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Biological anthropology aids in Chinese civilization studies

Author  :  WANG MINGHUI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-02-24

Studies of human fossil found that at least 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans were already present in large numbers in the area now comprising the Chinese mainland. They had large brains, were proficient with fire, were able to make and use complex tools, and had primitive aesthetics and beliefs.

Anthropological studies on pre-historic humans

Research suggests that these anatomically modern humans are most closely related to modern Chinese. The Upper Cave Man [human fossils unearthed at the archaeological site near the village of Zhoukoudian, Beijing], dated to 30,000 years ago, and the Liujiang Man [found in Liujiang, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region] were classified as Homo sapiens sapiens (H. s. sapiens). These two groups represent the Huabei [North China] and the Huanan [South China] subcategories, respectively. They share similar physical characteristics with modern humans living in the north and south of China.

Research on human fossils and human bones shows that, in the crucial stages and core areas of the origin and development of Chinese civilization, the ancient populations of different ages and regions in China, though having slight differences in morphology, all share a common genetic ancestry, and that no evidence of significant gene flow from other continents has been found so far. This means Chinese civilization emerged almost entirely from the ancient Chinese, most of whom were Huaxia [ethnically equivalent to Han Chinese in pre-imperial discourses], with no indigenous populations at large being demographically and culturally replaced or extinct. This is the biological basis for the formation of Chinese civilization.

Research on unearthed human bone material has not revealed any large-scale culture exchange or population integration in the early Neolithic Age. During the periods of the Xinglongwa Culture [found in modern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region] and Peiligang Culture [in modern Henan Province that existed from 7000 to 5000 BCE] of the middle Neolithic Age, the scale of sites and communication between groups were further developed. Studies on human remains at different sites reveal that different cultural groups of the time had developed distinct physical attributes, which became genetically heritable traits.

Based on current archaeological findings, we can identify the basic physical characteristics of the “Anthropological Type of Ancient Northeast China” represented by the Xinglongwa Culture about 8,000 years ago, the “Anthropological Type of Ancient Central China” represented by the Jiahu site in Henan about 9,000 years ago, and the “Anthropological Type of Ancient South China” represented by the Zengpiyan site in Guangxi, dating back 10,000 years. The stable δ15N and δ13C isotope ratios in human bones can reveal the structure of their diet during their lifetime. The stable isotope analyses show that the early Jiahu people initially depended largely on hunting, but later grew increasingly dependent on fishing. In the late days of the Jiahu site, as the population grew, cultivation of rice and animal husbandry were their primary food sources. Strontium isotope ratios in human bones can be used to examine prehistoric residential change. The strontium isotope analysis of the human remains found at the Jiahu site revealed a relatively high proportion (5 of the 14 human specimens) of people not native to the region, indicating an increasing trend in migration. In the context of population expansion, primitive agricultural development, and frequent cultural exchanges at that time, Chinese civilization began to develop along its own path.

Yangshao Culture period

Around 6,000 to 5,000 years ago, China saw rapid development of social productivity, large-scale population expansion, and frequent exchanges between different regions and cultures. Studies show that at least in the late period of the Yangshao Culture [present in the Yellow River basin around 5000-3000 BCE], people in the Central Plain began to migrate to the surrounding areas in large numbers, spreading Yangshao cultural influence to various places. Human remains with the physical characteristics of the “Anthropological Type of Ancient Central China” have been found in coastal Shandong Province to the east, in the northeast around the West Liao River basin, as far north as Inner Mongolia, in Shaanxi Province to the west, and to the south in the Jianghuai region [the plain between the Yangtze and Huai rivers], which is highly consistent with the scope of influence of the Yangshao Culture.

At the same time, the population distribution in the Central Plain gradually differentiated. Populations with different morphological characteristics dwelled around the Banpo site in Shaanxi, the Miaodigou site in Henan, and the Dawenkou site in Shandong. Regional human diet structures also changed. About 80% of the food of the people at the Xipo Site, Henan, was su [foxtail millet] and shu [broomcorn millet], supplemented by meat. Human bones excavated from high-ranking tombs presented a higher intake of meat, indicating the differentiation and stratification of people’s dietary structure at that time. Concurrently, rice became the primary food of the Hemudu Culture (5000–3300 BCE) and Songze Culture (3800–3300 BCE) in the Yangtze River basin, supplemented by fishing and hunting. An economic pattern thus emerged by which south China engaged in rice production and north China cultivated foxtail millet.

Dawenkou Culture period

Around 5,000 years BP, the Yangshao Culture in the Central Plain gradually declined, while the Dawenkou Culture originating in present-day Shandong expanded vigorously, reaching the south of the Huai River and southwestern Henan. The physical characteristics of the Dawenkou cultural group were observed in human remains unearthed at the Shuanghuaishu and Xiawanggang sites in Henan. Strontium isotope analysis indicated the presence of a very small non-local population dwelling the Jiaojia site in Shandong, which was the core area of Dawenkou Culture. There also appeared to be fewer migrants among the middle and upper classes. Stable isotope ratios reveal differences in the proportion of meat intake among population ranks. In the Dawenkou Culture period, tomb patterns, dietary structures, and human migration suggest obvious social stratification. The embryo of civilization was formed.

