Later Hunter-Gatherers in Southern China, 18 000-3000 BC

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Chinese archaeologists refer variously to the period from the Late Pleistocene into the Early Holocene in southern China as Mesolithic, Post-Palaeolithic, Palaeolithic to Neolithic transition, or Early Neolithic (Zhang, C. 2000), where 'Neolithic' often means the arrival of pottery. But the Neolithic transition in East Asia had many components, separated in time and space. The earliest pottery in the world comes from the general region of East Asia--particularly Japan, Siberia and southern China--commencing about 20 000 years ago (e.g. Lu, T.L-D. 1999; Zhang, C. 1999; Yasuda 2002; Boaretto et al. 2009) but does not imply agriculture. The normal assumption by East Asian archaeologists is that this pottery was made by forest hunter-gatherers (Yasuda 2002). About 11 000 years later, initial pre-domestication rice cultivation began in the region between the Yellow and Huai rivers (Zhang, C. 2011), and perhaps also in the Middle Yangtze Valley at c. 7000-6000 cal BC (e.g. Crawford & Chen 1998; Yan 2002; Yasuda 2002; Bellwood 2005:111; Zhang & Hung 2008; Fuller et al. 2009).

Between 7000 and 2100 BC, some hunter-gatherer groups co-existed with early rice cultivators in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley, and a variety of mixed economies co-existed in southern China (Table 1). Three types of likely subsistence strategy may be defined: Pleistocene hunting-gathering, documented mostly in caves; more complex hunting-gathering in the Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene, in both caves and open settlements, with pottery and cemeteries; and the developing farming of food during the Middle Holocene. These three modes of subsistence were not exclusive, and each was associated with identifiable cultural characteristics that appeared with different chronologies, in different locations, in southern China.

In a previous study, we proposed that rice cultivation was introduced into southern China and Southeast Asia from the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley through population movement around 3000-2000 BC, via separate coastal and inland routes (Zhang & Hung 2010). In this paper we provide a social context for this innovation, focusing attention on the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups in China south of the Yangtze, and in particular exploring the nature of their economies before the introduction of rice--that is in the period between 18 000 and 3000 BC (all carbon dates are calibrated unless otherwise noted).


The evidence comes predominantly from middens in caves (Figure 1) and open sites. The principal deposits and their cultural designations (see Figure 2 and Table 1) are the Dingsishan and Da But shell middens in Guangxi and northern Vietnam (Zone H), Gaomiao shell middens in the Middle Yuanshui Valley (Zone B), Chengbeixi-Daxi-Yuxiping deposits with dense fish bones in Xia-Jiang (the Three Gorges and western Hubei) (Zone Gh, within Zone G), Xiantouling sand dune sites in the Zhujiang (Pearl River) delta of Guangdong (Zone C), Keqiutou, Fuguodun (Zone D) and Dabenkeng (Zone F) shell middens along the south-eastern coasts of Guangdong, Fujian and northern Vietnam, together with Taiwan.

None of these sites has so far yielded any evidence for farming, but all have produced large numbers of pottery sherds and edge-ground stone tools, and the open sites indicate settlements with well-defined domestic, industrial and perhaps ritual areas. The task is to discover the possible role that these continuing hunter-gatherers played in subsequent cultural and population developments in Middle Holocene southern China.

Terminal Pleistocene cave sites in southern China (Figure 1)

Cave sites with large quantities of shell midden are distributed north and south of the Nanling Mountains. Important excavated caves include Xianrendong (Figure 1, no. 1; Figures 3 & 4) and Diaotonghuan in Wannian (Jiangxi); Huangyandong in Fengkai, Dushizai in Yangchun, Niulandong in Yingde (Guangdong); Luobidong in Sanya (Hainan); Yuchanyan in Dao county (Hunan); Zengpiyan, Miaoyan and Dayan in Guilin, and Bailiandong and Liyuzui in Liuzhou (Guangxi). …