Commentary: A Critical Review of Environmental Archaeology in Northeast China

By Jia, Peter Weiming | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Spring-Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Commentary: A Critical Review of Environmental Archaeology in Northeast China


Jia, Peter Weiming, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


INTRODUCTION

This article focuses on the field of environmental archaeology in the northeastern region of China, although a few external examples of archaeological work in other regions will also be considered for comparison (Fig. 1). The term "Northeast China," as used in the context of this article, comprises mainly the current Chinese administrative divisions of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, and extends to the three city-districts of Chifeng ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Tongliao ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Hulunbei'er ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), as well as the two Mengs (JM), Xingan ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Xilinguole ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), in the eastern part of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (1) (Zi and Gao 2006 : 2-3).

Northeast China is a region of diverse natural resources found in different land formations and climate zones, and many different kinds of economies have flourished here throughout history. Hunting and gathering, as evidence has suggested, was the main subsistence method for early human settlers no later than 40 kya (Jinniushan Team 1976). Crop cultivation and animal domestication began in the Chifeng region in the southwestern part of Northeast China as early as 8000 B.P. (Z. Zhao 2008), and continued to develop and spread over the entire region. Nonetheless, hunting, gathering, and fishing also existed alongside farming throughout history (P. Jia 2007). Today, except in areas covered by desert, swamp, forest, and steppe, where herding or other economic activities are favored, agriculture is widely practiced in most of Northeast China. The variation of natural resources caused by climate shift during ancient times provides researchers with the fundamental data for studying environmental changes and human responses to such changes. The relationship between humans and their natural surroundings is of critical interest for scientists engaged in the study of the evolution of human society, the economy, and political institutions.

When the study of the environment began around the 1920s, it was mainly applied to archaeological research in conjunction with geographical studies (Trigger 1971). This type of research continued to develop, and in the 1950s began to adopt an ecological approach to prehistoric economies (Adams 1988; O'Connor and Evans 2005 : 1-8), although it was considered in the form of subordinate comments that were passively attached to archaeological data and could only serve as geographical background. The specific term "environmental archaeology" did not appear until the late twentieth century (e.g., Bintliff et al. 1988; Boyd 1990; Shackley 1985), when the emergence of this term was associated with great debate on how to properly define its context as a new discipline (e.g., Albrella 2001; Branch et al. 2005 : 1-8; Coles 1995). In the last two decades, the term has been used more frequently, and gradually was defined as an ecological study of the interaction between human and environment (Boyd 1990; Shackley 1981). Based on the geoscience principle of uniformitarianism (Cameron 1993), environmental archaeology is defined as a study comprising archaeological and environmental theories and methodologies. Reitz et al. (2008:ix) described the broad contents of environmental archaeology as containing diverse fields and interests that are embraced by both ecological and anthropological studies. Three major themes are extrapolated: "systematic relationships between humans and the physical, chemical, and biological world in which they live; human nutrition and health; and complex human behaviors associated with acquiring resources" (Reitz et al. 2008:ix). Today, the term "environmental archaeology" frequently appears in both verbal communication and written sources, and both the journal Environmental Archaeology and the Association of Environmental Archaeology have emerged due to the increasing popularity of archaeological research, teaching, and publication, even if the term itself might not be appropriate for this growing discipline during its early stage (Luff and Rowley-Conwy 1994). …

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