sites include Cu Lao Rua, or Isle de la Tortue, Cau Sat, Ben Do, and Xom Con, and inland, sites of the Bien Ho culture.

The Bangkok Plain
The coast of the Gulf of Thailand and its interior Bangkok floodplain had many coastal settlements that were occupied by marine hunter-gatherers by at least the mid-3rd millennium BC. Some of these foraging people, through a combination of internal processes and contact with farming peoples, show increased sedentism, occasional use of domesticates, new crafts specializations, and social stratification: at some sites, such as Khok Phanom Di, the levels of wealth, skill, and complexity among these foragers has led to many debates among archaeologists. Another key site is Nong Nor.

Another important group of sites represent intrusive rice farmers arriving from the north. These sites have evidence of the manfacture of many skilled crafts, cemeteries with ever-growing differentiation between rich and poor, increasingly rich grave goods and complex mortuary rituals. Some sites have revealed serious health problems and early mortality among early farmers. These sites in Thailand still bear strong links to cultures in Southern China. There are also connections between long-time, large, complex hunter-gatherer populations and intrusive farmers, a process that occurred throughout Southeast Asia. Probably, cultural interactions included an exchange of goods and ideas, intermarriage and a mixing of traditions. Hunter-gatherers may have selectively adopted aspects of farming if they seemed advantageous and rejected others that did not interest them. Ultimately, however, it was the agriculturalists who came to dominate. Important sites include Bang, Khok Charoen, Non Pai Wai, and Tha Kae.


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.

The introduction of farming coincided with a population shift, with an increase in the number of Chulmun sites from the mid-4th millennium BC, which expanded in an easterly direction. Millet cultivation spread across the Korean peninsula from about 4500 BC. Rice appeared beginning from the late 3rd millennium BC. Distinct local ceramics indicate that before rice, there was a pre-existing agricultural complex associated with millet and sorghum. In some rice-farming villages, some people were buried in megalithic dolmen tombs (one capstone weighed over 160 tons) and fine ceramic and jade grave goods suggest the rise of a social elite. Sites related to this expansion include Hunamni and Songungon.

Jomon Antecedents
From 10,500 to 300 BC, Japan was inhabited by foraging groups known collectively as the Jomon culture. 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 adopted slowly by the Jomon people. They are two distinct peoples: the Yayoi were taller than the Jomon with differently-shaped skulls. Yayoi 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. Shared artifacts indicate that after Yayoi immigration there was interaction and intermingling between the two groups. An important site showing such interaction is Itazuke.

Yayoi Rice Farmers
The six centuries of the Yayoi culture mark the origins of Japanese civilization. There were three major phases: Early (300-100 BC), when rice agriculture was established (although wheat, barley, and millet were also grown), and bronze and iron metallurgy were practiced; Middle (100 BC-AD 100), when agricultural settlements expanded; and Late (until AD 300), when complex societies and marked social stratification developed. The rapid spread of farmers in Japan can be seen archaeologically in the distribution of Ongagawa ware ceramics. In the Middle Yayoi, the proliferation of sites appears to have engendered some hostilities, as defensive ditches surround many sites and stone arrowheads grew common. There were many shapes of Yayoi pottery vessels, used in cooking, serving, and storage, and also stone tools like pestles, mortars, and reaping knives. The irrigation system and other markers indicates contact with Korea or China by immigrant groups. Chinese ethnohistoric texts of the late 3rd century AD may refer to the Late Yayoi period. The society referred to as the Kingdom of Wei is described as having female shaman leaders who were buried in large grave mounds, similar to some found in Late Yayoi contexts. Important sites include Toro and Yoshinogari.

The Linguistic Evidence
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 Site: Cishan
Key Development: The Origins of Rice Cultivation
Key Site: Bashidang
Key Site: Hemudu
Key Site: Khok Phanom Di
Key Development: Sedentism without Agriculture
Key Site: Ban Non Wat: Hunter-gatherers and Early Rice Farmers

Key words and terms Chapter 7

black incised ware
denticulate tools
incised turtle carapaces
pedestalled pots
potter's wheel
rice-husk tempered pottery
spindle whorls
stone adzes
stone ornaments
tripod bowls
wooden oars

Younger Dryas

Concepts & terms:
descent groups
female shaman leaders
human sacrifice
social stratification

japonica rice
wild foxtail millet
wild rice

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

historical linguistics
Hmong Mien
Kadai with Tai

Sites & regions:
Yangzi Valley
Yellow River Valley
Bab Non Wat

Scientific Analysis:

Structures & features:
defensive ditches
dolmen tombs
grave ledges
inhumation cemeteries
irrigation ditches
semi-subterranean houses
storage pits

Wei zhi

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