They forged mighty weapons and traded across the Eurasian steppe — yet their true identity remains a mystery. Meet the progenitors of China’s Bronze Age.
Sometime around 4000 BCE — when Egypt and Sumer were just beginning to build their first cities — a few hundred nomads gathered on the banks of China’s northwest Yellow River Valley, near what would someday be the border of Mongolia.
These were not wealthy urbanites accustomed to luxury, like the nobles who lived at Jiahu 2,000 years earlier. No, these nomads wore rough-spun hemp — and trudged through the marshes trailed by hunting dogs and pigs, hefting heavy sacks of grain on their backs.
For some reason, the people decided they liked this new place. They set to work harvesting wild millet from the riverbanks, ground its grain into flour, and wove its stalks into the walls and roofs of their houses — just as they’d done in countless other places across northwestern China, for untold centuries.
But the people who settled at Yangshao decided this place was different from the others. They chose to stay and build a permanent life here.
Around a central square, they built not only rings of traditional houses, but also storage buildings for surplus grain. They raised other large buildings too — which may have been administrative centers, or even proto-mansions for an emerging upper class.
And encircling the entire village — a site of some 14 acres — the people dug a deep trench, and filled it with rammed earth until they’d built a wall sturdy enough to keep out all intruders. Within that wall they kept pigs and dogs for food — and later took to raising sheep and cattle.
In short, these people were gradually making the shift from a nomadic pastoralist (hunting-and-herding) way of life to a fully settled agricultural lifestyle.
Why did these cultural changes happen here at Yangshao, at this particular time — and not in the hundreds of other places these nomads broke camp?
Some archaeologists believe this site may have proven unusually fertile, enabling the people to shift from slash-and-burn cultivation to more planned, sustainable agriculture. Others have suggested the population was simply getting too large to keep moving.
And it’s undeniable that Yangshao’s population was quite large for a settlement of this period. This fact hints that grain production would have had to be similarly upscaled — so it’s no surprise that we find a new innovation here: centralized storage buildings, large enough to hold grain for several hundred people, along with their livestock.
Other researchers — still more controversially — suggest that Yangshao may have marked a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. For here we find burials of unprecedented size and richness: graves filled with delicately patterned pottery, stone weapons and tools — and the oldest known dragon engraving in Chinese prehistory.
The earliest stage of Yangshao culture — known as the Banpo phase — evolved fairly seamlessly into its subsequent Majiayao phase around 3,000 BCE.
The transition from Banpo to Majiayao was marked not so much by disruption as by development. Millet production became more organized, as slash-and-burn agriculture gave way to widespread irrigation and systematic field cultivation.
As growing food stores supported larger populations, a class of artisans and craftspeople began to emerge in larger towns, such as Baidaogouping and Dongxiang.
These specialists created elegant pottery in centralized workshops. Production became so “automated,” in fact, that the cost of the finest pottery dropped sharply — a fact attested by the widespread presence of elaborately painted clay vessels even in ordinary burials of this period.
Majiayao artisans also forged the first bronze weapons in China — inaugurating a swordsmithing tradition that has survived all the way to the present day.
By the 2200s BCE, the Majiayao culture had developed into a phase today known as Qijia, after one of its most famous settlement sites. Although settlement patterns and agriculture changed little in this period, Qijia people raised bronzework to a fine art — and established trade links with Siberia and Central Asia.
But who were the people who built Yangshao, Majiayao and Qijia? Were they related to those who wove silks and played flutes at Jiahu — or to any modern Chinese group?
Though theories and speculation abound, the truth is that we just don’t know for sure. Genetic evidence is extremely slim — as are clear archaeological links between these cultures and the first “officially Chinese” dynasties: the Xia and Shang.
Many anthropologists believe that the peoples who inhabited these ancient sites may not have been genetically related to one another at all, but may simply have adopted practices and art forms (such as painted pottery) from more “advanced” cultures as they migrated into the Yellow River Valley.
One tantalizing possibility is that some of these people may have migrated southeast from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert region sometime between the 5000s and 3000s BCE — bringing genes, languages, beliefs and practices from Central Asia into China.
Does Yangshao represent a “dark age” after the fall of Jiahu — or was it home to an entirely different people, perhaps more “Mongolian” in their origins and customs?
Several intriguing pieces of evidence hint that this is at least possible; perhaps even likely. For example, ancient Turko-Mongolic cultures were famous for their strong tendencies toward a nomadic hunting-and-herding way of life — as were the Yangshao people.
