The Formative Age:
Beginnings to Third
In the 1920s, at a village called Zhoukoudian, twenty-seven miles southwest of Beijing, a team of Chinese and Swedish archeologists ignored the occasional gunfire of warlord armies competing for control of north China and patiently excavated a cave at a place the peasants called “Chicken Bone Hill” because of the many small bones in the hill’s red clay soil. Their work was amply rewarded with one of the richest discoveries (beginning with a single tooth in 1921) of the remains of one of our earliest human ancestors, known to the world as Peking Man. These early human ancestors occupied the cave at Zhoukoudian from roughly 400,000 years ago up until 200,000 years ago. About five feet tall, Peking Man (and Woman) hunted and cooked wild animals, used sharpened stone tools, and had a brain capacity about halfway between that of great apes and modern human beings. Peking Man’s primitive existence, half a million years ago, is a vivid reminder to us that human civilization has taken a very long time to develop.
Somewhere between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, people in what today is north and central China began to develop settled agriculture, paralleling similar developments in Mesopotamia and parts of Africa and South America. Through domesticating animals and growing their own food, especially millet (a dry land cereal grain) in the middle Yellow River valley of the north and rice (which requires wet fields) in the Yangzi River valley to the south, people began to evolve more populous and complex societies. The climate during this era was warmer and moister than it is today, which no doubt contributed in helping people first discover the miracle of growing their own food.
By 5000 to 4000 BCE, a number of Neolithic settlements were scattered throughout what we call China today. Two of the best documented of these, from around 3000 BCE, are known as the Yangshao, or painted pottery culture, in the northwest and the Longshan, or black pottery culture, which developed at about the same time and extended from the