Staple Economies and Social Integration in Northeast China


A review of staple economies and social integration in northeast China: Regional organization in Zhangwu, Liaoning, China, by James Williams.

The purported economic dichotomy between ‘nomads’ and farmers in the archaeological and historical records has received a steadily increasing wave of scrutiny over the past decade. There has been a longstanding tradition in archaeology of Eurasia to pigeonhole peoples into two general cultural categories based on perceived economic strategies; this practice has been omnipresent in the archaeological discourse over the past century. The described cultural division has its roots in antiquity; the ancient Greeks, in sources such as Herodotus’ Histories, and the ancient Chinese from the Han Dynasty onward, descried their peripheral ‘others’ as nomads – i.e., uncivilized people, lacking the trappings of society, notably agricultural fields and sedentary houses. As Williams points out in the onset of his dissertation, the Shiji (from the Western Han period) describes the people to the north, the Xiongnu and essentially part of the broader cultural realm representing the archaeological populations dealt with in this dissertation, as barbarian pastoralists. While most researchers have deemed a one-to-one comparison between historical groups of people in Eurasia and archaeological counterparts as problematic, the same scholars are custom to acknowledge economic models, which rely solely on these early texts (and ethnographic analogy) in lieu of any scientifically generated data to either support or refute these ascribed economic strategies.

With the introduction of archaeobotanical methods into Central Eurasia, a better understanding of past economies is forming. The complex multi-resource picture that researchers are now developing underpins the long-held economic models. In some regions of the broad Eurasian belt of grass, researchers are finding clear evidence for complex agropastoral systems, mixed with hunting, fishing, and foraging of wild plants, as well as both low-investment and intensive irrigated-field agriculture. In other regions of Eurasia, the incorporation of the archaeological sciences into the study of the Bronze Age diet is supporting old arguments for a lack of domesticated plants. In either case, the past decade of scientific inquiry has opened the eyes of the archaeological community to a more complex reality in Eurasian prehistory than previously acknowledged. Williams is pioneering this new wave of inquiry in northeastern China, not surprisingly finding evidence for a complex economy.

This traditional model of economic development relies on a linear progression towards an idealized ‘pure nomadism’. The story is often marked by punctuated periods of rapid change, such as the Bronze/Iron Age transition, and is usually intertwined with perceived climatic events. Williams, throughout his dissertation, holds onto the idea of an environmentally driven economy; however, he also notes that humans interact with their landscape on a localized scale and regional climatic changes over a temporal scale of millennia are not directly perceived by humans. Williams focuses on the ecological adaptations of humans on a localized scale, and he points out that mobility is a risk reducing strategy. Furthermore, pastoralism is economically advantageous in specific ecological zones – notably ecotonal regions where prosperous grasslands lay adjacent to arable agricultural lands. In these ecotonal boundaries Williams envisions the traditional economic transition models being possible; therefore, if scholars are looking for the economic division between pastoralism and farming, they should focus on these zones. He then points out that many regions across Eurasia represent very different ecologies, and in many cases, where there are large swaths of arable land, specialized mobile herding would not be expected as the dominant economy.

In his introduction, Chapter 1, Williams asks two key questions: 1) Did reliance on grazing animals and residential mobility increase in some Late Bronze Age communities located in areas where such subsistence strategies would have been attractive alternatives to grain cultivation under warming and drying conditions? And 2) Does such a subsistence shift, if documented, show the artifactual evidence and settlement patterning consistent with economic complementarity? In endeavoring to answer these two questions, he looks at a huge time period, from the Neolithic to the Liao Dynasty (4500 BCE to 1200 CE), but focuses on the Early and Late Bronze Age (2000 to 1200 BCE and 1200 to 600 BCE). Using surface survey, he looks at changes in settlement patterns over a 173-square-kilometer area of Zhangwu County in Liaoning, China, and considers this data in relation to other evidence for economy.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Williams lays out the regional chronology, which is pieced together based on ceramic classification and typology; he then provides a detailed cultural and environmental background of the region. In northeast China, unlike much of the rest of the Eurasian grasslands, there is good evidence for sedentary agricultural peoples as far back as 6200 BCE. Therefore, the question in debate is whether these communities evolved into pastoral and mobile communities due to climatic pressure or whether they diversified their economies to adapt. While these debates mirror similar debates across Central Eurasia, northeastern China provides and interesting case study, because of the early onset of sedentary life, not recorded in most areas of Central Eurasia before the supposed Bronze/Iron Age transition. Throughout his dissertation, Williams draws contrast to similar research already conducted in the Chifeng region. Chifeng provides an interesting contrast for Williams because of its clearly sedentary agricultural past and its highly arable nature; whereas, the region of Zhangwu County that he surveyed is marked by a more arid grassland environment. While Zhangwu County is clearly dominated by grasslands and a broad ecology easily utilized by pastoralists, it, like most of the Eurasian steppe lands, is actually a mosaic environment and must be considered from a more localized scale. Williams notes the variability in environment across this northern region and emphasizes in his results that a mixed economic strategy is not unexpected. Williams further sub-divides his region and notes that in the northern part of Zhangwu County the vegetation would have been more likely to support grazing animals; whereas in the southern part of the survey area, he notes that there is a more stable environment, which is better for cultivation. He suggests that in this southern region “one might expect grain cultivation to persist and perhaps even intensify during the Late Bronze Age, just as was apparently the case in Chifeng” (p. 65).

