NEW PROGRESS IN RICE AGRICULTURE AND THE ORIGIN OF CIVILIZATION: SUMMARY OF RESULTS ON THE EXCAVATION OF THREE MAJOR SITES ON THE LIYANG PLAIN IN HUNAN, CHINA PEI, An Ping Hunan Archaeological Research Institute
(Translated by Simon Feng and Elaine Wong; edited by Elaine, Monica Choo & Bryan Gordon)
The Liyang Plain is northwest of Dongting Lake, Hunan, between the Wuling Mountains and Dongting Basin (111º 22 '30"-111º 51' 30" E. Lat. And 29º 35'31"-29º 47'30" N. Lat.). This 600 sq. km area is 25 by 50-km, connecting northeast to Hubei Province and including the cities of Shimen, Lingli, Lixian and Jingshi.
Liyang Plain is the dish-shaped drainage basin of Li River tributaries. Enclosed by high hills, its flat fertile well-irrigated 32-45-m elevation falls 2-3 deg. From NW to SE. It connects with Xianbei Plain, which also slopes towards Dongting Lake.
Weather is midway between south and north Asian tropical monsoons, with obvious continental traits. As spring, summer and fall exceed 8 months, it is warm and moist, with mean annual temperature over 16.5º C. Annual precipitation and sunshine are plentiful, ca. 1100-1300 mm and 1770 hours. Except July, there is no threat of drought. In brief, the Liyang Plain is superior for human population growth and the rise of civilization.
On the whole, Liyang Plain was an ideal place for ancient people to populate and develop their civilization. Around the Plain, there are 1000 sites of different ancient periods, including over 100 Palaeolithic sites. There are 50 Early Neolithic sites, including Pengtoushan and Kanshi lower level culture. Over 100 sites are Tangjia Hills and Daxi cultures, over 200 sites of Qujialing culture, and over 300 sites of Shijia River culture.
Since the late 1980's, the Hunan Institute of Archaeology studied changes in the Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic periods, rice origin and growth, and the origin of early civilization. Its results are very effective and successful, especially the excavation of the Pengtoushan, Bashidang and Chengtoushan sites. As a result, human civilization on the Liyang Plain revealed its brilliance to the world.
1. Pengtoushan site Pengtoushan is in the middle of Liyang Plain in an area of many knolls. Its altitude is 45 m, 5 m above its surrounding flat area. West and south are branches of the Li River. In the winter of 1988, 400-sq. m was excavated.
1. For the first time, an Early Neolithic culture is confirmed in China's Yangtze area. Its age is slightly earlier than 7500-9000 year-old Peiligang culture on the Yellow River. Its discovery advances Neolithic research NW of Dongting lake and completes the cultural sequence of Pengtoushan > Zaoshi lower level > Tang Jia Gung > Daxi > Quling and Shi Jia River in the period 4000-9000 years ago.
2. For the first time, the creation, traits and decoration of 9,000 year-old pottery and stone tools are revealed, as are similar properties in dwellings and graves, allowing a clear understanding that middle Yangtze culture is not only old, but also very different.
3. This first discovery of the world's earliest, 9,000-year-old paddy rice and agricultural material caused a great sensation in international academic circles. Not only is a large quantity of rough and unhusked rice in potsherds, but pollen analysis of soil samples from the culture level indicate paddy rice. This important discovery not only extends rice cultivation to 9,000 years, but disputes long-term misconceptions that the origin of paddy cultivation is on the lower Yangtze. It strongly shows the origin of the world's earliest paddy rice in China’s Yangtze Valley.
2. Bashidang site Bashidang is in north Liyang Plain near the north shore of Li Lake, ca. 20 km NE of Lixian county seat and 15 km NW of Pengtoushan. Upper level material is 7,000-8,000 year old Pengtoushan Middle to Late Neolithic cultures, that of the lower level, the 15,000 year-old Palaeolithic-Neolithic transition.
To better understand hamlets and their traits in the surrounding environment at Pengtoushan, the Hunan Institute of Archaeology changed its traditional focus on hill sites between winter of 1993 and spring of 1997. It picked a site entirely beneath the surface of the Plain (Fig. 1), starting a 5 year period of excavation over 1200 sq. m and obtaining a series of significant achievements.
