Digging up the ancestors. Excavations at the site of Bianjiagou (???), Banshan hills (??) Gansu Province, June 1924. The man with the brush was one of Andersson’s collaborators at the time, Zhuang Yongcheng (???). From J. G. Andersson, (1934). Children of the Yellow Earth. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE MUSEUM OF FAR EASTERN ANTIQUITIES, STOCKHOLM.

Modern field paleontology and archaeology were introduced to China in the early twentieth century. Fossil remains have provided new insights into the evolution of life, paleoanthropological remains on the evolution of mankind, and archaeological excavations on the development of human cultures. The last twenty years have seen a marked improvement in research quality, an explosion of new data, and several scientific breakthroughs.

Archaeology (the study of material remains of past human life), and paleontology (the study of life of the geological past and the evolution of life) in China share a common past. The first generation of Western-educated Chinese scholars worked together in the field as geologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists surveying the country’s natural resources. Paleontology was used to find possible locations of natural resources, and to define the age of geological strata. Methodology from paleontology and geology was used in archaeology studies when archaeological remains were found and excavated during the survey work.

The first reference to fossils in China is found in the Shan Hai Jing (???, Classic of Mountains and Seas), mainly compiled between the fourth and first centuries BCE. It contains stories of mythical creatures of the past. The Qian Han Shu (???, History of the Former Han Dynasty, c. 100 CE) mentions the find of dragon bones (??, fossils) in 133 BCE during work on a canal. Several sources during the next millennium refer to fossils as ancient animals and plants, and some books have passages remarkably similar to those in modern paleontology. The Yun Lin Shi Pu (????, Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest, 1033 CE), for instance, contains detailed descriptions of fossil fishes. Fossils have been collected since ancient times and used in traditional Chinese medicine for their supposed magical powers and ability to cure disease. Still, in the 1950s, paleontologists made major discoveries by asking the local population where they collected their dragon bones.

The earliest Chinese experiments in what resembles modern archaeology were made during the Song dynasty (960–1279) when ancient inscriptions found on stones and bronzes were studied and catalogued. This tradition, although interrupted at the beginning of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), continued well into the late Qing dynasty (1644–1912).

Republican China (1912–1949)

The first modern survey that included some Chinese paleontology was made in the latter part of the nineteenth century during expeditions to China by the German Ferdinand von Richthofen (????, 1833–1905). However, not until the turn of the next century was the potential of Chinese fossils realized when Western visitors found dragon bones in medicine shops. The discovery began a fossil hunt in the drug stores. In 1914 the Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson (???, 1874–1960) was hired by the Chinese government to conduct mineralogical surveys around the country. He became interested in the paleontological and archaeological remains that he came across during his work. In the mid-1910s he met the Chinese scholar Ding Wenjiang (???, 1887–1936), the first head of the Geological Survey of China. Trained in Japan and Britain with majors in geology and zoology, Ding represented the first generation of Chinese scholars with an education in modern science. With his background in zoology, he was also interested in paleontology. The two men began to cooperate in a search for fossils, and Ding, in a program to train geology students in fieldwork, sent students to Andersson. From 1920 onward the education of a coming generation of Chinese paleontologists was furthered with the arrival of the U.S. geologist and paleontologist Amadeus W. Grabau (???, 1870–1946), who was invited by Ding.

