Agricultural Origins in the Korean Peninsula. (Research)

By Crawford, Gary W.; Lee, Gyoung-Ah | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Agricultural Origins in the Korean Peninsula. (Research)

Crawford, Gary W., Lee, Gyoung-Ah, Antiquity


The development of agriculture in Korea, as elsewhere, is an important part of landscape evolution and Holocene human adaptation and deserves study in its own right. Furthermore, Korean archaeology can help to clarify the mechanisms and timing of the spread of agriculture through Northeast Asia and the relative independence of developments in East Asia. In particular, Yayoi origins in Japan and the extent to which early crop production in Japan developed independently of mainland processes are open questions and dependent on a critical assessment of events in Korea. However, understanding agricultural origins in Korea has been handicapped by a reliance on circumstantial evidence and inadequate documentation. Whereas archaeobotanical data attest to the development of agriculture in neighbouring China and Japan, such evidence has been rarely collected in the Korean Peninsula (Korea). In consequence, little is known about early Korean agricultural history, except that between 1000 and 500 BC there was intensive crop production focused on crops apparently introduced from China (Choe 1982: 526; Nelson 1991: 106).

We report here the first contextually clear and directly dated sequence of early crop remains recovered from Korea. Our research focuses on the Middle Chulmun through Middle Mumun periods in South Gyeongsang Province, ranging in date from c 3000 to c 1000 BC. The term `Chulmun' refers to the incised decoration on pottery common at the time, and this period is usually considered the Neolithic of Korea. But in Northeast Asia, `Neolithic' refers only to the presence of pottery with stone technology and has no necessary connection with agriculture. `Mumun' refers to the plain ware that appears at the end of the Chulmun: it is a period of significant change in Korea which includes the introduction of metallurgy.

The archaeobotanical data reported here have been recovered from the Tongsamdong shell midden in Busan, the Daundong site in Ulsan, and several localities within a continuous stretch of the Nam River in Jinju (Oun 1, Okbang 1, 2, 4, 6 and 9, Sangchon B) (Figure 1). In the Nam River project, numerous pit-houses, exterior hearths, craft workshops, dolmens, stone-cist burials, and dry fields surrounded by ditches and palisades have been exposed in a 400 ha area. In addition to documenting early coastal adaptation in Korea and contacts with Jomon cultures in the Japanese archipelago, the Tongsamdong site has played a key role in the development of the South Korean prehistoric chronology (Jeong 1997). Its assemblage includes Chulmun pottery, stone tools, Early to Final Jomon pottery and obsidian from Japan, shell ornaments, and composite bone fish hooks (Sample 1974). Other sites help to continue the sequence. Daundong is an early Middle Mumun occupation and burial site. Okbang is another Mumun community. Sangchon B and Oun 1 have both Chulmun and Mumun settlements. Flotation samples were collected from all the sites, although we were able to take only one sample each from Tongsamdong and Daundong. Crop remains comprise nearly 70 percent or more of the seed assemblage from the Middle Chulmun through Middle Mumun periods (Table 1).


Dry-field crops

The results show that dry-field crops preceded wet-field production in the Korean Peninsula and continued to be important long after wet-field systems developed. The oldest examples are foxtail millet and broomcorn millet from Tongsamdong (for location see Figure 1), in a stratified sequence with a series of radiocarbon dates spanning the period from about 4800 to 1700 cal. BC (Sample 1974). Hoe-like stone tools appear in the Tudo phase suggesting that agriculture had begun at that time (Sample 1974:118). The Tudo phase, at one time dated to 1700 cal. BC, is now dated to 3000 cal. BC (Middle Chulmun) (Shin 1997). Until now, plant remains had not been collected by flotation at Tongsamdong to test the hypothesis of Tudo phase agricultural origins.

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