1. The discovery of a unique grainy red soil separating Early and Late Neolithic levels allows reconstruction of the site's original appearance and environment. Many years of excavation and research show the grainy yellow-brown soil (>5 m max. thick.) in both site and surroundings is accumulated Neolithic flood silt. This not only advances current thought proving grainy South China soil is Neolithic, but shows the following sequence of Early and Late Pengtoushan cultural levels:
Early yellow-brown grainy soil
Dark brown soil (15,000 BP)
Late yellow-brown soil
Pengtoushan cultural accumulation
In addition, the yellow-brown grainy soil reflects a hot rainy climate.
2. Bashidang’s surrounding trench and wall provide a basic clear understanding of the hamlet's overall appearance, dwellings and burials. Except north, excavation confirms the linking of the east, south and west trench and wall with the river, encircling a 30,000 sq. m area living area measuring 200 m N-S by 160 m.
The trench was dug early in site occupation, the dirt piled irregularly to make an inner parallel wall ca. 5m thick and 4 m high, and trench 4 m wide and 2 m deep. Their main function was protection and drainage (Fig. 2). In the wall was a doorway with cobble steps to the river, probably the path used to fetch water.
While the wall and trench are small, they mark the beginning of Chinese mud hamlets in the Middle and Late Neolithic on the middle Yangtze.
Many dwellings and graves are inside the trench and wall. Four types of dwellings are a few semi-subterranean houses, burnt red dirt surface dwellings as seen in many postholes, many stilt dwellings and star-shaped surface dwellings with rounded edge (only one, Fig. 3). There are ca. 100 burials, mostly peripheral, tiny and squarish, deep conical or triangular shape. The few burial goods are mainly broken pottery (Fig. 4), with some rare complete pottery and stone tools. Secondary burials are popular.
3. A subsurface treasure trove has early farm tools and tens of thousands of rough rice paddy rice grains, as well as copious remains of other species. They clearly illustrate the natural ecology, productivity and economy of the Jiangnan Plain of rivers and lakes.
In 4.5-6 m deep west side excavation, an ancient riverbed was found encircling the site. Its black silt, associated with 8,000 year-old bank cultural material, contains much household pottery and water devices, but most surprising are many perfectly preserved organic remains. Thorough silt cleaning and rinsing resulted in several dozen kinds of seeds of important human food like tubers, lotus root, reeds, etc., many wild and domestic animal bones, many bamboo and wood vessels, and bone and woven items (Fig. 5-8).
Artifacts include a plough handle, awl, pestle and shovel of wood, plus bamboo and wood tablets, etc. The handle is ca. 90 cm long and l0 cm wide. A long wood pestle with round head was used for food processing. Bamboo and wood tablets, 15x2-3x2-3 mm, chronicle divination using surface eyelets, some distributed uniformly, others not. Woven items include reed mats, square bamboo basket, hemp and cane ropes, etc. Some reed mats resemble those of modern local villagers.
Most bone tools are of cow longbone, their broken ends sanded and ground to a slanted blade. Smaller bone tools ca. 10-cm long can be used as drills, larger tools ca. 40 cm long and 8-9 cm diameter, some kind of farming tool.
The most important discovery, surpassing all Chinese fossil rice, is a mass of ca. 15,000 grains of rough and paddy rice in the center of the silt deposit (Fig. 9), the world's earliest rough rice and China's earliest paddy rice. What is more gratifying is its extremely good preservation, some even fresh looking. Initial observation and research show many types and variations, with overall complexity. Maximum grain length and breadth is thrice bigger than the smallest, some approaching modern indica and japonica rice, but silica content in the paddy rice sheath is completely opposite. As this rice cannot be accurately expressed as a typical japonica and indica community, we call it "Bashidang ancient rice". As it is not only plentiful but old, comprehensive research can be done on the origin of agriculture and primitive rice cultivation traits.
It should be noted that Yangtze valley acid soils did not affect this organic matter, making its natural preservation even more precious.
4. The discovery of Palaeolithic-Neolithic transitional remains provide important clues between these two big important stages.
In black soil under Pengtoushan cultural material at Bashidang are completely new remains aged ca. 15,000 years. They are mainly on the ancient riverbank at the highest point of the ancient site. Excavated chipped stone tools and detritus comprise 3 types: 1. large, 2. tiny white quartz (Fig. 10) and 3. stratigraphically distinct tiny black flint. Type 1 chopping tools are early in the later stratum but gradually become smaller. Type 2 artifacts in the middle level are cores, detritus and finished tools like scrapers. Type 3 tools contain quartz but occur in a later period stratum, and are mainly scrapers.