In 1921 Andersson initiated excavations at the site Zhoukoudian ???, 50 kilometers from Beijing, where the tooth of a 500,000-year-old hominid (any of a family of erect bipedal primate mammals comprising recent humans together with extinct ancestral and related forms) was found the same year by the appointed excavator, the Austrian-Swedish paleontologist Otto Zdansky (????, 1894–1988). The tooth belonged to a new species, popularly called “Peking Man” ???, which was announced in 1926 and later named Homo erectus pekinensis. The find stirred attention around the world and had a profound importance for research on early human development. Continued investigations at Zhoukoudian were made by a Sino-Western institute—the Cenozoic Research Laboratory—the precursor of the present Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). The lab was placed under the Geological Survey of China, and its first head was Davidson Black, a Canadian physician of the Peking Union Medical College. Several Chinese students who later influenced the development of paleontology in the country, such as Yang Zhongjian (???, 1897–1979), Pei Wenzhong (???, 1904–1982), and Jia Lanpo (???, 1908–2001), started their careers at the laboratory. Many of them were students of Grabau. Chinese specialists such as these also took part in surveys of the Huang (Yellow) River area at this time and in the search for paleontological and archaeological remains during the interdisciplinary Sino-Swedish expedition to northwestern China in 1927–1935. Grabau himself made surveys of great importance. In the 1920s, for instance, he was the first to describe the Jehol biota (?????, the flora and fauna of a region) in northeastern China, which during the century came to reveal a whole ecosystem of fossils dating to 125 million years. Other influential foreign paleontologists of the time included Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (???, 1881–1955) of France, who surveyed sites in Ningxia Autonomous Region, Shaanxi Province, and Inner Mongolia during the 1920s and assisted in the Zhokoudian research, and Roy Chapman Andrews (?????????, 1884–1960) of the United States, who in several expeditions during the 1920s searched for paleontological finds. The latter worked mostly outside the country, but he also did extensive surveys in Inner Mongolia, where he discovered fossils of dinosaurs and mammals.

Archaeology (1912–1949)

Modern field archaeology was introduced in China around the turn of the twentieth century when a number of foreign scholars—explorers, archaeologists, and paleontologists—went to Chinese Central Asia, mainly in search of remains along the ancient Silk Roads. The Swedish geographer Sven Hedin (????, 1865–1952) surveyed ruins in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and discovered the site of Loulan ?? in the Tarim Basin in 1900. Sir Aurel Stein (???, 1862–1943), a British-Hungarian archaeologist, conducted excavations on sites such as Khotan ??, Niya ??, Bezeklik ?????, and Loulan. He also visited Dunhuang ?? in Gansu Province, where a Daoist priest had found a huge amount of ancient documents in the Buddhist Mogao caves ??? in 1900. Many of these were purchased by Stein and later by the French sinologist Paul Pelliot (???, 1878–1945). The Germans Albert Grünwedel ????? and Albert von Le Coq ??? made extensive investigations in Xinjiang, as did Ru
ssian explorers, who already had reported on historical remains in the area in the late nineteenth century. Japanese scholars, such as Otani Kozui (????, 1876–1948) and Torii Ryozo (????, 1870–1953), also organized expeditions. The latter found Neolithic (8000–5500 BCE) remains such as spearheads and polished stone axes during his investigations in the Liaodong peninsula in 1895 and discovered the prehistoric site of Hongshan (??, c. 3800–2700 BCE) in Inner Mongolia in 1908.

China’s participation in these surveys increased after the May Fourth Movement (1917–1921), when many Chinese students who had gone abroad to acquire knowledge of Western sciences returned and began collaborative projects with Western scholars. In the early 1920s Andersson had become more interested in studies of the archaeological remains he found during his surveys around the country. He hired young Chinese scholars, such as Yuan Fuli (???, 1893–1987), a former student at Columbia University, and Li Ji (Li Chi, ??, 1896–1979) from Harvard. Andersson included Chinese specialists in archaeological excavations for the first time when he found painted pottery near the village of Yangshao in Henan Province in April 1921. The Yangshao culture (??, c. 4500–2500 BCE) soon proved to be one of the major discoveries on the Neolithic era. From the pottery’s similarity to painted pottery found in Central Asia and the Near East, Andersson argued that Chinese culture might have originated from the west. To back his theory he went to northwestern China, where he found a western outpost of the Yangshao culture, the Majiayao culture (???, c. 3500–1500 BCE), and the early Bronze Age culture of Qijia (??, 2400–1900 BCE). The western-origin hypothesis was later abandoned, and some of the pottery is now believed to have spread westward from central China to its borders.

