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Findings show civilization shaped by primitive agriculture in Gansu-Qinghai Region

SU HAIYANG | 2018-11-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Stone hand-axes, a major instrument for agricultural production during the Dadiwan Culture period, are displayed at the Dadiwan Museum in Tianshui, Gansu Province. Photo: FILE


No civilization originated smoothly. The development of agriculture played a significant role in the evolution of human society’s complexity. The Gansu-Qinghai Region was an important area during the origination of Chinese civilization. From the Dadiwan Culture (c. 5800–5400 BCE) through the Yangshao Culture (c. 5000–3000 BCE), the Majiayao Culture (c. 3300–2000 BCE) and the Qijia Culture (c. 2200–1600 BCE), primitive agriculture diversified and social structures became increasingly complex.


Emergence of millet-based agriculture
As early as 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, people in Tianshui, Gansu, in the upper reaches of the Weihe River, had already started to cultivate millet and raise hogs. A little amount of carbonized millet and oilseed rape dating back to the first stage of the Dadiwan Culture discovered at a section of the site were the earliest millet and rape samples ever found in China. Of the 19 pig bones whose age could be estimated, one was of a 1-to-6-month-old pig and one was of a 7-to-12-month-old, suggesting possible early domestication.

Despite the emergence of agriculture, hunting and gathering remained predominant. Archaeologists excavated 39 fishing and hunting tools and 21 agricultural production instruments. Pig bones accounted for only 20.6 percent of the 748 unearthed animal bones. The proportion of domesticated pigs was unidentifiable, and others belonged to wild animals.
Due to the low level of agricultural development, people relied heavily on nature. Their settlement was small in size, only 8,000 square meters. In the five tombs whose owners could be determined in terms of age and gender, deceased males aged 50–56 had the most burial objects, which means an individual’s social status at the time was dependent on natural attributes like age and gender. The society was the simplest and most unequal one.

6,500 to 6,000 years before present, millet-based agriculture emerged in the dry land of eastern Gansu. Archaeologists detected 420 grains of millet and 10 grains of foxtail millet in the powdered carbon samples of the early Yangshao Culture at the Dadiwan Site. Moreover, 342 agricultural production instruments of the period were unearthed, of which there were 187 stone hand-axes, 1.9 times the number of stone and bone knives. Of the identifiable 84 pig bones, young pigs of 7 to 12 months old accounted for 21.4 percent, four times the number of those identified for the first stage of the Dadiwan Culture.

However, the number of agricultural production instruments of the early Yangshao Culture were only two thirds the number of fishing and hunting tools, suggesting the predominance of a hunting and gathering economy.

Under population pressure, ancestors expanded grain planting to ease the food crisis, thus giving rise to millet-based agriculture. Due to joint land reclamation and the strong need to protect the fruits of their labor, the settlement was in a centripetal pattern.

Excavations of tombs and settlements also revealed that social status varied among different groups and within the same group because of different labor skills. So it was still an unequal society in which natural attributes determined individual social status.


Complicated society took shape
In the middle stage of the Yangshao Culture dating 6,000–5,500 years ago, primitive agriculture developed rapidly in eastern Gansu and extended to the Taohe and Huangshui river basins. In the Huluhe River Basin, a branch of the Weihe River, foxtail millet had overtaken millet as the primary grain. People in the upper reaches of the Xihanshui River, a branch of the Jialing River, started to cultivate rice. Their food was getting richer.

Of this stage, 321 fishing and hunting tools were unearthed at the Dadiwan Site, along with 203 instruments for agricultural production, so hunting and gathering still occupied an important position despite fast agricultural growth.

Among the 203 agricultural instruments, there were 47 stone hand-axes, less than half the number of stone and bone knives. This means massive land reclamation was coming to an end. With the decrease of collective labor, the prestige of tribal chiefs fell significantly and the centripetal settlement layout also disappeared.

Excavations of the stage show that the larger the house, the more ornaments and the less instruments of labor, and vice versa. In the middle stage of the Yangshao Culture, therefore, social status was dependent on wealth, a social attribute, hinting at the initial shaping of a sophisticated unequal society.

In the late Yangshao Culture, primitive agriculture entered a peak stage in eastern Gansu. Archeologists uncovered 550 agricultural production instruments and 512 fishing and hunting tools of the late stage from the Dadiwan Site. Agricultural implements outnumbered fishing and hunting tools for the first time.

