Environment and Culture Change in Neolithic Southeast China

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The Neolithic cultures of the coast of Southeast China and Taiwan appeared in c. 6500 BP and subsequently underwent significant changes (Jiao 2004; Lin 1993). Various mechanisms have been proposed for these events, often in association with the expansion of the proto-Austronesians (Bellwood 1997, 2002; Diamond & Bellwood 2003; Chang 1995; Jiao 2004; Rolett et al. 2002; Tsang 1995, 2002). Some scholars have cited external causes such as population migration or cultural diffusion (Bellwood 2002; Chang 1995; Chang & Goodenough 1996; Tsang 2002), while others tend to emphasise internal culture changes (Lin 1993).

Another factor that may have been influential is that of the environment, since during the Neolithic period the climate, vegetation and sea level in Southeast China all changed significantly (Chen & Liu 1996; Tang et al. 1996b; Zheng & Li 2000). By drawing evidence from the relevant studies on the environment and from recent archaeological discoveries, I will here examine the way in which the environmental sequence may have been interconnected with the transformation of the Neolithic cultures. The environmental studies used comprise sea level, climate, flora and fauna. Having reviewed the sequence in each case, I will create a general model of environmental change and then align it with the cultural sequence as currently known. The results will show that the environment played a considerable role in the outcomes of the Neolithic period.

The environmental sequence--geomorphology

The geomorphology of the area has remained relatively stable since the early Holocene (Figure 1). The Wuyi Mountain system lies to the west of the region and separates southeast from central China. The mountains, extending from south-western Zhejiang to northeastern Guangdong Provinces, are steep and vertical on their western sides, and relatively gentle on their eastern sides; they rise to an average altitude of about 1000m and the range is 30-50 kilometres wide in the north and more than 100 kilometres wide in the south.


The coast lines are highly irregular, with bays, beaches, dunes, marsh flat, deltas, estuaries, and rocky shores. There are more than a thousand off-shore islands in the marginal East China Sea. The high irregularity of the coastal line is particularly pronounced in the Fujian coast. The rivers in Southeast China have small drainage areas, and most of them flow independently into the East China Sea. Between the major rivers (Figure 1), there are hundreds of short streams also flowing separately into the East China Sea. The rivers run fast in the interior mountains, but become navigable nearer the sea and are ideal for transportation. The areas most favourable for humans to live are small basins and narrow riverine banks.

Sea level

The Holocene sea-level changes along the coast of Southeast China have been relatively well mapped using indicators such as the presence of marine shells (Chen & Liu 1996) or mangrove pollens, especially palynological evidence from boreholes on the Hanjiang Delta (Zheng & Li 2000). During the Last Glacial Maximum in the late Pleistocene, the sea level dropped up to--155m (Wang & Wang 1980), or--130m (Y. Huang et al. 1995), or--80m taking into account neo-tectonic movement in eastern China (Z. Huang et al. 1987). The coastline of East China advanced c. 600km offshore, and was then connected to Taiwan (Peng et al. 1984). Zheng and Li (2000) observed that this event brought exposure and weathering to the Hanjiang Delta, the sedimentation was interrupted, and the mangrove association was destroyed between 20 000 and 11 000 [14.sup]C yr BE

Around 10 000 BE the sea level started to rise in Southeast China, as indicated by the appearance and gradual increase of mangrove pollen, and continued to rise from 86007500 BE The percentage of mangrove pollen steadily increased, indicating that intertidal mangrove swamps were appearing in the delta. …