The Neolithic of Southern China-Origin, Development, and Dispersal

Article excerpt


According to direct evidence from archaeology and supporting evidence from comparative linguistics, the Neolithic cultures of the Yangtze alluvial plain played a significant role in the origins of rice cultivation and agricultural populations in East and Southeast Asia. The ultimate results of these developments, according to many authorities, were the dispersals of Austroasiatic and Austronesian-speaking peoples into Mainland and Island Southeast Asia. New archaeological discoveries suggest that some of the earliest pottery in the world also occurred in southern China. Therefore, the historical significance of this region cannot be overlooked. This paper provides a brief review of cultural developments and settlement histories in southern China from the early Neolithic (c. 11,000-8000 B.C.) to the terminal Neolithic (2000 B.C.). Geographically, we examine the middle and lower Yangtze alluvial plain, the Lingnan (southern Nanling Mountains) and Fujian region, and the Yungui Plateau of southern China. Against the backdrop of the waxing and waning of Neolithic cultures in the Yangtze Valley we plot the spread of material culture, rice farming and animal domestication out of the Yangtze region to the Lingnan-Fujian region and the Yungui Plateau, and later into Taiwan and Southeast Asia. This study suggests that the origins of rice agriculture and the process of farming dispersal were more complicated than previously assumed. KEYWORDS: Neolithic, southern China, Yangtze alluvial plain, farming, migration, dispersal.


SANDWICHED BETWEEN THE YELLOW RIVER and Mainland Southeast Asia, southern China (1) lies centrally within eastern Asia. This geographical area can be divided into three geomorphological terrains: the middle and lower Yangtze alluvial plain, the Lingnan (southern Nanling Mountains)--Fujian region, (2) and the Yungui Plateau (3) (Fig. 1). During the past 30 years, abundant archaeological discoveries have stimulated a rethinking of the role of southern China in the prehistory of China and Southeast Asia. This article aims to outline briefly the Neolithic cultural developments in the middle and lower Yangtze alluvial plain, to discuss cultural influences over adjacent regions and, most importantly, to examine the issue of southward population dispersal during this time period.

First, we give an overview of some significant prehistoric discoveries in southern China. With the discovery of Hemudu in the mid-1970s as the divide, the history of archaeology in this region can be divided into two phases. The first phase (c. 1920s-1970s) involved extensive discovery, when archaeologists unearthed Pleistocene human remains at Yuanmou, Ziyang, Liujiang, Maba, and Changyang, and Palaeolithic industries in many caves. The major Neolithic cultures, including Daxi, Qujialing, Shijiahe, Majiabang, Songze, Liangzhu, and Beiyinyangying in the middle and lower Yangtze, and several shell midden sites in Lingnan, were also discovered in this phase.

During the systematic research phase (1970s to the present), ongoing major excavation at many sites contributed significantly to our understanding of prehistoric southern China. Additional early human remains at Wushan, Jianshi, Yunxian, Nanjing, and Hexian were recovered together with Palaeolithic assemblages from Yuanmou, the Baise basin, Jianshi Longgu cave, Hanzhong, the Li and Yuan valleys, Dadong and Jigongshan. Early rice remains were discovered in the Neolithic sites of Pengtoushan, Xianrendong, and Yuchanyan, creating a broader picture of the origin, development, and dispersal of early agriculture in southern China. In the Lingnan-Fujian region and the Yungui Plateau, new cultural discoveries included Tanshishan in Fujian, Shixia in Guangdong, and Baoduncun in Sichuan. Many other sites have also been discovered in Guangxi, Yunnan, and Chongqing. These new discoveries illuminate aspects of prehistoric societies in the region such as farming (e. …


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