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History, Prehistory

Homo erectus, Chinese civilization, extinct species, modern humans, burial practices

During the long Paleolithic period, bands of predatory hunter-gatherers lived in what is now China. Homo erectus, an extinct species closely related to modern humans, or Homo sapiens, appeared in China more than one million years ago. Anthropologists disagree about whether Homo erectus is the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens or merely related through a mutual ancestor. In either case, modern humans may have first appeared in China as far back as 200,000 years ago.

Beginning in about 10,000 bc, humans in China began developing agriculture, possibly influenced by developments in Southeast Asia. By 5000 bc there were Neolithic village settlements in several regions of China. On the fine, wind-blown loess soils of the north and northwest, the primary crop was millet, while villages along the lower Yangtze River in Central China were centered on rice production in paddy fields, supplemented by fish and aquatic plants. Humans in both regions had domesticated pigs, dogs, and cattle, and by 3000 bc sheep had become important in the north and water buffalo in the south.

Over the course of the 5th to 3rd millennia bc, many distinct, regional Neolithic cultures emerged. In the northwest, for instance, people made red pottery vessels decorated in black pigment with designs such as spirals, sawtooth lines, and zoomorphic (animal-like) stick figures. During the same period, Neolithic cultures in the east produced pottery that was rarely painted but had distinctive shapes, such as three-legged, deep-bodied tripods. Archaeologists have uncovered numerous jade ornaments, blades, and ritual objects in several eastern sites, but jade is rare in western ones.

In many areas, stamped-earth fortified walls came to be built around settlements, suggesting not only increased contact between settlements but also increased conflict. Later Chinese civilization probably evolved from the interaction of many distinct Neolithic cultures, which over time came to share more in the way of material culture and social and cultural practices. For example, many burial practices, including the use of coffins and ramped chambers, spread way beyond their place of origin.

Article key phrases:

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