Cultural Geography and Interregional Contacts in Southwest China


A review of Cultural Geography and Interregional Contacts in Prehistoric Liangshan (Southwest China), by Anke Marion Hein.

Anke Marion Hein’s dissertation “Cultural Geography and Interregional Contacts in Prehistoric Liangshan (Southwest China)” makes a significant contribution to archaeological research in China by developing a culture history framework for an understudied region. Not only does Hein present a thorough catalog, typology, and chronology for all known archaeological sites and artifacts—the first of its kind for the Liangshan region—but she also examines how artifact function, site location, and site type are related to environmental conditions and resource distributions. Hein argues that the cultural traditions in sub-regions within Liangshan are influenced by local environmental pre-conditions. However, the interactions between different social groups, communities, and cultural traditions also provide insights that can help address broader archaeological questions about how to define culture groups and boundaries, and how to identify connections and interactions between them.

In Chapter 1, Hein introduces the Liangshan region and summarizes the history of archaeological research to date. Working in Liangshan is challenging because archaeological sites are unevenly distributed on the landscape and unevenly studied. Many regions within Liangshan are remote and difficult to reach. Archaeological research in the region is also hindered by changing intellectual interests, administrative directives, or limited funding and institutional support. Pressures to excavate quickly often lead to inconsistent collection of radiocarbon and paleobotanical samples, limiting the data available for both dating sites and addressing issues of subsistence. Although Hein discusses several good recent publications on Liangshan archaeology, much data remains unpublished or incompletely published. Therefore, Hein collected additional data by participating in survey and excavation projects as well as visiting archaeological collections and archives in person to measure artifacts. The result is database representing over 300 sites and thousands of artifacts, focusing primarily on the pre-Han period (1st century AD).

Hein situates her research within broader anthropological and archaeological discussions about how to define and identify past archeological cultures, ethnicities, and identities. She summarizes key developments in the discipline, focusing on how concepts such as style, social boundaries, and chaîne opératoire can be used to define groups. Hein believes that it is important to start at small scales of analysis first, arguing that “only after establishing the local developments within the research area and reaching an understanding of the nature of cultural and social groups does it become feasible to discuss interactions between them both on the local and regional as well as the supra-regional level of medium- and long-distance contacts” (p. 38). Therefore, Hein organizes her dissertation according to scales of analysis, moving from an analysis of the environmental background, to individual artifacts, to sites, to micro-regions, and finally to inter-regional interactions.

In Chapter 2, Hein presents the environmental and geographic background of the Liangshan region. The incredible biodiversity and micro-climates within Liangshan make the region an excellent case study of how cultural developments are linked to local climate conditions, but also how people in neighboring regions interact. Liangshan is located at the intersection of the Sichuan Basin, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Mountain ranges running north to south act as barriers that separate different climatic zones, while rivers provide paths for interactions and exchanges between different sub-regions. Hein presents modern environmental data on precipitation levels, soil types, and the distribution of various natural resources. She also presents paleoenvironmental data from lake cores, paleobotanical remains, and zooarchaeological remains. Finally, she divides the region into sub-regions with their own unique environmental characteristics.

In Chapter 3, Hein begins with a theoretical discussion of the challenges to creating meaningful object typologies. Typological classification is a main method used by archaeologists to situate objects in time and space. However, there is much debate over how to create typologies and whether they represent emic or etic perspectives of past behavior. Hein believes that typologies are not purely arbitrary constructions of the analyst, but reflect categories that past people also recognized. She decides to use a chaîne opératoire approach to create typologies for artifacts in Liangshan. In this approach, she identifies the behavioral choices involved in each step of an object’s life history—including raw material selection, artifact production, use, and discard—in order to determine which formal or stylistic attributes are meaningful for defining typological categories. Hein discusses the nature of various raw materials and production methods for ceramics, lithics, and other types of artifacts. She identifies whether given object traits result from the natural physical constraints of the materials or the behavioral choices of the artisans. She also considers relationships between object function, the types of material characteristics that would be expected for various functions, and the types of archaeological contexts in which certain objects tend to be found.

In Chapter 4, Hein uses ArcGIS and statistical tests to examine the distribution of settlement sites on the landscape. Kolmogorov-Smirnov tests comparing the archaeological geospatial points and 600 randomly generated points reveal trends in the archaeological data. For example, settlement sites tend to be located at lower elevations, on slopes that are not very steep, and in fertile valleys in close proximity to rivers. Hein also examines trends in the distribution of artifacts to identify chronological markers and make predictions about the types of subsistence or economic systems used at various sites. For example, stone tools are more common in settlement sites than grave sites. Many of these stone tools are woodworking tools, suggesting that people may have frequently cleared forests. Because most settlements have short occupation histories, Hein believes that people practiced slash and burn agriculture, moving their settlements when cleared land was no longer productive.

In Chapter 5, Hein analyzes the distribution of grave sites in Liangshan. Hein proposes a model for studying the life histories of graves that she then uses to develop a grave typology. Her model uses a chaîne opératoire approach, outlining the steps people would have taken to choose the locations for graves, prepare and construct graves, prepare and bury the body, and prepare and bury grave goods. She also considers post-depositional changes to the grave. Her resulting typology divides graves into two main types: below ground graves and above ground graves. Underground graves include earth-pit graves and stone-construction graves. These two types are usually single internment graves, but there are regional differences in the distribution of these two grave types, the types of body treatments, and the types of burial goods. Above-ground graves are Megalithic graves with large stone constructions. Statistical tests show that Megalithic graves tend to be found at lower elevations than below ground graves and have greater visibility on the landscape. Megalith graves also tend to be multi-person internments that were re-opened multiple times. Hein argues that the visibility of the Megalithic graves and the large numbers of ceramic vessels associated with the burials suggests that these graves were commemorative locations and that burial rituals may have involved communal drinking events. Unfortunately, the lack of bioarchaeological data for most graves prevents detailed analysis of individual identities. However, the distribution of objects in burials allows for some inferences about social status and differences between groups.

