River Valleys and Foothills: Changing Archaeological Perceptions of North China's Earliest Farms

Article excerpt


In recent decades discussions of the beginnings of agriculture have increasingly drawn attention to developments in China (MacNeish 1991; Smith 1998; Bellwood 2004; Barker 2007). Global synopses, as well as those concerned specifically with East Asia (Yan 1992; Underhill 1997; Lu 1999, 2002, 2005; Bellwood 2006; Underhill & Habu 2006) have emphasised the prehistory of two great river valleys, the Changjiang (Yangtze River) to the south, and the Huanghe (Yellow River) to the north. A valley-based model of agricultural beginnings in China has been prominent since the first publications of the topic in English, notably Chang (1963) and An (1989). In mainland China itself, a multidimensional regional model replaced the traditional interpretation of a single centre of Chinese civilisation (Su & Yin 1981; Su 1999). Within this model, the middle and lower reaches of the two great river valleys, the Changjiang and the Huanghe, form the prime fool for discussions of agricultural origins (Huang 1983; Yan 1990, 2000; Chen 2005).

However, a number of authors have drawn attention to the location of the early sites in the foothills rather than the valley bottom (Ho 1979; Li & Lu 1981; Tong 1984; Shi 1992), and we explore this theme here, in the context of an archaeobotanical data set that has recently expanded within North China. We draw on recent evidence to question the valley-based model and situate agricultural origins within an alternative geographical framework.

We shall review the archaeobotanical evidence for millet use in these cultures, and consider the regional patterning of that evidence. In the light of those patterns, we shall explore their relationships to a chain of rain-fed foothills lying beyond the plains of the Yellow River. These relationships will be considered in the context of patterns and topographical relationships similarly observed in the early farming landscapes of south-west Asia.

Pre-5000 BC cultures with records of millets

Five pre-5000 BC site clusters have been connected with the early farming of millet, either broomcorn orfi (Panicum miliaceum) or foxtail or su (Setaria italica). These are listed, with their approximate chronology, in Table 1 and located in Figure 1. The Cishan-Peiligang sites (6500-5000 BC) are located on the eastern foothills of the Taihang and Funiu mountains, running into the major alluvial plain in North China, the Huabei Plain. On the Loess Plateau to the west of the Cishan-Peiligang cultural distribution, the Dadiwan-Laoguantai culture (5850-5400 BC) extends along both the north and the south flanks of a tributary of the Yellow River, the Wei River. At the mouth of the current Yellow River watercourse, in Shandong province, lie sites of the Houli culture (6450-5300 BC), mostly located on the alluvial fan of the western foothills of the Yitai Mountains. The culture extends into the more hilly area in the Yitai mountains.

The other two cultures associated with early millet lie well beyond the Yellow River. Sites of the Xinglongwa culture (6200-5400 BC) are broadly distributed in the Chifeng region in Inner Mongolia, where the Daxing'an Mountains join the Yah Mountains. The Xinle culture (6000-5500 BC) is encountered near Shenyang city, approximately 400kin east of the Xinglongwa sites.

Four sites, from three of the above cultures, are mentioned in the works of Chang and An: Cishan, Peiligang, Xinle and Dadiwan. These sites have been repeatedly cited in English-language references discussing early agriculture in northern China (Chang 1986; An 1989; Crawford 1992; Yan 1992; Underhill 1997; Cohen 1998; Lu 1999; Jones 2004). In the last decade, there has been substantial progress in terms both of systematic archaeobotanical research and of re-examination of previously-excavated material (Liu & Chert 2004; Liu, C. et al. 2004; Zhao 2005; Crawford et al. 2007; Lee et al. 2007), extending the number of sites and the number of culture groups from three to five. …