|This overview of one of the larger pits at the Banpo Neolithic site in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province shows several features of the Yangshao culture and architecture.
The Yangshao Culture developed along the Wei River and parts of the Yellow River from 5000 BC to 3000 BC. Neolithic cultures are distinguished by pottery making, group living, and well-formed stone and bone implements. The Yangshao were not alone. Among the many other Neolithic cultures in China at the time were the Xinle (5300-4800) in the northeast, Beixin (5300-4500) and Dawenkou (4300-2600) around the lower Yellow River, Daxi (5000-3300) around the middle Yangtze, and the Dapenkeng and Fuguodun (5000-3000) in the southeast. Each has distinguishing features and similarities. Neolithic cultures were also dotted through Europe, England, Korea, and the Americas. Wanderlust seems to have been built into our make-up. There would have been occasional contact between cultures and between different villages within a culture, but the distances make regular trade and contact unlikely.
The Banpo site lies on the Wei River just on the edge of Xi'an. It was discovered when excavations were begun for a new factory in October 1953 by the Banpo work group. It gets its name from the work group. Once the find was identified, the work group changed occupations and became diggers for the archaeologists. Eventually, the dig was turned over to the Institute for Archeological Research at the Chinese Academy of Science. It became the first large scale dig of post-revolutionary China.
The site is spread over 12.5 to 17.5 acres and includes over 100 houses, pottery kilns, and burial grounds. The site was occupied from around 4800 to about 4000 BC. The early era lasted until around 4300 BC. During the last three hundred years of occupation, the designs of homes changed and tools became more sophisticated.
In the picture above you can see the outlines of a circular house. All early houses were circular and had sunken floors up to a meter deep. The earth from the depression may have been used to fashion the walls. The walls were supported by timber beams and topped with a thatched roof. In some areas of the village there is evidence of multiple layers of foundations, showing successive generations building within the confines of the village.
A couple weeks before I saw the Banpo site for the first time, I was visiting the Natural History Museum of Chicago. They had an exhibition of some early Native American artefacts and had reconstructed a hut that was very similar to that found in Banpo. There was evidence that the Native Americans also dug pits within the house to store food below the insect line, as did the Banpo.
The village was surrounded by a trench, or moat, as a protection against animals and snakes. The loess soil was easy to dig and yet it dried hard as adobe when piled to make walls and to support posts. Firing the clay made it water resistant and durable. Posts were footed on a large rock or stone and then held in place by a mud footing. Walls and floors were of fire baked clay. Some of the houses had multiple rooms built on different levels. The largest had five levels. Houses had covered porches in front of a single door. A nice convenience during a rainy day when you want to take the air as well as a protection from the heat of the sun when you are cleaning vegetables for dinner.
The late Banpo period saw the addition of a few square houses with rounded corners. During the last part of the occupation a large rectangular building was constructed. The roof was supported by 12 posts measuring 5.90 to 8.66 inches thick. The building itself was 41 feet wide and about 65 feet long with three foot thick walls of fire baked clay. It was divided in the middle by an east-west wall and there is some evidence that wooden planks may have served as flooring. The door was on the south side and the building was used for storage and probably gatherings.
Storage of food was accomplished by digging pits down past the insect layer. The pits were wider at the bottom than at the top. American Indians did the same. The Banpo were an agricultural community and grew millet, a grain, in addition to several types of vegetables. Bones of dogs, sheep, and pigs showed they had domesticated some animals. They also hunted and fished for food. They created arrow points, spear points, balls to use in slings, and fishhooks.
They had quite an assortment of stone tools, including axes, scrapers, grinders, adzes, and cutters. A wide range of pointed objects of various materials were used as awls, spears, plows, and needles. Many of their needles were very fine and had a very small eye. What appears to be woven cloth was pressed onto the surface of some pots, although no fabric was recovered at the site.
Over a thousand pieces of pottery were found that were either complete or had minor breakage. The pottery was either tan and rough or smooth and fine. The fine pottery was red and often had very thin delicate walls. Lids on pots were most often of red ware. The shapes varied from large open flat bowls, to pointed amphora, to flat-bottomed ovals, to open pots. Surface decoration included ridges built up with clay, rope indentations, fingernail indentations, and painted designs.
They decorated their pottery with ink drawn designs of fish and people, primarily. The ink was ground on special stones. They wore jewelry made from clam shells and animal teeth. In at least one grave a jade ornament was found. Its placement indicated that it was an earring. That tomb also contained a belt of matched clay disks on the corpse. Ornaments may have been worn as necklaces or sewn to clothing. A lot of time and effort went into boring holes into the shells and teeth.
Much of what we know about the culture comes from the burial sites. The adult cemetery was outside the village confines. Almost all individuals were buried alone, in an east-west orientation with the head pointing west. Most of the graves had five or six covered pottery containers of various foods and implements. The size, number, and shapes of the pottery varies from grave to grave. Millet was first identified in one of these jars. Men and women were buried separately. In the few group graves, the separation by gender was maintained.
Children were buried in a very different manner. They were buried within the village outside the walls of houses. They were placed in special pottery jars that were pierced at the bottom. The pots were often rough, but the lids were fine red ware. The belief system that lay behind the differentiation of a child's death from that of an adult is open to speculation.
Another area of speculation is the fate of the Banpo. Other groups in the area, such as the Qijia culture (2400 BC - 1900 BC) near Lanzhou to the west, made the transition into the early Bronze Age, but the Banpo Village was abandoned around 4000 BC. The large rectangular building had been damaged by flooding, but there is nothing to tell whether that happened before or after the people had moved on to another location.
Last update: March 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2010