Pig Domestication in Ancient China

By Jing, Yuan; Flad, Rowan K. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Pig Domestication in Ancient China


Jing, Yuan, Flad, Rowan K., Antiquity


Unlike the Middle East, where sheep and goats were the earliest domesticates and `pigs have been cast in the role of a late and rather unimportant addition to the repertoire of animal domesticates' (Redding & Rosenberg 1998: 65), in many areas of China, pigs were most likely the earliest domesticate--with the possible exception of dogs--and pigs have been and continue to be the most important domestic animal. This paper discusses the important research topic of development of pig domestication in ancient China through a study of remains found in some Neolithic sites based on established methods of analysis--measuring teeth and bones, identifying the age structure of pig populations, calculating the ratio of suidae in faunal assemblages, and examining the archaeological background.

The beginning of pig domestication

To date, there are four archaeological assemblages dated to approximately 10,000 BP in China: the Yucanyan site in Dao County, Hunan Province; the Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan sites in Wannian County, Jiangxi Province; and the Nanzhuangtou site in Xushui County, Hebei Province. Phytoliths of domesticated rice, pottery and stone and bone implements have been found in both the Yucanyan site located at latitude 25.5[degrees]N, and the Diaotonghuan site, located at latitude 28.5[degrees]N (Yan 1997). Pottery, bone and stone implements have also been discovered at the Nanzhuangtou site, which is located at latitude 39[degrees]N (Baoding Institute of Antiquity Management et al. 1992). Based on these data, the beginning of agriculture and pottery manufacture can be traced back to approximately 10,000 years ago in China. However, it is important to note that the faunal remains found in these assemblages seem all to represent wild species, and as yet there is no evidence for the existence of domesticated animals (Huang 1966; Yan 1997; Yuan forthcoming).

Some scholars believe that the earliest domesticated pig was found at the Zengpiyan site, in Guilin City, Guangxi Province (Nelson 1998a). But the data from this site are very problematic. First, the date still remains an issue. The site had been dated to about 5000 BP according to the preliminary report, and the cultural assemblage was classified as the early phase of the Late Neolithic culture (Antiquity Team 1976). Later, the site was dated to 10,000-7000 BP based on radiocarbon dates. However, these radiocarbon dates are also suspect ([sup.14]C Laboratory 1982). Second, the location from which the pig bones were unearthed is unclear. The investigators reported that all pig bones came from the excavation in 1973 (Li et al. 1978). While some scholars suggest that all faunal remains from the 1973 excavation belong to the lower deposits in the site, dated to about 9000 BP (Tan 1990), others believe that the excavation in 1973 only reached the upper deposits at the site, dated to about 7000 BP (Qi 1991). Third, the identification of the pigs as domesticated is questionable. The reason for their identification as domesticated was merely based on the age profile--65% of individual pigs were only 1-2 years old. However, the study did not include the measurements of length and width of teeth, the relationship between the age and condition of tooth eruption, etc. On the other hand, since most sites with clearly domesticated pigs contain an assemblage that mostly consists of 1-year-old pigs, Li et al. (1978) argue that the dominance of 1-2-year-old pigs indicates a low level of early domestication, i.e. the age of pigs was greater in the earlier period of domestication (Li et al. 1978). Altogether this evidence is not quite strong enough to indicate the domestication of pigs. Studies of other materials from the site indicate that subsistence at Zengpiyan was based on hunting and gathering. It is questionable whether there could be some domesticated pigs in such an economic system. The data from the Zengpiyan site are not conclusive enough to be used for the study of the origin of pig domestication in China.

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