Of the unearthed pig bones, young bones under 18 months old accounted for 78.8 percent, signaling the decline of hunting and the predominance of agriculture. Millet, foxtail millet, rice and highland barley found in the cultural layer of the same period at the Xishanping Site in Tianshui indicated increasingly complicated food structure and richer food types.

Prospering primitive agriculture set the stage for the expansion of settlements and the shaping of a sophisticated society. The area of settlements of the late Yangshao Culture reached 500,000 square meters. Huge buildings of 200 square meters were arranged symmetrically along the south-north central axis. This could be the capital of a fledgling state in the upper reaches of the Weihe River.

One section along the axis had an area of 420 square meters. It was a complex primitive palace with multiple rooms, a venue where settlement leaders handled political affairs, organized gatherings and held grand sacrificial ceremonies. It symbolized individual social status was determined by political power, marking the beginning of a sophisticated unequal society in eastern Gansu around 5,000 years before present.


Decline of agriculture
5,400 to 4,700 years ago, developed agriculture integrated with gathering and hunting, bringing the Majiayao Culture into being and extending it to central Gansu and southeastern Qinghai.
774 agricultural production instruments and 449 hunting tools were unearthed from a ruin at the site. Although agriculture was developed in the stage, hunting still held a position. The level of agricultural development was lower than that of the late Yangshao Culture in eastern Gansu during the same period.

There was a wealth gap in the Majiayao Culture, but wealth was yet to become a symbol for individual social status. The society was far less complicated than that in eastern Gansu during the same period.

Frequent droughts and floods 4,800 to 4,300 years ago led primitive agriculture to decline, population to shrink and society to retrogress. No production instruments were dug out from the ruin from the Changshang Culture (c. 2900–2800 BCE) at the Dadiwan Site, and the types of unearthed pottery, primarily earthen bowls and pots, were half the number of those dating from the late Yangshao Culture. The pottery was smaller and there were no large storage utensils.
Agricultural production instruments excavated from tombs of the Banshan Culture (c. 2600–2300 BCE) in Liuwan Village, Ledu County, in the Huangshui Valley in southeastern Qinghai, accounted for only 10.8 percent of total production tools, while hunting and hand tools took up 33.2 and 56 percent, respectively. Due to the low proportion of agriculture and the narrow wealth gap, 97 percent of tombs in the ruin had less than 10 burial objects.

Nonetheless, agriculture in the upper reaches of the Weihe River began to diversify. For example, in the cultural layer dating 4,600 to 4,300 years ago at the Xishanping Site in Tianshui, eight crop specimens were found, including foxtail millet, millet, rice, wheat, oat, highland barley, soybean and buckwheat, which suggest the revitalization of agriculture and the emergence of civilization in the Qijia Culture period.


Revitalization of agriculture
In the Machang phase (c. 2300–2000 BCE) of the Majiayao Culture and the middle phase of the Qijia Culture dating 4,200 to 4,000 years ago, agriculture thrived again because of improved climate. Agricultural production instruments constituted 40 percent and hunting tools less than 10 percent of the 846 production tools unearthed from the Machang tombs in Liuwan Village in Qinghai. Moreover, millet grains and husks were discovered in 57 percent of funerary urns in the tombs.

In this stage, agriculture had been dominant and production was apparently diversified. Hunting was merely supplementary. Agricultural revitalization caused explosive population growth in eastern Gansu. There are 2,300 ruins from the Qijia Culture in the upper reaches of the Weihe River, accounting for 71 percent of the total ruins from that culture in the whole Gansu-Qinghai Region. Some places were as densely populated as modern villages. As large populations concentrated in central settlements in eastern Gansu, a hierarchy rose in which a family clan ruled others or other families.

In eastern Gansu, the people who would bury their dead in an extended supine position went west into the Taohe River Basin and the Hehuang Area, conquering those who would bury in a flexed position, representing the Machang Culture, and marching into the east of the Hexi Corridor. Around valleys and basins, they established many small states characterized by the rule of foreign tribes over local ethnic groups.

From the Dadiwan Culture to the Qijia Culture, the civilization in the Gansu-Qinghai Region didn’t evolve progressively. Instead, it underwent three stages: the initial shaping of complicated society, a retrogression in complication and the emergence of state. The three stages were synchronistic with the continued development, decline and revitalization of agriculture. During agricultural development, shifts in climate were the most important constraint, leading the Gansu-Qinghai Region onto a different evolutionary path from the Central Plains.


Su Haiyang is an associate professor from the School of History and Culture at Tianshui Normal University in Gansu Province.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)