Jiahu - Chinese Neolithic Evidence for Rice, Flutes, and Writing

The Chinese Neolithic Site of Jiahu Holds a Number of "Firsts"

Water Lily (Nelumbo species)
Water Lily (Nelumbo species) - Primary subsistence crop during Jiahu's first occupation. © Ganymede Photography - All rights reserved. / Getty Images

Jiahu is an early Chinese Neolithic archaeological site, occupied between 7000-5000 calendar years ago [cal BC], with crucial evidence for a wide variety of Neolithic advances, including rice and pig domestication, symbolic writing, musical instruments, and fermented beverages.

Jiahu is located about 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) north of modern town of Wuyang, in the Huai valley of southwestern Henan Province, China, on the east slopes of Fuliu Mountain.

The site is typically described as falling into three phases: early or Jiahu Phase (7000-6600 cal BC); middle or Peiligang I phase (6600-6200 cal BC); and late or Peiligang II phase (6200-5800 BC).

Settlement

At its height, Jiahu was an oval-shaped settlement of approximately 5.5 hectares (13.6 acres), of which only a small percentage has been excavated. Forty-five house foundations have been identified to date, most of which are small, circular to oval in outline and between 4-10 square meters (43-107 square feet) in area. Most houses were semi-subterranean (meaning, partially dug into the ground), single-roomed structures built of posts, but some later had multiple rooms, thought to represent social stratification.

Archaeologists found ash pits, hearths, and over 370 storage pits within the site; a cemetery area with over 350 burials is also included in the site confines. Flotation studies from the excavated features at Jiahu (Zhijun and Juzhong), as well as excavated carbonized rice grains and phytoliths indicate that the residents of Jiahu relied primarily on lotus root ( Nelumbo) and water chestnuts (Trapa spp), supplemented by domesticated rice (Oryza sativa) and wild (or possibly domesticated) soybeans (Glycine soja), beginning as early as 7000-6500 cal BC.

Broomcorn or foxtail millet is implied by stable isotope analysis and typical for Peiligang culture sites but neither has been identified archaeologically at Jiahu.

Animals and Wine

Animal bone represented in the excavations include domesticated pig, dog, sheep, cattle, and water buffalo, as well as wild deer, tortoise and turtle, carp and Yangzi crocodile.

Early subsistence practices in evidence at Jiahu indicate the residents were primarily hunter-gatherers at first, cultivating rice as a part-time basis; but domesticated animals and plants grew in importance over time.

Seeds and fruits of grape (Vitus spp) were found at Jiahu, and evidence of an early fermented beverage combining rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and/or grape was found as residues embedded in the walls of several pottery vessels at Jiahu dated ~9000 years ago. The Jiahu beverage is considered the oldest known fermented wine to date.

Burials

Over 350 burials representing 500 individuals have been identified within the cemetery at the site. The burials consisted of single or multiple interments, with the bodies extended and oriented west or south-west. Infants were buried in jars. As is common with Neolithic communities, the burials were in a set-aside cemetery, although many burials over-lapped, so they were probably not marked.

Most of the burials included at least one grave good, typically a utilitarian tool, but a handful had as many as 60 tools, ornaments, and ritual artifacts. The richest burials were exclusively male, and included exotic personal ornaments made of turquoise or fluorite as grave goods, and carved tortoise plastrons.

Artifacts

Thousands of artifacts have been recovered from Jiahu. Tools found within the burials and the village included polished stone axes, stone shovels, sickles with toothed blades, and pairs of grinding stone querns. Other tools included bone fishing darts, winged arrow heads, eyed needles, awls, and dagger-like and fork-like objects.

Nine pottery kilns have been found at Jiahu, spanning the entire occupation. The earliest pottery (in the Jiahu phase) is reddish, or reddish brown with fine sand temper. Most of the vessels are plain or cord-marked jars, bowls or basins. Later pottery was decorated with cord-impressed or incised patterns, appliqued forms, and styles that included classic ding style basins and jars; pots with everted mouths, rolled or folded rims; and shallow and deep bowls.

Flutes and Writing at Jiahu

Thirty flutes made from the bones of red-crowned cranes were discovered within the burials, some of which can still be played. They have different numbers of holes, representing different five-, six- and seven-note musical scales.

Nine tortoise shells and two bone objects found within the burials were engraved with what appear to be symbols. Most of the symbols date to the second period at Jiahu (6600-6200 cal BC). The signs are all unique, and they include an eye-shaped sign; a sign similar to the Yinxu character (found on oracle bones) for eight and another for 10; and a box with a line through it, similar to the symbol for window in Yinxu. One appears to be a person with a conspicuous right hand; others are simple horizontal lines. Scholars don't suggest that they have the same meaning as the Yinxu graphs, but may represent clan designations.

Jiahu Archaeology

Jiahu was discovered in 1962, and excavated between 1983 and 1987, by the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

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