The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

2020-03-02 13:43:45

The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

  A tripod earthenware ewer

The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

  An earthenware zun

The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

  An earthenware tripod basin

The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

  An earthernware dou (pedestal bowl)

The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

  Aerial view of the Niubishan site

In the Neolithic cultural systems of the Minjiang River basin, the Niubishan culture is a cultural fusion born of interactions and collisions among the cultures of what is now the Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi regions, as well as the source of the agricultural revolution.

Cultural Profile

Niubishan Site

The 3200-square-meter Niubishan site is located in Dangxi Village, part of Guanxu Township in Pucheng County. In 1989 and 1990, a Fujian provincial archaeological team carried out two excavations over a total area of 900 square meters. These efforts led researchers to 19 Neolithic tombs, 8 ash pits, more than 300 stone tools, jade pieces and pottery artifacts, as well as a great many pottery sherds.

The Niubishan site yielded cultural relics such as the “three-legged pitcher” and duck-shaped cauldrons. These relics had certain characteristics that were unique and revealed a culture that was quite different from the Tanshishan culture in the lower reaches of the Minjiang River. Niubishan culture bears great value to researchers interested in regional prehistoric cultural exchanges, the prehistoric cultural links between Fujian and Taiwan, the development of the prehistoric cultural sequence, the archaeological study of ancient settlements, and the transformation of prehistoric economic formations. In 2018, the regions surrounding the Niubishan site was once again systemically surveyed, which unearthed carbonized Japonica seeds (a variety of domesticated rice) that were between 4800 to 5300 years old.

Expert Comments

Professor Wu Xiaoping, Department of Archaeology, Sichuan University:

Pucheng’s Niubishan site is representative of the past agricultural economies at mountain archaeological sites. These sites are often distributed along the edge of river terraces. Because these ecological environments were very different from those at shell midden sites, their residents also had very different lifestyles, which is reflected in their culture. Take production tools for instance. There is a greater proportion of agricultural tools than in shell middens, which happen to be exquisite in craftsmanship. Such tools include rectangular stone adzes, perforated stone axes, large stone axes, and knives and millstones crafted from stone. Tools for hunting or fishing number less than the latter, reflecting that economic production in these sites were based mainly on gathering and agriculture, supplemented by fishing and hunting. Agricultural production was more advanced in these sites than in shell mounds. 

Li Jia and Shen Xia, senior archaeologists from Jiangxi Province; Xu Changqing, former head of the Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology: 

Progress at the Niubishan site has provided valuable material for the archeological study of Neolithic Fujian. Research on the Niubishan site not only enhances our understanding of Niubishan’s cultural essence, but also enriches the cultural visages that it represents. In addition, such research also uncovers the differences and links between the Niubishan and Tanshishan cultures. In this sense, research on Niubishan can contribute to the study of regional archaeological cultures in Neolithic Fujian. In addition, the site’s geographical location has also had a positive impact on research into the origins of the prehistoric ancient cultures in the region straddling the borders of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi. 

Dr. Fu Lin, archaeologist at the Department of History at Xiamen University:

Niubishan culture is representative of Neolithic mountain culture in regions around the provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi, and provides solid evidence that, around 5000 years ago, rice farming had already taken root in these regions. Pucheng’s Niubishan site was the first archaeological site representative of the eponymous Niubishan culture to be unearthed. The site provides important physical evidence for the study of the economic activities, cultural interactions and funerary customs of the early Niubishan settlers. In future, more detailed enquiry into the nature of human settlements at the site will tremendously expand our understanding of prehistoric mountain cultures in Fujian and cast light on Fujian’s cultural layout during the Neolithic Age, which was mainly dominated by mountain cultures and maritime cultures. 

A Present-Day Story

Two Carbonized Japonica Seeds

Fujian’s archaeologists have a saying: “for relics aboveground, look to Quanzhou; for relics below ground, look to Pucheng”, which hits the proverbial nail on the head. Who would have thought that millennia worth of cultural history could be found in a lonely 40-meter hilltop sequestered among its towering peers with only the meandering tributaries of the Nanpu Brook for company? The hilltop is home to the oldest Neolithic culture to be unearthed in the region, forming a sort of distant symmetry with the Tanshishan culture. Together, they form a “dialogue” between Fujian’s Neolithic mountain cultures and maritime cultures.

Today, there are only six households that permanently dwell within the immediate vicinity of the Niubishan site. In contrast, this was once a “poetic dwelling” where the ancient settlers of millennia past cleared the lands and made their homes wherever the rivers flowed. “Against the mountains and facing the rivers, with a large basin in the middle. These are some of the more prominent topographic features of the Niubishan site,” says Yang Jun, deputy curator of the Pucheng County Museum. The Niubishan site reflects, in great detail, daily life in the permanent settlements that ancient settlers established in lieu of nomadic lifestyles.

The humid mountainous regions of northern Fujian are naturally endowed with rich ecological resources. “In the Neolithic Age, productivity remained low over long periods of history. Back then, although ancient settlers relied on the gifts of nature to a large extent, they had already embarked on a conscious quest to develop and transform nature,” said Yang Jun.