Oracle Bones

The first truly independent archaeological excavations that took place at this time symbolically restored China’s self-image. Oracle bones had been found around 1900 in Anyang ??, northern Henan Province, and the early investigations of the ancient bone inscriptions caused Luo Zhenyu (???, 1866–1940) to claim that the site might be the location of the late Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) capital Yinxu ??, mentioned in the Shiji (??, Records of the Grand Historian), written about 100 BCE by Sima Qian (???, c. 145–90 BCE). This evidence was not enough, however, to prove the existence of the Shang dynasty, which many believed to be a myth. In 1928 the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) government made field investigation at Anyang a the priority when it formed an archaeology department within the Institute of History and Philology in the Academia Sinica. Evidence of a highly advanced Bronze Age culture as well as architectural remains of palaces and temples were unearthed during ten seasons of work led by Li Ji. In 1936 the former capital’s archive was found, finally proving the existence of the Shang dynasty. More discoveries by the archaeology department followed, such as the Neolithic Longshan culture (??, c. 2500–1700 BCE) in Shandong Province. These finds showed that connections existed between the Shang dynasty remains and the Neolithic cultures found so far. Li Ji’s student, Xia Nai (??, 1910–1985) was later able to put these pieces together to develop a correct chronology and classification that Andersson first proposed for China’s prehistoric cultures.

Maoist Years (1949–1978)

The Japanese occupation and the Chinese Civil War ended the early formative years of Chinese archaeology and paleontology. The 1950s brought establishment of two new major organizations for paleontology research that would play leading roles until the late 1970s. These were the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology (NIGP) and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, both organized under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Some of the remaining Chinese staff of the Cenozoic Research Laboratory came to work under the IVPP, among them Yang Zhongjian, who became its first head. Soon excavation at Zhoukoudian resumed, and large surveys of geological and paleontological resources, supervised by these institutions, were initiated throughout the country. The work was mainly aimed at finding new evidence of Peking Man, whose remains had been lost during the war, and at collecting new paleontological data. A large number of fossils were also discovered and identified during this time, for example, the dinosaur Tsintaosaurus found in Shandong Province and described by Yang Zhongjian in 1958. The most important paleoanthropology finds were made in the early 1960s in Lantian ??, Shaanxi Province, where hominid fossils of Homo erectus dating to 1.1 million years were discovered in 1963 and 1964. A year later a 1.7 million-year-old hominid fossil was found in Yuanmou ??, Yunnan Province.

With the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949, several scholars who had developed an independent Chinese archaeology took refuge with the Chinese Nationalist Party regime in Taiwan, where their work continued at the Academia Sinica. Mainland China established the Chinese Academy of Science, whose head, Guo Moruo (???, 1892–1978), founded the Institute of Archaeology. Archaeological work there was largely managed by Xia Nai.

The focus on China’s Neolithic age was resumed, and a number of important discoveries were made in the 1950s and 1960s. Excavations at Dawenkou in Tai’an, Shandong Province, enabled a link to be made between early Neolithic southern and northern China. The painted pottery of the Dawenkou culture (???, c. 4500–2500 BCE) indicated contacts with the Yangshao culture, while other artifacts had a close resemblance to those of the later Longshan culture. Large excavations at the Yangshao site Banpo ??, near Xian in Shaanxi Province, revealed an entire village dating to about 4800–3600 BCE.

Research on the formation of early cities and the development of ancient China led to new discoveries. Several Shang dynasty remains older than those at Anyang were found. The most important were at Erligang ??? near Zhengzhou, which was probably the capital between 1500 and 1400 BCE. In the late 1950s scientists found an even older Bronze Age culture, which some scholars believe is proof of the existence of the Xia dynasty (2100–1766 BCE), the predecessor to the Shang dynasty. At Erlitou ??? in Yanshi, Henan Province, a fortified city and a palace dated to between 1900 and 1500 BCE were unearthed. Also remains from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–221 BCE) were discovered and excavated during this time, as, for instance, in 1956, when the capital of the state of Jin between the years 584 and 450 BCE was found at Houma ?? in Shanxi Province.

Understanding of prehistoric China had increased significantly before the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Scientific work came to a halt, both in archaeology and paleontology, in 1966, but input from unexpected discoveries and rescue excavations in archaeology continued. The buried terra-cotta army of the Qin emperor (third century BCE), for instance, was found in March 1974 near Xian in Shaanxi Province when local peasants were drilling a well. Beginning in 1972 archaeological exhibitions played an important part in opening up China and attracted huge interest from the outside world. They made the Chinese government aware of the potential that archaeological remains had for the country’s international image. Archaeology became therefore one of the first sciences to resume its work. In 1973 south of Hangzhou Bay, the Hemudu culture (???, 5500–4770 BCE) was found. Excavations at the marshy area of this offshore island culture in northern Zhejiang Province demonstrated large finds of unusually well-preserved materials as well as of house remains that were different from those unearthed in northern China. In 1976 Lady Fu Hao’s ?? tomb was discovered. It contained artifacts of royal life during the Shang dynasty. In Hubei Province the next year soldiers found the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng ???, who died in 433 BCE. Among the remains recovered from the grave were more than 120 musical instruments—a unique collection in the world.

