Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Chulmun Neolithic Intensification, Complexity; Emerging Agriculture in Korea

Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Chulmun Neolithic Intensification, Complexity; Emerging Agriculture in Korea

Article excerpt


A RECURRING SUBJECT IN ACADEMIC discussions has been the notion of socially complex hunter-gatherers. (1) Scholars have suggested that sociocultural complexity has not been limited to agricultural societies, as was once thought, but was characteristic of some foraging societies where certain socioeconomic factors led to varying degrees of inequality and social and organizational complexity.

The emergence of complex society in prehistoric Korea has long been understood as a socioeconomic corollary of its Bronze Age agriculture. According to the prevailing view, the Bronze Age social complexity that subsequently led to formation of chiefdoms and incipient states was a consequence of the intensification of sedentism and the rice-based agricultural economy during the Bronze Age (1300-300 B.C.) (Nelson 1993, 1999; Rhee and Choi 1992). Archaeological data accumulated in recent years, however, suggest the contrary. They include more than 500 new Neolithic sites, including 75 habitation sites and 204 shell middens (Han 2002; KNS & HGRICH 2009). Along with the new data, a number of seminal studies focused on Korean Neolithic settlement patterns have recently appeared (Bae 2009; Im 2006a; Ku 2009). Various subsistence systems have received attention (D.-I. Ahn 2006a, 2006b; Ahn and Lee 2001; Kim 1998, 1999; Kim 2002a, 2002b, 2005; C.-B. Kim 2007; E.-Y. Kim 2007; Lee 2001, 2002), including Neolithic agriculture (S.-M. Ahn 2002, 2005, 2006; Im 2009; G.-A. Lee 2003; Song 2001). These impressive studies provide new perspectives suggesting there was horizontal as well as vertical differentiation and social inequality in Chulmun Neolithic society.

The following discussion is a synthesis of the most recent archaeological data, reports, and studies on the Korean Neolithic, with particular attention to the subsistence, sedentism, and increasingly complex social systems of pottery-using people of the Korean Peninsula. We report on a developmental process that began in late Pleistocene/early Holocene times with the appearance of Early Neolithic pottery and associated economic patterns among hunter-fisher-gatherers of the Russian Far East, China, Japan, and Korea. On the Korean Peninsula, socioeconomic growth accelerated markedly after about 4000 B.C., during the time that Chulmun patterns came to dominate Korean Neolithic pottery. The Chulmun Neolithic is therefore the focus of our attention in this article. As a complex society of "the middle ground" (Smith 2001:1), Chulmun was similar to Jomon in sustaining a stable socioeconomic and political system over several millennia (Crawford 2008; Pearson 2007).

We advance the argument that the post-Chulmun florescence of rice-based agriculture seen in the following Mumun period, and the revolutionary societal elaboration that this new productive system fueled during and beyond the Korean Bronze Age, are direct outcomes of socioeconomic patterns developed by indigenous Korean hunter-fisher-gatherers to fit their local landscapes; these traditions reached a critical stage of maturity during the Chulmun Neolithic (S.-C. Shin 2001, 2002a, 2002b). In the following discussion we use "Early Neolithic" to designate the pottery-making cultures of pre-Chulmun times. "Middle Neolithic" and "Late Neolithic" are both phases of the Chulmun tradition, which is frequently but not invariably noted in the accompanying text.

In addressing the evolution of Korean society over this period, we begin from the view that the relative prosperity of certain environmentally favored Chulmun community settings provided ambitious extended families with opportunities to increase their collective prosperity through cooperative projects. Depending on the individual localities, over time these projects came to include mass harvesting of terrestrial and marine resources as well as cultivation of millets and other cultigens, all of which helped to increase the wealth and social influence of their producers. …

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