The deeper one goes, the greater the surprises. In July 2018, with approval from the Fujian Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage, Pucheng County and Xiamen University’s Department of History carried out a systematic archaeological survey of the regions surrounding the Niubishan site, where researchers meticulously divided the site into units of one square meter each. This was also the first time that a “regional system approach” was applied to archaeological inquiry in Fujian, and also an attempt at integrating a “regional systemic survey” approach with conventional census-taking methods in the densely forested mountains of southern China. Their efforts greatly enriched our understanding of the Niubishan site. 

Later on, during trial excavations of exploratory trenches at the summit and western slopes of the Niubishan Mountain, two grains of carbonized rice were discovered in ash pits and strata corresponding to the Neolithic Age. Associate Professor Ge Wei, head of Xiamen University’s Experimental Teaching Center for Archaeology and Anthropology, identified them to be japonica rice grains. Carbon-14 dating later showed that these grains were between 4800 to 5300 years old. The discovery of these “fossilized” grains meant that rice cultivation in northern Fujian and the region straddling the three provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi had begun 1500 years earlier than previously imagined. 

Earlier on, curiously shaped stepped stone adzes were discovered among the agricultural tools unearthed in the Niubishan site. Humans were already using stepped stone adzes during the period of the Hemudu culture in Zhejiang (approximately 6000 to 7000 years ago). These tools are believed to have been used in agriculture, albeit as part of composite tools with handles attached. Not many stepped stone adzes were discovered in the Niubishan site, suggesting that agricultural production remained generally primitive. However, the mere presence of these tools also prove that early Niubishan settlers had already embarked upon the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. 

Progress in pottery production and agriculture provided the conditions that allowed for permanent settlements and the emergence of primitive clan societies. Utensils for storing seeds were among the large amount of pottery unearthed at the Niubishan site. At the time, early settlers cultivated and harvested crops, but overall yields were low. Some vessels also bore signs of having been used in cooking over a slow fire, indicating a dietary shift from raw to cooked food.  

Interestingly, the unearthed cultural relics also included some earthenware gui (a type of ewer), which were a traditional form of pottery that originated in the Yellow River basin. These artifacts had peculiar shapes, with mouths in the shape of a duck’s bill, and three hollow legs that linked to its elegantly long neck. It is believed that these artifacts could have been used as either drinking or cooking vessels. Some researchers believe that these vessels were used for alcoholic beverages. There is a saying in ancient Chinese literature: “clear liquors had their origin in agriculture”. The use of grain to produce liquors accompanied the emergence of agricultural production. It is worth exploring whether the discovery of Pucheng’s earthenware gui indicates that agricultural production during that period was already to support the production of grain-based alcoholic beverages.

In 2009, the Niubishan site was included in Fujian’s seventh group of cultural heritage sites to be placed under provincial-level protection. Today, in order to protect historical relics to the largest possible extent, the archaeological site has been completely backfilled (reburied). As a testament to its rich culture, Guancuo Township built a Niubishan cultural park in Dangxi Village when carrying out eco-hydrological works. During their strolls in the park, visitors can take in cultural elements such as pottery artifacts and farming tools of various shapes and sizes, much as though they had somehow travelled back in time.

It is undeniable that, in the Neolithic cultural systems of the Minjiang River basin, the Niubishan culture was a fusion of the cultures that collided and interacted in the intersection of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces, which also gave birth to a Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Sadly, we have barely scratched the surface of the rich Niubishan culture. As Chen Zhaoshan, a researcher from the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology at Fujian Museum, puts it, “We are still far from being able to articulate the place and functions of Pucheng’s underground artifacts, which truly deserve further exploration and study.”

A Prehistoric Legend

Playing the role of both bridge and bridgehead

The prehistoric “Classic of Mountains and Seas” of the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites

Narrator Chen Zhaoshan (Researcher, Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology at Fujian Museum)

The archaeological material unearthed from Niubishan over the two excavations has provided immensely valuable physical evidence for the study of mountain archaeological cultures in Neolithic Fujian. Tanshishan culture reflects Fujian’s Neolithic maritime cultures, while Niubishan reflects its mountain cultures. Together, they are representative of the two Fujian Neolithic cultural systems.

As we all know, the Tanshishan culture is the richest of Fujian’s prehistoric archeological cultures, while the number of Neolithic relics unearthed in northern and western Fujian remains somewhat lacking. When it comes to the study of prehistoric regional cultures in Fujian, there are still many missing links with respect to cultural sequence and region. 

Northern Fujian played a pioneering role in the history and culture of ancient Fujian. In terms of archaeological inquiry, years of archaeological work in northern Fujian have led to the excavation of archaeological sites such as the Niubishan, Heiyantou and Madaoping sites in Pucheng County; the Meixigang, Hulushan and Shangqiqiugang sites in Wuyishan Municipality; the Maling and Mantoushan sites in Guangze County; the Doumishan site in Shaowu Municipality; and the Hulushan site in Nanping Municipality’s Yanping District. These sites have enriched the connotations of Fujian’s Neolithic culture. Compared to other regions, northern Fujian’s prehistoric history has been relatively well-preserved. 