The methodology for this dissertation is laid out in Chapter 4 – during April, May, and June of 2012 Williams and his team surveyed a large transect across Zhangwu County. They were careful to survey across the boundary between the productive farmlands and the Horqin Sandy Lands, in order to obtain a full picture of settlement in the past. The survey team recorded sites and collected and documented ceramic and other artifacts. The survey was conducted at 30 meter increments and methods closely followed other survey projects previously conducted in Mongolia (described in detail on page 70 of the dissertation). The team employed several well-known ceramicists to help divide and document the sherds. Based on the seriation of these sherds, the team developed a chronology of human occupation across the transect. Based on this survey work, the team made estimates of the sedentary and mobile societies’ populations, calculated agricultural productivity, and produced vector and raster map interpolations. The team also conducted use-wear analyses on stone tools collected during the survey. The lithic use-wear analysis was carried out at Liaoning Institute of Archaeology during July of 2012. The goal of the lithics study was to determine if certain artifacts were agricultural tools. The methods for assessing population density were previously laid out by the survey projects working in Chifeng and further discussed on page 74 of the dissertation.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Williams presents and discussed the interpretations of his data. He goes through the data by time period, starting with the “period of initial occupation and Honshan occupation (4500-3000 BCE)”, then he presents the results for the Early and Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and finally the Liao period, respectively. He notes that during the Xiajiadian period (2000-1200 BCE) population density was much higher in Chifeng than in northeastern China. He also references sources that describe finds of agricultural tools, archaeobotanical remains of millet, zooarchaeological remains of cow, sheep, goat, and pig, and architectural remains of sedentary villages from the Chifeng region at this time period. Systematic survey of 1,234 sq km of the Chifeng region has shown a dense settlement of agricultural peoples across the region. Williams big interpretations state that the data he has generated further calls into question claims that specialized herding economies developed during the Late Bronze Age, regardless of the fact that paleoclimatic conditions conducive to herding, specifically a warmer and dryer climate, existed during the Early to Late Bronze Age. Williams states that “local communities favored a mixed economy throughout the Bronze Age” and that “local environmental conditions tempered the degree to which communities carried out certain economic practices. However, economic specialization, which was previously thought to have characterized the region, does not appear to be at all consistent with the evidence” (v).

Williams concludes, in Chapter 7, that there are clear similarities in the social developments through time between the Chifeng and Zhangwu regions. He notes that there is a substantial increase in regional population from the Hongshan period to the Early Bronze Age in both of these regions. However, unlike in Chifeng, in Zhangwu, during the Late Bronze Age, there is low population density and the population does not rebound until the Liao period. Williams interprets this low population density during the Iron Age as evidence for a coupling of political pressure and environmental pressure. He also notes that, overall, in Zhangwu there are a higher percentage of smaller settlements, possibly due to the agricultural limitations of the landscape in general. In the end, Williams concludes that there is no evidence for specialized herding in this region, although, specialization may be a component in a larger social system. Ultimately, he wraps up the dissertation with ambitious plans for future research in a section titled “filling the gaps”.

Robert N Spengler III, PhD
Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations Postdoctoral Fellow
German Archaeological Institute (DAI),
Eurasia Department
Research Associate
Washington University in St Louis
Anthropology Department

Primary Sources
Primary archaeological and survey data from northeast China

Dissertation Information
Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, 205 pp. January 2014. Dissertation Advisor: Robert D. Drennan.

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