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Major Chinese zooarchaeological findings of 2021

By LYU PENG | 2022-05-26 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Archaeologists examine the remains of horse bones at a dig site All the Photos: COURTESY OF LYU PENG
What are the characteristics of Chinese zooarchaeology in the new era? First, it breaks the boundaries of regions and time, and focuses on the origins and development of animal husbandry in ancient China from a global perspective. Second, it is based on the study of bone morphology, while integrating various studies such as ancient DNA, isotopes, lipids and proteins, and forms a joint exploration with disciplines including history, linguistics, and animal husbandry. Third, studying ancient humans’ utilization of animal resources is also an important task during an era of harmonious coexistence between humans and the environment.
Looking back on 2021, Chinese zooarchaeology has made remarkable progress on the basis of past academic studies.
Various zooarchaeological findings 
With an emphasis on the ancient methods for acquiring and utilizing animal resources, more than 30 sites in China carried out zooarchaeological research in 2021, including: the Zhangmatun site in Shandong Province, the Taizicheng site in Hebei Province, the Baligang site in Henan Province, the Gongbeiya site in Shaanxi Province, the Anxi Wangfu site in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the Dasi site in Hubei Province, the Kaizhuang site in Jiangsu Province, the Tianluo Mountain site in Zhejiang Province, and the site at St. Paul’s College in Macao. 
According to Wang Hua [an associate research fellow from the Institute of Cultural Heritage at Shandong University], archaeological studies show that domestic pigs dated to the Yangshao Culture period (c. 5000–3000 BCE), unearthed at the Baligang site in Henan Province, played an important role in ancient subsistence economy and ritual activities, and the age and gender of those pigs suggested that pig castration had been in practice at the time.
Li Zijie [a librarian from the Library of Macao University of Science and Technology] believed that there were handicraft workshops for processing the windowpane oysters (Placuna placenta) near the site at St. Paul’s College in ancient times. In addition to being consumed as meat, the windowpane oysters could also be processed into glass-like decorations for doors, windows, or lampshades. Dr. Hu Qingbo [from the Institute for Archaeological Science at Fudan University] said that the continuous development of prehistoric subsistence economy is an important reason why Chinese civilization originated in Henan (rather than in Shaanxi Province).
Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis revealed China’s rich and colorful dietary traditions and the transformations of ancient people’s subsistence economy. Ma Minmin [an associate professor from the College of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Lanzhou University] believed that in Gansu and Qinghai provinces, domestic pigs and dogs were left outdoors to fend for themselves during the prehistoric period, while sheep, goats, and cattle in the Bronze Age mainly grazed on grassland. According to Hou Liangliang [an associate professor from the School of History and Culture at Shanxi University], about 10,000 years ago, the prehistoric people of present-day Nanzhuangtou, Hebei Province, had domesticated dogs and fed them with cultivated crops, while pigs had not yet been domesticated at that time. Hu Yaowu [a research fellow from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences] said that the level of prehistoric rice farming in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River was rather low, indicating that rice didn’t greatly contribute to humans’ diet. 
Focus on animal domestication
Animal domestication was the focus of research. Yuan Jing [a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)] identified the dates and places of the origins or introduction of major domestic animals (including dogs, pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, buffalo, horses, and chickens) in China. Finnish scholar Maria Lahtinen believes that Late Pleistocene hunters-gatherers in Eurasia had a surplus of animal-derived protein that could have been shared with incipient dogs, thus enabling dog domestication. Sun Boyang [an associate research fellow from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at Chinese Academy of Sciences] translated Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives & Evolution History, written by Xiaoming Wang and Richard H. Tedford. This book offers an overview of the evolution of canids over the past 40 million years. 
Through high throughput mitochondrial genome sequencing (HTMGS) of ancient pig bones dated from 7,500 to 2,500 years ago, unearthed in the Yellow River Basin, Zhang Ming believed that the Yellow River Basin was the center of the origin of independent domestication of pigs. Hitomi Hongo and other Japanese scholars claimed that since the Yangshao culture period, “in the Yellow River Valley sites, pigs were managed more intensively: they were probably penned, and kitchen waste and C4 plants were given as fodder,” while “in the Yangtze Delta sites such as Tianluoshan and Liangzhu Archaeological Ruins, pigs were managed more extensively than those in the Yellow River Valley sites. While some pigs scavenged or were provisioned kitchen waste and perhaps penned, others mainly consumed C3 plants. Hunting of wild pigs continued and hybridization between wild individuals and extensively managed individuals was probably frequent” (see “Beginning of Pig Management in Neolithic China: Comparison of Domestication Processes between Northern and Southern Regions”).
