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2.8: Longshan (3000 BCE – 1900 BCE)

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    The Longshan culture in Northern China (2.8.1) comprised several small Neolithic communities in northern China's middle and lower regions of the Yellow River valleys. Its namesake was the modern-day city of Longshan in the Shandong province. The Yellow River originates from the Tibetan mountains, traverses through China, and eventually discharges into the Yellow Sea towards the east. Given the snow melt from the Himalayan mountains, managing the river was challenging, leading to floods in the river and its valleys. However, these floods also deposited copious amounts of silt in the valley, rendering the land fertile and ideal for agriculture for the Longshan people.

    During the Longshan period, various cultural communities inhabited the surrounding regions outside of Longshan, each with their own distinct attributes. The Longshan territory became renowned for its distinctive pottery, which was burnished, delicately constructed, and richly adorned with black designs. They were pioneers in utilizing the pottery wheel, a device that was prevalent in the Northern Chinese regions and extended into the Yangtze River valley, representing the interconnectivity and exchange between diverse cultures and geographies.

    Map of eastern Asia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Longshan culture (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Longshan culture is typically categorized by historians into two distinct periods. The first of these, known as the Early Period, spanned from 3000 to 2600 BCE and was characterized by a transition from the preceding Yangshao culture. Throughout this period, the population shifted from isolated and scattered small villages to larger settlements, and agriculture became more widespread in the valleys. Additionally, there was a greater presence of evidence showcasing the use of domesticated animals for consumption. At select archaeological sites, the commoners' graves were discovered to be modest and straightforward, in stark contrast to the extravagant burials of the elite, which were replete with extraordinary offerings. Such discoveries present a puzzling inquiry into the life and death of the Longshan people and why some were deemed distinguished.

    Grains have been a staple food source for humans and animals for thousands of years. They are rich in nutrients and are known for their reliability in terms of availability and ease of cultivation. Additionally, a significant amount of evidence points to producing fermented beverages using grains, a common practice still prevalent in modern times. This process involves using the natural sugars present in grains to create an alcoholic beverage, which has been enjoyed by people across different cultures and regions for centuries. Farming tools specially crafted for digging, harvesting, and grinding grains have been unearthed by archaeologists. As civilizations expanded and populations grew,  cultivating crops became an indispensable and more demanding task. In certain excavations, indications of silkworm cultivation and early stages of small-scale silk production have been discovered. The Longshan civilization created particular tools to produce silk thread, paving the way for the flourishing of the silk industry over five millennia ago.

    The Longshan culture was known to practice divine worship, although these rituals' exact purpose remains unsurpassed in mystery. Many scholars speculate that these practices were rooted in agriculture, aiming to ensure bountiful harvests. At the Chengziyai excavation site, archaeologists unearthed oracle bones crafted from the shoulder bones of sheep or pigs. Intriguingly, these bones bore intricate patterns of cracks, thought to have been created by heating the bones. These cracks were then interpreted by skilled practitioners, though the true meaning of their insights has been lost to the ages.


    Between 2600 and 2000 BCE, there was a period of expansion for many communities that sought to increase their territories. It is believed that these communities carried out conflicts with one another during this time and to protect themselves, these communities constructed rammed earth walls (2.8.2) around additional settlements. The fortified settlements were rectangular in shape and constructed from mud brick with intricate drainage systems in place. Constructing with rammed earth was the preferred method of building any structure, houses, walls, or civic buildings. Wooden frames outlined the building, and small rocks and dirt were inserted between the frames and tamped down, making a thick, sturdy wall. This involved placing small rocks between wooden frames and then compressing the earth through stamping or ramming by workers, resulting in sturdy and formidable walls. Some of the larger towns boasted populations of up to 40,000 people living within their fortified walls. With the emergence of subsequent cultures and growing populations, these walls were expanded, ultimately culminating in the renowned Great Wall of China, an incredibly lengthy structure. The early rammed earth wall construction model became the model for the early sections of the Great Wall.