Paleontology Today

Methodology and technology in Chinese paleontology and archaeology did not progress despite such important discoveries. The two sciences developed largely in isolation from the outside world for four decades, and the need to catch up was urgent. Although a new generation of scholars was eager to get in contact with the research community abroad, the ban on Sino-foreign fieldwork remained. However, in 1986 a collaboration paved the way for others. It was the Sino-Canadian Dinosaur Project, a series of expeditions conducted between 1987 and 1990 to collect Jurassic (c. 200–145 million years ago) and Cretaceous (c. 145–65 million years ago) vertebrates in northern China. With the lifting of the Sino-foreign fieldwork ban in 1991, a wave of collaborations followed: Foreign scholars visited, and Chinese paleontologists went abroad for research studies and exchange. The 1980s and 1990s brought a rapid growth of university institutions, which developed their own research agendas, thus challenging the monopoly of the IVPP and NIGP. The institutional competition, the open door policy, and an increased desire to publish results abroad led to improved research quality and to an explosion of new data and scientific breakthroughs.

In July 1984 the Chengjiang fauna ?????, said to be one of the most important paleontological finds of the century, was found in Yunnan Province by Hou Xianguang (???, b. 1949). Apart from the discovery of almost two hundred species so far, this rich fossil deposit gives vital information on the evolution of primitive plants and animals. The oldest fossil vertebrate in the world, for instance, was reported from the site of Ercaicun ??? in 1999. It revealed a jawless early fish, dating from the Lower Cambrian (c. 530 million years ago), thus pushing back the history of vertebrates another 50 million years. Of equal, if not more significance, was the discovery of fossil embryos dating from 570–590 million years ago in the Doushantuo ??? formation in Guizhou Province in 1998. This discovery gave evidence of the existence of animal life before the so-called Cambrian explosion, a time in evolutionary history when suddenly a large number of animal fossils appeared. The previous lack of Precambrian finds had been a mystery to paleontologists since the time of the British scientist Charles Darwin. The discovery has led to similar and even older finds elsewhere in the world. The Jehol biota in Liaoning Province also was on the agenda again from the late 1980s onward. First the bird Sinornis was found, then Confuciusornis, then a series of discoveries that culminated in the unearthing of feathered dinosaurs such as Sinosauropteryx and Protarchaeopteryx. These fossils challenged the theory that birds and dinosaurs had developed separately and gave insights into the evolution of flying. Recent Chinese paleoanthropology has also shed light on the development of our own species. The oldest hominid fossils in the country, for instance, were found in 1985 at Longgupo ???, Sichuan Province, and investigations have revealed stone tools and dated the fossils to 1.9 million years.

Archaeology Today

The renewed study of the Neolithic era since the late 1970s has focused on the relationship between early farming societies and the spread of agricultural techniques. Radiocarbon dating, introduced to China in the 1960s, is used more frequently. Evidence for rice production was found in the Hemudu culture, which was a site in contact with the Majiabang culture (???, c. 5000–4000 BCE)—a rice-producing economy as well—near Shanghai. The Majiabang culture in its turn showed resemblances to millet-producing cultures in the north, such as the Dawenkou. The oldest millet grains found so far in the Huang River valley were unearthed at the site of Peiligang (???, 5500–4900 BCE) in Henan Province. The oldest evidence of rice cultivation comes from Pengtoushan ???, Hunan Province, dating to at least 7000 BCE. All these finds have challenged the view that agriculture spread from the north and that Chinese rice originated from India.

Other views about China’s prehistory also have been challenged. In July 1986 a discovery at Sanxingdui (???, c. 1400–1000 BCE) in Sichuan Province proved the existence in other parts of China of advanced Bronze Age cultures besides the historically documented Shang. Artifacts, such as sculptured masks and human bronze heads, showed a unique style and were of a level just as advanced as those unearthed at Anyang.

