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1.2: Food and Progress

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    East Asia shares its most ancient past experiences with the rest of humanity. By about 200,000 years ago, homo sapiens sapiens (the species of primate to which all humans now belong) had evolved in Africa. We were almost wiped out about 70,000 years ago by a volcano and an ice age, leaving about 2,000 people in all. But we survived. By about 50,000 (or, new evidence suggests, even 70,000 years ago6), we had moved out of Africa, and some of us had travelled to Southeast Asia, and then to East Asia. To think about how long ago that was, let’s say a human generation is around 20 years – that’s roughly how long a person lives before having children, in other words. That means that there have been humans in East Asia for at least 2,500 generations. Starting about 10,000 years ago, those people figured out how to make good stone tools, and the Neolithic age (New Stone Age) began.

    Map A. Prehistoric Asian regions referred to in the text, with the Yellow River and its distinctive hump, the Wei River, and further south the Yangzi (Yangtze) River; the Shandong peninsula and early rice producing settlement of Hemudu, and the current cities of Beijing and Lanzhou for reference. East of Shandong is the Korean peninsula. East of that again is the Japanese archipelago.

    Most basically, human civilization rests on a steady supply of food. People have assured that supply in various ways, sharing some technology from place to place and developing other techniques independently, so there is no single timeline or progression of civilization. The New Stone Age included the Agricultural Revolution, which occurred in East Asia about 10,000 years ago, or 8,000 BC: about the same time as in other parts of the world. Once people had figured out how to make better stone tools, they could supplement hunting and gathering activities. With their sharp stone axes they could clear trees and shrubs to create fields; they could burn the fields over and with their stone hoes prepare the ground for planting; and with their stone sickles for most grains, and reaping knives for rice, they could harvest efficiently. In the northern mainland areas people figured out how to keep and plant millet seeds. They domesticated rice further south, at Hemudu and along the Yangzi at about the same time. Working with natural wetlands where rice was native, people also dug ditches to assure water flow. Some time after that, people domesticated dogs (from wolves), then pigs (from wild boar), and then chickens.

    A varied and reliable food supply led to further changes in culture and social organization. Control of grain and fields, and investment in wells and ditches, meant that some people settled down in pit houses (pits dug into the earth, walled, and roofed) grouped into stable villages. Techniques of growing millet and rice appear in the Korean peninsula in about 2,000 BC, presumably imported from the mainland. Another thousand years later people in the Japanese archipelago adopted domesticated rice, tutored by people from the peninsula. This path eastward from the Chinese part of the Asian continent (which I will call “the mainland”) to the Korean peninsula to the Japanese archipelago – carried many people, ideas, and objects, as we shall see.

    Since grain cultivation started there so much later, it is tempting to think of the peninsula and archipelago as being “behind” the mainland. But what grain offered was a steady food supply. And long before they grew rice, people on the archipelago had made a plentiful, reliable living by gathering acorns, walnuts, and chestnuts in their luxuriant forests and seaweed and fish from the long coastline. Maedun cave in eastern, inland South Korea recently yielded fourteen limestone “sinkers,” stones with grooves carved into them so they could be tied to the bottom of nets as weights, in order to catch small fish in shallow streams. The sinkers date to 27,000 BC, still in the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic). Nets with sinkers worked very well: archaeologists found fossilized bones belonging to fish and other animals, as well as stone tools and flakes, inside the Maedun cave. Fishing hooks made of the shells of sea snails have been found on Okinawa (to the south of the main Japanese islands) dating to 23,000 years ago. An excavated building from 9,000 BC was so full of salmon bones that archaeologists consider it a processing plant that would swing into action at the proper season every year. Once processed, the salmon was stored in pottery jars decorated with snakes and frogs. Rather than a single timeline on which civilizations are “ahead of” or “behind” each other, people develop and adopt technology at different times for complicated reasons.

    This page titled 1.2: Food and Progress is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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