1. Background

It is thought that Homo erectus inhabited China more than one million years ago (Rixiang Zhu et al., 2003). The earliest use of fire, in Shanxi Province, is dated 1.27 million years ago. Stone tools found at the Xiaochangliang site have been magnetostratigraphically dates to 1.36 million years ago (Zha et al. 2001). Around 10 000 b.c., humans in China began to develop agriculture. Neolithic village settlements appeared in several regions in China around 5,000 bc. During the 5th to 3rd millennia, many distinct, regional Neolithic cultures emerged (Li 2007). Stamped-earth fortified walls were built around settlements, suggesting not only increased contact between settlements but also increased conflict. In the late Neolithic, the Yellow River valley emerged as a cultural centre, including the most archaeologically significant village of Banpo, Xi'an.

Today's Chinese civilization probably developed from the interaction of many distinct Neolithic cultures, which over time came to share more in the way of material culture and social and cultural practices. Ancient Chinese historians appear to have lacked sufficient knowledge of the Neolithic inhabitants, whose existence is said to have been discovered by 19th- and 20th-century archaeologists. Traditionally, the Chinese traced their history through many dynasties to a series of legendary kings, for example the Yellow Lord (Huang Di), who invented the key characteristics of civilization – agriculture, the family, silk, boats, carts, bows and arrows, and the calendar. The last of these kings was Yul; his descendants created the Xia dynasty around 2205 to 1570 b.c. The Xia dynasty may have corresponded to the first phases of the transition to the Bronze Age, between 2,000 bc and 1,600 bc, after which a more complex Bronze Age civilization emerged out of the diverse Neolithic cultures of northern China. However, the traditional view, that early Chinese civilization originated in the Central Plains of North China at a time when South China was sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers, has been challenged during the past 50 years when evidence for a well-developed Neolithic culture and rice cultivation in South-eastern Asia began to emerge. Meacham (1995) points to evidence that suggests the existence of widespread migrations, including trade and the diffusion of ideas, at least around 5000 b.c.

Overall, archaeological research in south China, especially the coastal areas, has lagged behind that in north China (Yang Shiting 1998). Starting in 1985, the Institute of Chinese Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has undertaken prehistoric archaeological research in the south-western coastal areas of China and the nearby islands, including Hong Kong and Macau. Archaeologists from Mainland China, Macau and overseas have contributed to the research between 1985 and 2007. Forty of more than 400 known prehistoric sites around the Zhujiang (Pearl River) estuary have been investigated; around 375 sites are thought to belong to the Neolithic and Pre-Qin Periods.

The earliest recorded research into prehistoric stone tools in China concerned the Yuejueshu – an agricultural tool belonging to the Huangdo Period and made from jade, which pre-dated the Han Dynasty (Zhang Chi 2009). J.G. Andersson's (1920) The Stone Implements in the Neolithic of China, typifies the studies by foreigners who surveyed stone tools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including ground stone axes. By 1959, the research focus had shifted to pottery, and research on stone tools substantially declined. It only re-emerged in serious research in the 1980s and later, for example, Tong Zhuchen (1986), Zhang Chi (2009), Zhai Shaodong (2007) and Zhuang Lina (2009).


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Last updated: Wed Jun 10 2009