It’s worth noting that some of the oldest Chinese history texts — such as the “Book of Documents,” composed in the 200s BCE — clearly describe the people of the Xia dynasty as nomadic pastoralists. Although these clans were sometimes ruled by kings in agricultural city-states, the ancient sources make it clear that they often reverted back to their nomadic lifestyle in times of crisis.
Across Central Asia and down into China, these prehistoric peoples practiced strikingly similar lifestyles.
For example, they harnessed horses to plows and chariots long before they domesticated oxen — precisely the reverse of what happened in ancient Europe and the Middle East. And even as they became more sedentary, these nomads continued to build lightweight circular houses that could be packed up and transported easily.
Material luxuries and weapons provide still more tantalizing links between western China and Central Asia.
Archaeologists identify many cultures from his period — ranging all the way from Finland, through Russia and Mongolia, down into western China — as belonging to a connected cultural movement, easily recognized by similar bronze knives and arrowheads, as well as their distinctive painted pottery and chariots.
This mysterious movement, known as the Seima-Turbino Phenomenon, began on the open steppe-land of Central Asia, which was always a vast cultural mixing bowl.
Just as Scythian horsemen would someday influence cultures as far apart as Greece and India — and, centuries later, the confederation of the Huns would raid empires as distant as China and Rome — the Seima-Turbino movement spread its prehistoric influence from eastern Europe all the way to the Yellow River Valley.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Yangshao culture’s “trade links” with Central Asia simply represented two fringes of one continuous cultural sphere — a realm of influence that reached as far west as Scandinavia, as far north as Siberia, and as far southeast as China.
Still more evidence for this continuity comes from linguistics: several tongues spoken in ancient western China appear to be related to the Ural-Altaic language family, which reaches as far west as Finland.
Although modern Chinese is monosyllabic, many languages once spoken in western China — for example, Khitan and Tuyuhun — were polysyllabic and highly agglutinative; as are Mongolian, Turkish, Finnish, and several languages spoken in Siberia to this day.
In other words, whereas Mandarin Chinese (and its ancestor languages) form sentences by connecting single-syllable words in customary order, many languages spoken on the Central Asian steppe and along its fringes — such as Mongolian, Turkish, and Finnish — form entire sentences by joining particles of meaning into “super-words.”
Take, for example, the simple sentence, “Can I use that?” In English, we can clearly identify the verbs (“can” and “use”) and the pronouns (“I” and “that”). Modern Mandarin Chinese is even simpler: you’d simply say, “Kěyǐ yòng ma?” (可以用吗), which is something like, “Can use?”
In a highly agglutinative language like Turkish, on the other hand, we find ourselves in a whole different world: “Kullanabilirmiyim?”
This single “super-word” consists of the particles “kullan-” (“to use”), “bilir” (“be able to”), “mi” (“question”), and “yim” (“I / me”) — so we end up with something like, “To use + able to + question + me?”
A high degree of agglutination is a trademark feature of the Ural-Altaic languages, which have been spoken for millennia from eastern Europe to western China.
But the strongest evidence of all comes from genetics: a distinctive strand of DNA known as “haplogroup N” first appeared among people in Siberia, and later showed up in western China.
Does this mean the villagers at Yangshao were more “Siberian” than “Chinese?” As you can see by now, the story is never that simple.
For one thing, six thousand years ago there was no such thing as a “Chinese person!”
In those far-distant days — when the very first imperial dynasties still lay thousands of years in the future — the fertile river valleys between the Gobi Desert and the East China Sea were home to dozens of related peoples.
While these peoples produced similar crafts, lived similar semi-nomadic lifestyles, and (at least sometimes) spoke related languages, it’s unlikely that they were particularly close genetic relatives — either of one another, or of any ethnic group in modern China.
This is one reason why prehistoric China’s development doesn’t look like linear “advancement” from stone-age villages to bronze-age cities.
Instead, it looks much more like a patchwork of disparate cultures, practicing a variety of lifestyles — many of which contained elements we can now recognize, from our far-future viewpoint, as essentially “Chinese.”
And as we’ll see in the next installment of this series, Yangshao was far from the only great ancient culture to rise in the Yellow River Valley.
As primordial China’s bronze age took root, their descendants would encounter new and foreign cultures — which had been perfecting their own ways of life for thousands of years.
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