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Neolithic dog-shaped pottery gui, Dawenkou Culture, Shandong

Chinese civilization may have begun 2,400 years earlier than previously thought

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The first dynasty of China described in classic texts and historical documents was the Xia Dynasty, established in 2070 BC in the Yellow River valley. However, the origins of Chinese civilization itself may date back 2,400 years earlier than previously thought, according to researchers who have new information on the environmental conditions of Neolithic China and the tribes from the period.

Researchers from the Institute of Geochemistry Chinese Academy of Sciences have published a study detailing their examination of the Neolithic environment in northeastern China.  Ancient tribes resided in these areas of lush vegetation. Evidence of rapid shifts into arid desert conditions 6,500 years ago forced the early Hongshan tribe to spread into unpopulated areas. They brought their culture and traditions with them, and researchers are suggesting this played a formative role in Chinese civilization.

Map of the middle Neolithic cultures in China, including the Hongshan

Map of the middle Neolithic cultures in China, including the Hongshan (Wikimedia Commons)

The findings are controversial, as Chinese culture is seen as beginning in the Yellow River valley, with the Hongshan and other early tribes playing only a small influence, as they were considered remote and disconnected. If findings on the Hongshan movements and influence is accurate, Chinese civilization may be thousands of years older than previously assumed, having evolved in the north and spread toward the central region.

The British Museum describes the early Hongshan culture (4700 to 2900 BC) as sophisticated, and lists the many intricate jade artifacts discovered at “impressive ceremonial sites”, such as discs, hoof-shaped objects, pendants, rings and hair ornaments. Pig dragons and embryo dragon sculptures are attributed to the Hongshan culture. These are said to be the first representations of the Chinese dragon, and Wikipedia notes that the earliest Chinese written character for “dragon” is very similarly formed to the Hongshan examples.

Neolithic jade plaque, Hongshan Culture.

Neolithic jade plaque, Hongshan Culture. Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Pigs, dragons, and eagles featured in the culture’s grave goods. Pig bones were buried with humans in graves, and Hongshan artifacts are some of the earliest examples of jade working. Fertility was a major theme in their work, with fetus and pregnant women objects featuring repeatedly.

The C-shaped jade dragon of Hongshan Culture.

The C-shaped jade dragon of Hongshan Culture. Wikimedia, Creative Commons

In 1983 the Hongshan archaeological site Niuheliang was discovered, and excavations revealed an underground temple complex known as the Goddess Temple. Inside the temple were found three “exceedingly large” clay figurines, “as large as three times the size of real-life humans,” writes Wikipedia.

UNESCO writes that “the Niuheliang Archaeological Site is an outstanding example of “holy sacrificial land” of the early period of human civilization so far discovered in Northeast Asia, and boasts the largest scale, the highest rank, and the most prominent expression of beliefs.”

Hongshan platform at Niuheliang (Left) and central burial with carved jades from another platform (Right).

Hongshan platform at Niuheliang (Left) and central burial with carved jades from another platform (Right). Credit: Liaoning Sheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo.

According to NewHistorian, co-author of the study Louis Scuderi from the University of New Mexico writes that the role of the Hongshan culture needs to be reexamined, “We seem to see evidence that Hongshan was far more important to early Chinese culture than it’s currently given credit for.”

“In order to discover more about Hongshan culture, researchers investigated the Hunshandake Sandy Lakes in Inner Mongolia, an area 185 miles (300 kilometres) away from the first Hongshan discoveries. The team found significant quantities of Hongshan pottery and stone items in Hunshandake, indicating that Hongshan culture had been much more widespread than previously thought,” reports NewHistorian.

These findings on the Neolithic environmental conditions may be a step towards reconsidering the influence of early tribes on China's historical development.

Featured Image: Neolithic dog-shaped pottery gui, Dawenkou Culture, Shandong (Wikimedia Commons)

By Liz Leafloor



The scientific value of articles like this is very limited if the objective facts are not observed. Spinning myth and speculation into fact to back-fit a nationalist image of culture and identity is harmful and not truthful. The earliest archeological evidence of written civilization in China is from the Shang dynasty, certainly later than 1600BCE. While "farming" happened in China much earlier, it was not before the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris cultivations. "Civilization" (and archeological evidence!) was well underway in Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Egypt at least 1,000 years and probably 2,000 years before similar processes and organization were evident anywhere in all of China, which includes Mongolia and Tibet for expediency. This does not subtract from an amazing Chinese civilization. But let's keep dates and history factual please. Evidence is all that counts. The dates I use here are readily verifiable and not dependent on myth or speculation.


Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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