What Did Grinding Stones Grind? New Light on Early Neolithic Subsistence Economy in the Middle Yellow River Valley, China

Article excerpt



The Peiligang culture (c. 7000-5000 BC) represents the earliest Neolithic settlement in the Middle Yellow River Valley and signals the emergence of food production and ritual complexity in the region. These developments indicate a transformation from mobile hunter-gatherer society, characterised by microlithic technology, to an agricultural-based Neolithic economy (Lu 1999), which eventually led to the formation of Chinese dynastic states several thousand years later (Chang 1986; Liu, L. 2004). Archaeological research in China has for decades focused on the Peiligang culture for insight into the origins of plant and animal domestication (Shi 1992; Henan Institute 1999; Lee et al. 2007; Luo 2007), sedentary settlement and the full development of cereal (mainly millet) farming (e.g. Bellwood 2005: 120-22; Smith, B. 1995: 134-9; Underhill 1997). However, the argument for the development of a cereal-based agricultural society needs to be further evaluated by scientific methods.

One approach to investigating ancient subsistence is to study the function of grinding stones, which are frequently found at Early Neolithic sites in north China, and constitute a high proportion of Peiligang stone tool assemblages (Liu, L. 2008). The interpretations of their function are based mainly on ethnographic analogy and range from hide-working (Zhao, S. 2005) and wild plant processing (Wu 1986; Liu, L. 2008), to dehusking domesticated cereals (Song 1997; Chen 2002). The last view has been widely accepted and thus grinding stones are claimed to provide key evidence for early agriculture in China (Chang 1986: 91; An 1989; Yan 1992: 114; Smith, B. 1995: 134; Bellwood 2005: 121; Higham 2005: 240). In this paper we present the results of functional analyses on six grinding stones from two Peiligang culture sites, Shigu and Egou, which challenge this view.

The sites and their assemblages

The Shigu site in Changge county is situated at the confluence of the Shiliang and Xiaohong rivers. To the west of the site are the Funiu Mountains, and to the east is the Central Henan floodplain (Figure 1). A total of 214[m.sup.2] was excavated, revealing three subterranean house foundations, 189 ash pits, 69 burials and 440 artefacts. Carbonised plant remains were identified as hazelnuts, walnuts, elm fruit and jujube. Eleven grinding stones, mostly unearthed from burials, account for 14 per cent of the lithic assemblage (Henan Institute 1987). The Egou site in Mixian is situated on a tableland at the confluence of the Wei and Sui rivers and surrounded by low hills. The site is 8000[m.sup.2] in extent and an area of 2781[m.sup.2] was excavated in the 1970s. The cultural deposits are thin at 0.3-0.5m in depth. Six subterranean house foundations, 44 ash pits and around 370 artefacts were uncovered. Among 133 stone tools, 20 are grinding stones, mostly from burials (18), accounting for 15 per cent of the total lithic assemblage (Henan Provincial Museum 1981).

Six stones, three from each site, were examined in this study (Figure 2; Table 1). Grinding stones of the Peiligang culture have distinctive stylistic characteristics. Mopan slabs are the lower stones and are normally made of coarse to medium-grained sandstone, elongated in plan with a flat upper surface and four short legs; they weigh around 10-20kg (Figure 2, nos. 1-3). Many mopan show striations and pitting on the used surface (Figure 2, no. 7), suggesting an abrading motion and frequent pecking to maintain an effective working surface. Mobang (literally grinding roller) are elongated upper stones (Figure 2, no. 4). They are mostly made of medium-grained sandstone, but occasionally other raw materials such as limestone were used. Mobang show a range of shapes in cross-section: round, oval, hemispherical and faceted. Different degrees of wear and various grinding motions, such as abrading, rocking and rolling have determined the shape at discard. …