Who were the first people in China? Stone Age China
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Stone Age China

Chinese jade dragon
Jade dragon-pig from New Stone Age China

August 2016 - The first people (leaving out Neanderthal-type pre-humans) seem to have reached China about 50,000 BC, probably coming to North China across Central Asia, and to South China up the Pacific coast from Southeast Asia. This is about the same time as the first people in Europe. These people lived in caves, made fires, used stone and bone tools, and wore fur and leather clothes. They were hunters and gatherers. Probably they also spent a lot of time fishing, like other Pacific Rim people in Japan and Ecuador about the same time. Chinese people started to make pottery about 14,000 BC, about the same time as these other fishing people, probably to ferment the fish into pickled fish or fish sauce, that would keep longer.

By around 8000 BC, people in China were starting to grow millet. Another big change happened around 6000 BC, in the Neolithic or New Stone Age, when people began farming rice and millet as their main foods and keeping animals (like sheep and chickens) in China. West Asian people had already been farming for about three thousand years, but we don't know whether people in China learned how to farm from the West Asians or began doing it on their own. Probably they began on their own, maybe because of climate changes. As in Egypt, India, Peru, and West Asia, the first place where people began settling down in cities and using irrigation was in a river valley, along the Yellow River in northern China, about 3000 BC.

cream colored bowl with black designs painted on it
Pottery bowl from Henan in Northern China,
about 3500 BC (Musee Guimet, Paris)

Once people living in China began farming, they also began to live in villages and build small houses with reed roofs. We know about two kinds of Chinese pottery from this time: red clay pots with swirling black designs from north-west China, and smooth black pots from north-east China.

About this time people in China also began to use silk and hemp to make clothes, and to use wagons with wheels. Probably, like the Sumerians, they learned about carts with wheels from people in Central Asia who had been using wheeled carts since about 3700 BC.

Learn by Doing - cook some rice for lunch
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Check out this series of shows about jade on CCTV China

Bibliography and further reading about Stone Age China:

Stone Age Chinese Art
Stone Age China Architecture
Shang Dynasty - 1766-1122
Chinese Environment
Ancient China

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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