    a wall and towers across land
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Rammed earth wall (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Longshan region excavations have uncovered a variety of settlement styles and sizes. In the northern Shandong province, four-walled and evenly spaced settlements were found. Meanwhile, two significant sites in the southern part of the province showed buildings surrounded by walls, suggesting an economic hierarchy based on wealth or power. Historians speculate that these two settlements were rivals, leaving few remains of other settlements in between. Rectangular houses with dirt floors and walls made of wooden posts covered with branches and plastered with mud were common. Roofs were made of woven bamboo and reeds and laid on the floors.


    As populations increased and settlements expanded, the manufacturing industry diversified into various sectors to produce an array of goods. Among these were pottery designed for cooking and delicate, thin-walled vessels. They also crafted silk fabrics, copper and bronze tools, weapons, and ornaments, and fashioned high-end items from jade for trade and affluent customers. Each settlement or region focused on producing a specific item and traded it with other villages for goods they specialized in.

    During the Longshan culture, pottery production in the Shandong region was of exceptional quality and distinct from that of the Neolithic period. Utilizing fast-spun pottery wheels between 2500 to 2000 BCE, artisans crafted pottery in a range of shapes, sizes, and styles. The introduction of the fast wheel during this era allowed for the creation of exquisite earthenware in red, gray, and the highly esteemed black.

    At certain excavation sites, archaeologists have discovered a variety of tools including molds, chisels, anvils, and polishing tools. These tools were commonly used during the Neolithic period in the creation of pottery and updraft kilns. In many societies, fire was used as a heat source by digging trenches or pits in the ground and placing poles near or in the burning wood. The updraft kiln was an innovative concept that utilized a heat source at the bottom with pots stacked inside over the heat and a damper at the top for regulating the temperature. This type of kiln allowed potters to control the amount of oxygen during firing and slowly add water from the top to create smoke and initiate the carbonization process. The result was a beautiful black surface on the pottery, which is considered one of the most impressive Chinese inventions. Archaeologists have also found sites with side-by-side kilns that could produce pottery on a large scale.

    The quality of the surviving pottery from this period was exceptional and unusual for Neolithic cultures. Pottery was created using a quick-speed potter's wheel in multiple sizes and shapes. Archaeologists also found numerous updraft kilns, an advanced model for Neolithic cultures, helping produce the unique Longshan black pottery in mass production. The particular goblet (2.8.3) represents another achievement, very thin goblets in multiple forms; a flared brim on the top, a cup, and a multiple-shaped stem. Known as eggshell pottery, it was highly polished and served as an example of their advancement using the high-speed wheel.  The blackware cooking pot (2.8.4) is a remarkable testament to their mastery of the high-speed potter's wheel and their ingenuity in designing innovative pieces. 

    black pottery in a slim profile
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Eggshell pottery (CC0)
    a tri leg clay cooking pot
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Cooking Pot (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    The Longshan culture was a prominent player in shaping many aspects of Chinese cultures that followed during the Neolithic period. They were instrumental in introducing centralized manufacturing, earthworks, defensive walls, and a hierarchical society comprising the wealthy and military. Additionally, they developed advanced techniques for producing finished pottery. However, the society declined due to social and environmental changes, which led to the abandonment of large settlements and migration of people. As with all cultures, the Longshan civilization underwent transformations, and new ways emerged that brought about significant changes. The fluctuating river dynamics also had an impact on the civilization. Remnants of silk fabric found in tombs led historians to believe this was the period when silk production began on small farms. Specialized tools to create silk thread excavated at archeological sites show the beginning of the long-term dominance of China's silk industry that expanded later on the well-known Silk Road. The Longshan and other settlements in China started many of the unique advancements of the Neolithic period. They created mass manufacturing techniques, developed a new material for fabric and clothing, built secure walls and buildings, and had a stratified society and military.