In Chapter 6, Hein presents data from pit sites and individual finds. Some pit sites contain bronze musical instruments such as drums and bells that were buried in ritual contexts. Other pits contain large numbers of ceramic offerings that appear to be associated with Megalithic graves. Hein also discusses individual finds recovered from the antiquities market or turned over to local archaeologists, attempting to determine the region of origin for these unprovenanced artifacts.

In Chapter 7, Hein synthesizes the environmental, artifact, and site data presented in the preceding chapters. She discusses regional differences in artifact types and site types, defining four regional cultural traditions.

The first tradition is centered in the fertile Anning river valley region, where settlement sites and megalithic graves predominate. Megalithic graves contain multiple internments and large numbers of ceramics consistent with burial rituals involving communal drinking. Megalithic graves only contain adult individuals, however men, women, and people of various social status were buried together without clear indicators of wealth differentiation in the grave goods. Infants and children may have been buried separately. The economy of the Anning river valley was primarily agricultural with very little metal working.

The second tradition is centered in the mountainous northeast, where the environment was harsher and there are fewer settlement sites. Graves in the northeast contain more hunting tools, so the economy may have been more focused on hunting and gathering. The diverse grave forms in the northwest may indicate that it was a meeting place or gateway for interactions between people from different regions.

The third tradition is centered in the southeast. High natural biodiversity may have promoted more hunting and gathering, including at several cave sites identified in the region. In the fertile valleys of the Huili area, there is also evidence for forest clearing for early agriculture followed by well-developed agriculture at later settlements. Although the Huili area was also rich in metal resources, metal production and metal artifacts in graves are rare. Bronze instruments found in pits in Huili likely reflect imported objects. Graves in the southeast region were usually single internments with the body in supine position and sometimes with the head removed or placed on the stomach, which is a type of body treatment not seen elsewhere in Liangshan.

The fourth tradition is centered in the high elevation plateaus, valleys, and mountains of the southwest. There appear to be two culture groups in this region. The first group has burial practices similar to those in the Anning river valley. The other group has burials that contain many metal objects, especially weapons and horse riding gear. These graves also have variable numbers of burial goods, perhaps reflecting the different social status of the buried individuals. Hein believes that people in this region may have controlled access to local salt resources, which promoted wealth differentiation.

In Chapter 8, Hein discusses culture contact and mobility. She reviews different archaeological explanations for cultural interactions including diffusion, migration, and colonialism. She then uses the typologies and chronologies developed for the various regions in Liangshan to examine interactions between these regions and with surrounding areas. Hein argues that the sub-regions had unique economic and subsistence systems that fit local environmental conditions, but many broader cultural traits were shared across the Liangshan region. Hein also describes possible interactions and migrations from regions outside of Liangshan. For example, ceramic forms and the Megalithic grave tradition in the Anning river valley suggest that people from Gansu (Qijia culture) may have migrated into Anning and brought these traditions with them. In the northeast, ceramic styles, weapon styles, and the focus on horse riding suggests ties to the Central Asian Steppe regions. Mountains separated the southeast from the rest of the Liangshan region, so burials, ceramics, and bronze vessels show greater similarities and influences from Yunnan and Dian styles than with other parts of Liangshan.

The chronologies, cultural traditions, and interactions proposed by Hein mark a major contribution to archaeology in the Liangshan region. Instead of defining strict categories and culture groups, Hein’s interpretations are more fluid and dynamic, reflecting the overlap and interrelatedness of the various groups in Liangshan. Her thoughtful discussion of the issues involved in defining cultural traditions and cultural interactions should be applied more frequently in the field of Chinese archaeology, where less nuanced explanations of culture change are still common.

In addition to making theoretical contributions to Chinese archaeology and making previously unpublished data available to other researchers, Hein’s dissertation also serves as an excellent example of how archaeologists can organize and analyze datasets of varying kinds. Hein moves back and forth between discussions of method, theory, and data. She emphasizes the need to revise and re-interpret data in relation to methodological considerations. This aspect of her approach is most impressive in terms of her statistical analyses. For example, she first uses principle component analysis or factor analysis to look for associations between smaller numbers of variables in her GIS data. The more meaningful variables she identified in this first step are then included in multivariate statistical analyses. In this way, Hein avoids including too many variables and messy data that can bias the statistics. Because the level of specificity of the data is uneven between sites, Hein also developed a reliability index that she uses to determine when sites should be included or excluded from various statistical analyses. These and the other methodological considerations described by Hein provide useful tools that can be used by other researchers working in regions without established typologies. They are also useful for any archaeologist working with the uneven archaeological record.

Katherine Brunson
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Los Angeles

Primary Sources

Archaeological data from published site reports, observations and measurements of artifact collections housed at institutes and archives in Southwest China, and excavation and survey in Liangshan.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 704pp. Primary Advisor: Lothar von Falkenhausen.

Image: Photo by Author.