Through ancient DNA research, Zhao Xin [an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS] found that remains of domestic cattle were unearthed at the Shatang Beiyuan site (c. 4,400–3,900 BP) in Ningxia, evidence that Chinese domestic cattle originated in the Near East. Cai Dawei [a professor from the School of Archaeology at Jilin University] claimed that Chinese goats originated in the west of ancient Iran (in the Copper Age), and spread to northwest China around 4,000 years ago, and further spread to the Yellow River Basin. His book, Ancient DNA and Origins of Chinese Domestic Horses, reconstructs the evolution of the genetic structure of Chinese domestic horses from the perspective of ancient DNA research. Luo Shujin [a research fellow from the School of Life Sciences at Peking University] thought that the native Chinese wild cats were not involved in the domestication of cats, and the East Asian domestic cats originated in the Near East or North Africa.
Research on burial animals continued to be a hot topic. In his book, Studies on Sacrificial Animals from the Xia Dynasty to the Warring States Period in Northern China, Bao Shuguang [head of the Department of Archaeology at Heilongjiang University] explored the relationship between the types of sacrificial animals and economic forms. Xu Zijin believed that the phenomenon of burying crocodile bones in prehistoric high-class tombs in the Yellow River Basin originated in the late Dawenkou Culture era (c. 6,500–4,500 BP), and became popular in the Longshan Culture period (c. 2500–2000 BCE),  declining during the Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties.
Biodiversity and animal resource conservation received increasing attention. Upon reflection on the archaeology of wild animals consuming crops since the mid-Yangshao Culture period, research indicates that it was not the behavior of human beings trying to domesticate wild animals, but wild animals demonstrating self-domestication behavior under the pressure of living.
The research on the production and use of bone tools was an attractive task. Li Moran [an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS] believed that the items made of antlers and shaped like feet or boots might be used for scraping leather. Huang Zexian [from the School of Cultural Heritage at Northwest University] found that most of the raw materials of the Shang and Zhou dynasties unearthed from the Zaolin Hetan site in Shaanxi Province were made from the scapulae and ribs of cattle and deer.
Application of scientific technology
The Institute of Archaeology at CASS seized opportunities from China’s scientific and digital development of archaeology, and built the “Chinese Animal Remains Specimen Database.”
China saw constant innovation of zooarchaeological research technologies and methods [in 2021]. By integrating the Taxonomic Habitat Index (THI) analysis and the common zooarchaeological quantitative method Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI), Zhang Ying [from the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University] explored the paleoenvironment and humans’ utilization of environmental resources. Through studying the remains of dog feces, Zhang Yu’nan [from the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University] posited that ancient dogs at the Tianluo Mountain site consumed more plants, while ancient dogs in present-day Anhui Province ate more meat.
The emergence of new projects also promoted China’s zooarchaeology. In 2021, there were three zooarchaeological projects approved by the National Social Science Fund of China, including “Analysis and Comparative Study of Animal Remains Unearthed from Erlitou and Yanshi Shangcheng Sites,” “A Comprehensive Study of Burial Animals in the Middle Reaches of the Yellow River after the Han Dynasty,” and “Zooarchaeological Study on Animal Husbandry in the Middle and Late Yangshao Culture Period in Zhengzhou Area.” In addition, projects such as “Research on the Sacrificial System and Use of Animals in the Shang Dynasty” and “Collection, Collation, and Research of Marine Animal Historical Materials on the East Coast of the Yellow Sea in Ming and Qing Dynasties” were also closely related to zooarchaeology.
To build the discipline structure of Chinese zooarchaeology in the new era, Chinese zooarchaeologists should always focus on the development trajectory of China and the world, expound on the dialectical relationship between the productive forces and relations of production from the perspective of animal husbandry, and explore the genes of Chinese civilization.
Lyu Peng is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS.