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Chinese History
Chinese Prehistory
The aim of this page is to lightly introduce Chinese pre-history - from the earliest records of anthropologists - right through to the beginning of 'modern' history at the beginning of the Neolithic Period (After the last Ice Age).

This is for fun and general interest, as we will not delve too deeply into scientific journals - although our information is based in established fact. Neither will we become embroiled in the debate as to whether Chinese peoples' descend from Homo Erectus rather than Homo Sapiens - although the evidence does suggest Chinese are mainly the latter, with some large-scale inter-marriage!

Let's Begin:

The Ice Age

This was a fundamental world event which lasted from around 1.8 million years ago, until a mere 10, 000 years ago. Whilst much of the world was decimated by ice sheets, some areas were excluded, such as Africa. Here human development continued, and eventually humanoids migrated to all areas of the globe.

Whilst it is generally agreed that humanoid history dates back some 4.5 million years to the Rift Valley of Africa. About 1 million years ago homo erectus, the presumed forerunner or peer of homo sapiens, appears in africa. This is at odds with earlier finds from Asian circa 1.6 million years ago, which now suggest homo erectus evolved independently of Homo Sapiens somewhere in Asia.

Many types of humans evolved contiguously, and you will recognise terms such as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon amongst them. It would be normal to expect that these different types of higher apes occupied the same places, and in general tolerated each other to a surprising degree, which included simple trading at local level.

It is agreed that 99% of human history developed in the Paleolithic (Stone Age), which dates from 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Ice Age (10, 000 BC)

Upper Paleolithic Era (Stone Age) 500, 000 to 10, 000 BC
In order to understand our human history we need to know where we came from, and when. Lets start with the Upper Paleolithic Age

Different types of human Ape lines develop over epochs, and scatter to all quarters of the planet. Many co-exist relatively peacefully together. Things like stone axes, fire, and the wheel are invented. Social structures develop, as does farming, whilst others prefer to continue as hunter/gatherers. This is likely due to immediate factors such as: the type of location and land available, resources, predators, other human clans nearby. Some crossed to the Americas or Australia from Asia, whilst others migrated to better locations. I see a world in flux, where people stayed in good locations, whilst were nomadic in less suitable places. Others may simply have run out of places to go, as with the Pacific Islands.

What is not disputed is that the Earth changed dramatically, and very quickly, about 10, 000 years ago. The ice sheets receded, and the planet became a lot warmer. The first recognisably modern civilisations appear.

There are certain myths, legends, and facts; which date to pre-history in origin, but remain common throughout all world cultures:
• The first man and woman
• The Deluge, and forms of human civilization set in antediluvian times
• Flying dragons and mythical beasts
It can be generalised that modern human history began about 10, 000 years ago

Peking Man

Many Chinese people including academics and scholars working in the fields of paleontology and archaeology believe that Chinese people descended from Homo Erectus, and not Homo Sapiens. There is scant evidence to support these theories, although early remains of Home Erectus have been discovered.

The earliest discovery was of Peking Man, defined as Homo Erectus and contiguous with Java Man (Who was later reclassified). A rough date given is as 500, 000 years ago, although the oldest carbon dating puts this back to 780, 000 years ago. The main finds in China are related to excavations at Zhoukoudian (Chou K'ou-tien) near Beijing, which came to light in 1927 and have been progressing (With interruptions by the Japanese invasion) ever since. Dating of over 200 skeletal remains show a great date range, with the latest being in the range of 300, 000 years ago. For more information please visit Wikipedia:

Other Early Remains

A pattern of early human displacement is being uncovered along the eastern seaboard of China. The paleontological record shows that human remains are located inland of the sea in what are now: Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong Provinces of modern China.

The remains from Zhejiang are from 200, 000 years ago show both Homo Sapiens and Homo Erectus occupying the same area at the same time. Recent discoveries tend to support the theory that interbreeding between the two did in fact take place to not a limited extent.

Discoveries in Guangdong reveal early humanoids dated from 80, 000 to 50, 000 years ago. These bear remarkable similarity to present day Chinese people. However it is the latest discovery of Maba Man in Shaoguan of Northern Guangdong (129, 000) that has really shaken the world. Shaoguan is physically isolated from direct contact with northern China by the impenetrable Nanling Mountains. Whilst there are other access routes to the west and south, Maba Man shares a common and continued history of development with earlier remain of Zhejiang Province (200, 000 BC).

What makes Maba Man so very special, it that the remains revealed:
1. Many Homo Sapiens with Homo Erectus Features.
2. A few Homo Erectus with Homo Sapien Features.
3. Widespread use of ancient tools.
As this is intended to be a 'light' study - we will leave you to draw your own conclusions?

What has very recently rocked the scientific world is the unearthing of remains in Fujian Province, dated between those of Zhejiang and Guangdong Provinces. Examination of skulls recovered also shows an intermediate point of development. Interestingly these new finds now open the door to a new thinking that these early human groups actually migrated south, possibly to escape the advancing ice sheets.

By looking at the above map you will instantly realise the importance of the preceding paragraph and its relationship to humanoid dispersion along the eastern seaboard of China. We do realise the coastline was in a different place, but it largely mirrored the current seaboard - only a bit further out. Unfortunately this map does not show you the physical terrain and nature of the land.

For instance, up until 2, 000 years ago, there was only one treacherous mountain pass linking Guangdong to the North of China, and most of the West was inaccessible also. Therefore during the last several thousand years the main form of communication with Guangdong Province was by sea. We also happen to know the area of northern Zhejiang province that is bounded by the Yangtze River was the most inhospitable of wetlands alive with hungry alligators and many other nasty things. It was certainly not a place for early humans to go anywhere near.

Similarly, crossing south from Zhejiang to Fujian Province meant crossing another set of impassible mountains. Perhaps this knowledge will give you an insight into early human population movement, and perhaps indicate that it happened because of a very important 'something'. Presumably this was the advancing ice sheets, and an understanding of basic boats and navigation.

It is possible that these people crossed to Zhejiang from Beijing and the north by walking over the ice - but I always have problems with this neat hypothesis, as it indicates a knowledge of what will be possible many centuries or millennia ahead, and also that food and shelter will be available during this waiting period. It doesn't make sense at the daily practicable level. Therefore we must conclude people left when food and shelter was becoming scarce, and that they either swam or used early boats. Is this so far fetched?

Well indications are that whilst the Aborigines could have walked to New Guinea some 30, 000 years ago, they could not have crossed all the way to Australia on foot. Similar is definitely true for the Maori's of New Zealand. Therefore some form of sea-worthy boat must have been in use before 50, 000 years ago - the date of the most recent remains found in Guangdong. I do not claim to be an expert in these matters, I just apply common sense and localised knowledge to the information that I receive. I see no reason why hide sails could not have been made, and placed upon bamboo rafts. Paddles could also have been made easily, and this indicates a coastal hopper or river crossing boat, which makes sense yet again.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions: about early Chinese boats of pre-history, as I will also leave you to reflect upon the displacement of early peoples as documented along China's eastern seaboard. You can add the north american Indians to this mix as well, as I really do not think they waited millennia for a land bridge to be formed by ice. It simply doesn't make any sense.

However, you may find it intriguing to compare certain Red Indian tribes with the Hakka people of Northern Guangdong Province - surprises await the open-minded. Now, didn't the Red Indians use canoe's made from animal hides? The Hakka word for Totem Pole is Tuteng - which is academically accepted as correct - and a central part of native society in USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

Gets you thinking doesn't it!

Anyway; While you ponder that, lets do a short run-down of significant early humanoid fossils discovered in China. We will exclude the non-humanoid ones, which you can read about here = small yellow men crashing their spacecraft somewhere in the wilds of Yunnan Province; except nobody admits to knowing anything about it? We did say history should be 'fun' also!

Ancient human fossils discovered in China

Homo Erectus

Yuanmou Man
1,700,000 years ago, in Yuanmou County of Yunnan Province

Lantian Man
1,150,000 to 600,000 years ago, in Lantian County of Shaanxi Province

No. 1 Nanjing Man
600,000 years ago, Tangshan of Nanjing

Peking Man
500,000 to 200,000 years ago, Zhoukoudian of Beijing

Yiyuan Man
400,000 years ago, Yiyuan of Shandong Province

Early Homo sapiens

Dali Man
230,000 to 180,000 years ago, Dali of Shaanxi Province

Maba Man
200,000 to 160,000 years ago, Maba of Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. Latest Carbon dating is 129, 000 BC; and shows inter-marriage between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapien.