As many big flaked tools and tiny black flint tools in the Neolithic Pengtoushan site resemble the above tools, we see the Palaeolithic-Neolithic transition in three stages:
Late Palaeolithic culture (Li River cultural group)
This transition provides new clues and a good foundation for further study of the Dongting northern Plain, and even the entire middle Yangtze Valley in the Palaeolithic-Neolithic transition.
3. Chengtoushan City site Chengtoushan City is in the central Liyang Plain ca 2 km SE of Pengtoushan. Its excavation begun in 1991 continued for 7 years in a 4000 sq. m area, gaining worldwide notice. In 1992, it was featured as one of ten big Chinese archaeological finds. In 1995, CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin of the Central Committee wrote atop its wall "Chengtoushan ancient cultural site". In 1996, high level experts convening in Beijing at a National State Council meeting pronounced it a key cultural relic on the preservation list. In 1997, experts in Beijing at a National Cultural Institute meeting discussed its academic significance. Well-known attending Chinese scholars were Wei-chu Yuh, Wenming Yen, Zhongpei Zhang, Jingloau Huang and Xinan Ren,. Doubtless, its discovery is a significant breakthrough in exploring the origin of Chinese civilization, as seen below.
1. China’s earliest city (6000 years) is ca. 700 years older than Henan's later Old City of the Zhengzhou Xishan Yangshao culture, and truly the “first city of China”.
2. It was built using long-term housing, continual renovation and refortification (Fig. 11); the first refortification about Daxi time, and renovation continuing through Jujialing culture to the Lungshan period. The wall is now ca. 30 m wide at base and 5 m high, with a perimeter of ca. 1000 m. Its roundish 325 m diameter encloses an area of ca. 100,000 sq. m. Standing majestically on the Liyang Plain, one can still see the wide broad moat. SW of the north gate is a section of preserved canal ca. 460 m. long, 35-m wide and 4 m dee, its remaining part connected to the river and serving simultaneously for defense, water supply, transport, etc. Excavation revealed exits at the four cardinal points and linked by a path. At the east gate was a major road of river pebbles. When the south wall was dug in 1994, a Daxi manmade moat beneath the Jujialing wall was found, 10 m wide, 3 m deep and 1000 m long. Cleaning its silt revealed many camphor wood components, ship oars, ship niter, the stem, fruits and leaves of >100 kinds of plants, and many bamboo, reed and hemp woven articles. All indicate the site was a relatively large settlement with a progressive economy.
3. The city plan is basically verified, as well as a handicraft workshop, dwellings, large-scale construction, burials, public installations like roads, wells and structures, some terraced houses (Fig. 13), pottery kiln and clay mixing pit. A pottery workshop had sheds for semi-finished products. In excavating Daxi and Jujialing levels (Fig. 14), >600 burials were found, plus ca. 5000 clay, stone and jade items. All are valuable in understanding the characteristics and associations of the city’s culture.
Excavation confirms Chengtoushan has a functional interior plan. The high north part of the city is crowded with mainly two groups of Daxi and Jujialing burials. The even higher west part has eight pottery workshops, small houses and worksheds. The south part has many terraced structures, some very orderly on a 60-80 cm high mud terrace. They have front and rear rooms, a big living room on the left and big kitchen with a row of 4 sq. m hearths on the right with many clay drinking vessels. This large-scale and orderly layout will undoubtedly help in thorough research of the origin of China’s “early cities”.
4. The finding of the world’s earliest paddy rice (6,500 years) includes much paddy and rough rice, cultivated seed, stems and leaves. A 1994 appraisal of seeds, stems and leaves in Daxi trench silt indicate they were cultivated rice, millet, hemp, barley, winter melon, small bottle gourd melon, etc., the most significant being rice. Research suggests Chengtoushan’s Daxi rice is possibly aquatic and very different from modern rice. Most is small grain indica and japonica that are grown even now.
When the east wall was excavated in 1997, a rice paddy was in the first level (Fig. 15). The parallel paddy-surface boundary, water percolation cracks, rice stems, leaves and roots, microscopic phytoliths (much more than modern rice paddy), and full water storage facilities for cultivation, drainage, irrigation, etc., permanently verify a paddy field.
Excavation in the middle Yangtze Dongting Lake area shows very important data on the Palaeolithic-Neolithic transition, Early Neolithic culture, origin and growth of agriculture, relations between ancient civilization and environment, hamlet style and structure, origin of early civilization, etc. Perhaps we can say this area is a key through which one comprehends and understands many significant topics. From Liyang Plain archaeology NW of Dongting Lake, we bring this significant breakthrough to the world’s attention. This should make it one of the areas vital to China’s research in archaeology.