Niubishan remains the most representative among these many sites. “Niubishan culture” is so named for the site, which is representative of both northern Fujian’s early cultures and Fujian’s archaeological mountain cultures, making it an important link in Fujian’s prehistoric cultural sequence. In fact, the remote Niubishan site is a gleaming pearl that had been hidden in the depths of these mountains. 

Pucheng’s location at the northern passages into Fujian Province have made it a strategic chokepoint that straddles the provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi since ancient times. Because of this unique geographical location, Pucheng is also both a bridge and a bridgehead for the movement of people, cultural interaction, and trade. In prehistoric times, Pucheng had links with the Liangzhu culture, mound tombs and Yue culture of the Jiangnan region. In addition, Pucheng was also the main passageway linking Fujian with the Central Plains and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. In general, advanced cultural elements that were imported from the Central Plains generally took root in Pucheng before spreading to the rest of the Minjiang River basin. In this aspect, Pucheng played an important role in Fujian’s history. 

Niubishan culture has very distinct elements. Representative Niubishan pottery artifacts can be divided into ten major types, including three-legged cauldrons, three-legged plates, three-legged gui (ewers), large-bellied round-bottomed vessels, small flat flared-rim jars, tall round-legged flared-rim jars, and narrow-rimmed tall jars with round feet or round bottoms, along with small numbers of other vessels. Tripods, elongated vessels and “ring-footed” designs were typical. Jars with “ears” (handles) were well-developed. 

The influence of contemporary cultures from the neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangxi regions can be found in Niubishan culture. An analysis of the sizes and shapes of Niubishan artifacts, such as tall bell-shaped ring-footed dou (pedestal bowls), tall pedestal bowls, cauldrons with tapered feet as well as necked jars and straight jars that were unearthed from underground strata show close cultural similarities with Liangzhu culture, which has already been inscribed into the world cultural heritage list. Going back further into history allows us to trace these artifacts back to the Neolithic Songze culture of the Jiangnan region. Also, there are certain similarities between Niubishan culture and Jiangxi’s Fanchengdui culture. Potteries unearthed at both these sites show similar cultural attributes in terms of material, colour, the shapes and sizes of cauldrons, pedestal bowls and necked jars that accompanied burials, as well as tools such as stone axes, adzes and projectile points. Jiangxi archaeologists believe that Niubishan culture is highly likely to be yet another of Jiangxi’s archaeological cultures – the Wannian culture – which implies that Niubishan culture was the source of Wannian culture. 

Niubishan culture had had great influence on the Tanshishan culture of the lower reaches of the Minjiang River. The second source of Tanshishan culture is also its primary source – the early cultures of the upper reaches of the Minjiang River, in particular the Niubishan culture. Of course, this also includes other prehistoric cultures in the same region, which today falls under the jurisdiction of Nanping Municipality. In terms of the natural geographical environment, northern Fujian is one of the sources of the Minjiang River, making waterway transportation extremely convenient. With the exception of some individual sections, the region is marked by valleys extending miles and miles in a north-south direction that link the upper and lower reaches of the Minjiang River, providing the conditions that facilitated cultural exchanges. From the perspective of archaeological culture, there is some basis for arguing that Fujian’s culture originated in its northern regions.

If we compare the Tanshishan and Niubishan cultures, we will find that there are four types of artifacts, nearly identical in shape and size, that are common to both regions: small round flared-rim round-bottomed jars, flared-rim long-necked flat-bellied ring-footed necked jars, wide-mouthed shallow medium-tall ring-footed pedestal bowls, and wide-mouthed shallow tall-wide ring-footed pedestal bowls. Artifacts similar in shape and size but less commonly found include the short curved “drum-belly” ring-footed jar, the slight flared-rim folded-belly ring-footed gui, the flat curved-belly ring-footed gui and the short inverted-rim oblique ring-footed gui. Artifacts that are similar or close include tripod cauldrons and short curved “drum-belly” ring-footed jars, among others.

Therefore, we can see that although the primary and secondary artifacts of the two cultures show relatively large differences, there are still close links between the two. There are elements shared by both, as well as evidence of mutual influence. Considering that Niubishan culture is located in the upper reaches of the Minjiang River, and would have encountered prehistoric Zhejiang culture earlier than Tanshishan culture, we may also infer that Niubishan culture had a greater impact on Tanshishan culture than the other way round. 

A comparison of pottery unearthed in the Niubishan and Tanshishan sites reveal the presence of similar, or even identical, artifacts in the first to fifth excavations of the Tanshishan burial mounds, which suggests sustained, bi-directional cultural influence.

Through the Niubishan “bridge”, Tanshishan culture also exerted a certain amount of influence on the Neolithic cultures of southern Zhejiang. For instance, the Haochuan culture also absorbed certain elements of Tanshishan culture.