Social Integration of Religion and Ritual in Prehistoric China

Article excerpt


This paper focuses on a discussion of the integrative role of religious ritual. We investigate several archaeological examples selected from prehistoric northern China to demonstrate that the integrative function of religion can be productively monitored through the study of burial treatment, ritualized feasting and monumental structures.

Funeral treatment

The continuation of a social group requires that it respond to the crisis created by the loss of some of its members. Many known mortuary rituals are designed to aid the self-maintenance of social groups. Thus, the practical goal of a mortuary ritual programme is to assist the living toward a smooth transition into a new stage after losing a group member and to reassure social order. In archaeology, when the deceased were carefully and deliberately treated, we can confidently infer that certain rituals had been conducted.

The earliest evidence of intentional burial in China was discovered in 1933 in the Upper Cave locality of the Upper Palaeolithic at Zhoukoudian, at about 19,000 BP (see FIGURE 1 for the locations of the archaeological sites discussed in this paper). The Upper Cave locality was divided into the upper and lower chambers (Jia 1978: 121-2). The upper chamber had an area of about 110 sq. m with a possible hearth located in the centre. This chamber was most likely used as the shelter of a small foraging group. The lower chamber, on the other hand, was used as the burial ground that yielded a total of three complete skulls and a number of human bone elements belonging to a minimum of eight individuals (Wu 1961). The skeletal remains and the surrounding ground were stained with red ochre. Perforated stone beads were found to be associated with the bones. The burials were obviously disturbed, although the agents of disturbance have not been firmly identified. The context indicates intentional disposal and treatment of the deceased. Jia (1978: 122) tentatively argues that secondary burial had been involved. Given the size of the upper chamber, the Upper Cave group must have represented a small group of no more than a few dozen members, comparable to most of the ethnographically known foraging populations. The accumulation of bones from eight individuals would have taken a significant length of time under normal circumstances. If a secondary burial ritual was actually involved, the group might have been concerned about its history and continuation. A secondary burial ritual could solidify the group by reiterating a sense of ancestral membership and their relationship with the deceased. However, a burial ritual performed inside a small cave could only be observable to only a small number of participants, most likely the members of a foraging group.


Burying the deceased in cemeteries became a widespread practice during Neolithic times. The burial practices are so highly varied that clearly several cultural traditions were involved. Our concern here is how mortuary ritual contributed to social integration. The people involved in a mortuary ceremony generally reflect the number of individuals with obligations to the deceased (Binford 1971). In the following, we select two intriguing Neolithic examples that might represent long-term post-burial activities, indicating more deliberate manipulation on the part of the living.

The Shuiquan site in Jiaxian contains a cemetery of 120 burial pits of the late Peiligang Culture in the end of the 6th millennium BC (Zhongguo 1995). The graves were organized so that they were all orientated in an east-west direction (FIGURE 2). The most obvious pattern is that the graves were divided into two major groups: the eastern and the western groups separated by an unoccupied area. Since the materials recovered from the graves indicate that the eastern and western groups were contemporary, the spatial arrangement is very likely attributable to the social division of the community. …