Changyang Man
195,000 years ago, Changyang of Hubei Province

Late Homo sapiens

Upper Cave Man
30,000 years ago, Zhoukoudian of Beijing

Liujiang Man
50,000 to 30,000 years ago, Liujiang County of Guangxi Province

Neolithic (10, 000 BC to present day)

With the end of the Ice Age, mankind came into its own. Traditional historical archaeology dictates that there was say: a new clan appearing in the Yellow River of China, whilst another clan appeared miraculously somewhere in Europe, etc.

I would suggest we apply some common sense, and view the world as being populated by various Tribes and Clans who did trade and interact. They would also have ‘Turf-wars’, with some becoming extinct or migrating – it is human nature. The Archaeological record only portrays what we can unearth today, and indicates permanent settlements and tools that survive for eons

What is common, is that within a few hundred years, diversification such as: The Bronze Age, The Iron Age, etc; appears to happen to all the worlds peoples. This means that there is trade, migration, and possibly Traders travelling between fixed communities. My feeling is that Traders, or people with other trades skills or religious beliefs, travelled the world regularly, passing on new ideas and skills. I do not believe the whole world suddenly and individually developed Bronze and Iron smelting skills separately, all at the same point in time!

This presumption also tells me that humans were everywhere already

Finally, there is a strong school of thought which supports the fact that homo erectus in Asia did not die out as supposed, but continued, and possibly inter-married with homo sapiens. This could explain one or two anomalies? I leave this for consideration by open-minded individuals. My reference was:
where the author implies as much, which other Wikipedia sources tend to support

This could also explain why diverse peoples such as Red Indians (Native North Americans) and the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand, came into existence. There are many deep-seated ties to modern Chinese peoples, most people miss due to ignorance's of heritage and culture

This article is now winding down, and is intended to make you think about what is possible given the related facts above, which we believe to be largely correct at this point in time. We will now move on to our more factually based history of China as it was at the end of the ice age - or the Neolithic as scholars call it.

Further Reading

Our main history of China continues with a description of Neolithic cultures and tribes of early recorded history. However, this will in turn follow the standard Han Chinese path begriming modern history with the Xia Dynasty.

To properly understand Chinese history in full you should also read our contemporary history of non-Han Chinese development of Independent Kingdoms, which is designed to give you a greater understanding of all the peoples that now comprise modern China.

This is a very complicated area which we have tried to simplify over the years, as the Han forefathers occupied perhaps 10% or less of what is nowadays called China. Therefore to understand modern Chinese people to a greater degree you should also take a few moments out to read our supplementary pages:
1. Centrality - The Son Of Heaven
2. Chinese Inventions
3. The Silk Road
4. The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors - Huang Di
5. The Bon Culture - a separate article from our Chinese religious section, but very important for understanding parallel developments and early peoples from 20, 000 years ago, especially from what is now called Tibet.

All the above are inter-related, and cross-over in time before the first very Chinese Empire, known as the Xia Dynasty

Final Thoughts

The above article indicated that Chinese demographical studies from periods as early as 780, 000 years ago describe a population movement of Homo Erectus from Northern China to the South. Homo Sapiens are also mixed up with all this in contemporary societies that almost certainly coexisted, and doubtless traded and intermarried.

In our next section: Neolithic China, you will learn about the early Chinese tribes from after the ice age to before the dawn of the modern empires (Circa 10, 000 - 3, 000 BC). What our own research indicates, which no scholars are apparently picking-up upon, is that countless hordes of new tribes seem to generate from the North of China's borders - continuously! We would arbitrarily place this point of inception around Lake Baikal in Russia, and to the East.

What you will find is that all these 'new' tribes head South, and what I want to understand is just why so many new tribes appear to originate in this desolate location?
This information is as supplied by China Expats and Wikipedia, as dated August 2010 or later, and/or other reliable sources. China Expats have interpreted all information, and continue to do so for your benefit of understanding (August 2010).

Maps (Unless stated otherwise) are provided in association with Thomas Lessman
Shaoguan Snapshots are provided by Lamy Chan

Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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