When the ban on Sino-foreign fieldwork was lifted, joint archaeological explorations were conducted for the first time since before World War II. A Sino-Japanese expedition, for instance, set out for Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to search for early traces of civilizations along the Silk Roads and found Bronze Age cultures in the southern parts of the Taklamakan Desert. A Chinese-French team in the same area conducted several excavations at Yuansha gucheng ???? between 1993 and 2005, a city that in the preliminary reports has been stated to be the oldest ever found in Xinjiang, dating back at least twenty-two hundred years.

Many sites and artifacts have been found throughout the country in recent years. The expansion of the Chinese economy and extensive infrastructure construction have led to numerous rescue excavations in the last thirty years. These in turn have led to an enormous input of new archaeological material. New university departments of archaeology have been set up throughout China. Specialized institutions, such as China’s first DNA research laboratory in Jilin, have improved the technological analysis of excavated remains. Other fields of archaeology, such as underwater archaeology, also have been introduced. The latter has been instrumental in the rescue of the late Song dynasty merchant ship Nanhai 1 ???? which sank eight hundred years ago in the South China Sea with bluish-white porcelain in its cargo. Found in 1987, the entire vessel was salvaged from the seabed in 2007.

Further Reading

Andersson, J. G. (1934). Children of the yellow earth: Studies in prehistoric China. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Chang Kwang Chih. (1986). The archaeology of ancient China (4th ed.). New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Debaine-Francfort, C. (1999). The search for ancient China. London: Thames and Hudson.

Fiskesjö, M., & Chen Xingcan. (2004). China before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the discovery of China’s prehistory. Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.

Gee, H. (Ed.). (2001). Rise of the dragon: Readings from nature on the Chinese fossil records. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Hou Xian-Guang, Aldridge, R. J., Bergstrom, J., Siveter, Derek J., Siveter, David J., & Feng Xiang-Hong. (2004, 2007). The Cambrian fossils of Chengjiang,
China: The flowering of early animal life
. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lucas, S. G. (2001). Chinese fossil vertebrates. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yang Xiaoneng. (Ed.). (1999). The golden age of Chinese archaeology: Celebrated discoveries from the People’s Republic of China. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Source: Romgard, Jan. (2009). Archaeology and Paleontology. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 80–87. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yangshao 1921. A rare photo from the period when Chinese experts first participated in excavations in China. Left to right: the archaeologist and geologist Yuan Fuli of Tsinghua University (trained at Columbia University); Johan Gunnar Andersson, the Swedish geologist turned archaeologist who led the excavations; the village chief, Mr. Wang, and a local preacher also named Mr. Wang. The investigations revealed the Yangshao culture (??, c. 4500–2500 BCE). This major discovery of the Neolithic era laid the foundation of prehistoric archaeology in China. From J. G. Andersson. (1934), Children of the Yellow Earth. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE MUSEUM OF FAR EASTERN ANTIQUITIES, STOCKHOLM.

Ding Wenjiang, the first head of the Geological Survey of China, quietly promoted modern archaeology and paleontology in his country in the 1910s and early 1920s. He encouraged foreign scholars like Johan Gunnar Andersson and Amadeus W. Grabau to collaborate with students of the May Fourth Movement. These students were expected to improve their skills in modern science and technology and later develop Chinese science independently. From J. G. Andersson. (1928), The Dragon and the Foreign Devils. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE MUSEUM OF FAR EASTERN ANTIQUITIES, STOCKHOLM.

The excavation site at Zhoukoudian in 1921, with Otto Zdansky to the far left. The same year he made the first discovery of Peking Man—a single tooth. In the center below is Walter Granger (???, 1872–1941) from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who visited Zhoukoudian to introduce modern excavation techniques. From J. G. Andersson. (1934), Children of the Yellow Earth. USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE MUSEUM OF FAR EASTERN ANTIQUITIES, STOCKHOLM.

Archaeology and Paleontology (K?og?xué hé g?sh?ngwùxué ????????)|K?og?xué hé g?sh?ngwùxué ???????? (Archaeology and Paleontology)

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