In the Longshan Culture period, more than 4,000 years ago, exchanges and conflicts among different groups intensified, and may have even led to the collapse of a highly mature culture. At the Taosi site in Shanxi Province, archaeologists noticed a discrepancy in population between its early-middle stage and the late stage. The strontium isotope analysis shows that about 70% of people in the late Taosi period were non-local, which was an abnormal population structure for the time. This could only have been caused by large-scale social conflicts and population replacement events. Archaeologists also found that in the late Taosi period, tombs of earlier construction were destroyed and the buried remains damaged. These findings indicate there may have been massive social conflicts during the middle and late Taosi periods. Combined with archaeological discoveries, including pits of human skulls at the Shimao site in Shaanxi, we have reason to believe that the Taosi culture might heve been destroyed by the Shimao people, and the Taosi residents were even forced to migrate north. These speculations are highly consistent with the conclusions of anthropological research. Those who migrated north had a profound influence on later generations, and even greatly affected the culture of Predynastic Zhou [the state of Zhou that existed in modern Shaanxi Province during the Shang Dynasty, prior to its conquest of the Shang in 1046 BCE which led to the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty]. To some extent, such social conflicts and large-scale migrations accelerated the formation of early states.

Bronze Age

Entering the Bronze Age, the integration and differentiation of populations grew more obvious. Studies on human bones from the Erlitou site, Henan, show that most of its ancient residents might be descendants of the Longshan Culture from the Central Plain. However, experts also detected anthropological clues of people from Haidai [east of Mount Tai], Ganqing [Gansu and Qinghai provinces], and other areas of north China.

The practice of burying men and women, old and young, in wells, which was recently discovered at the Erlitou site in Henan, had never been seen in the past. This practice may have been related to sacrificial rituals. Stable isotope analyses suggest that 80%-90% of Erlitou people ate millet, while a small number of people ate rice. Strontium isotope ratios indicate that over 30% of Erlitou people were non-local. Analysis of ancient DNA shows that the ancient population at the Erlitou site shared the most similarity with the eastern Asian population in terms of sequence variation, and had a close genetic link with the modern Han Chinese in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River.

The Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) witnessed the climax of massive human migration and integration. Oracle bone inscriptions record that the Shang rulers routinely conquered the other regions, captured residents from all over the country and enslaved them in the capital of Shang. The highly developed Shang civilization also attracted people from different areas. The human bones unearthed from the Yinxu site [the ruins of the last Shang capital] reflect that the size and origins of different groups of people in the Shang capital at that time were far more diverse than before. Some came from the northwest, north, and even south of China. According to strontium isotope analyses, at least 20% of the individuals had migrated from other regions, and their proportion among the higher classes was even higher.

There were a large number of people with different physical charicteristics living within the territory of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BCE). Under the stable social structure of the Western Zhou, populations displaying the “Anthropological Type of Ancient Central China” spread in all directions, reaching the Hexi Corridor in the west, present-day Hubei and Hunan provinces in the south, and Inner Mongolia in the north. Everywhere they settled they injected fresh cultural and genetic “blood” into local populations. Anthropological evidence from the tombs of the rulers of Chu [a Zhou dynasty vassal state in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River] proved that the nobles of Chu were different from the local population in physical characteristics, an indicator that they may have migrated from the Central Plain after being enfeoffed. This type of large-scale migration promoted cultural exchanges and prosperity and laid the foundation for the formation of a unified Chinese civilization.

The Zhou started to decline during the late Western Zhou era, and the Western Zhou ended when its capital was moved from Haojing [in modern Xi’an, Shaanxi] to Luoyi [known today as Luoyang, Henan] in 770 BCE. At that time, people from north and northwest entered the Central Plain in large numbers, transforming the physical characteristics of the Central Plain population to a certain extent at that time. In addition to social conflicts among different groups, archaeological research also discovered the “peaceful coexistence” of different groups of people. At the Gujun site and Baimiao site in Hebei Province, as well as the Tuchengzi city site in Inner Mongolia, archaeologists detected traces of two groups of people with different livelihood and cultural customs, living peacefully together.

Studies of human fossils and human bones prove that the ancient Chinese population showed consistent morphology, and no genetic components of other races were found. In addition, ancient Chinese continuously integrated the genetic components of other populations by interbreeding, and at the same time spread their own genes to other populations. Continuous integration of different groups of people and cultures laid a solid anthropological foundation for the unification and development of the Chinese nation.


Wang Minghui is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the CASS.

Editor: Ren Guanhong

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