Discovery, Excavation, and History of the Jiahu Settlement

Red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido, Japan. Currently an endangered species, they were plentiful throughout the East Asia region in the Neolithic period and were hunted for meat; their wing bones were used to make the Jiahu flutes.


Jiahu was the place of a Neolithic village based in the central plain of early China, surrounding the Yellow River. It is situated between the floodplains of the Ni River to the north, and the Sha River to the south, 22 km (14 mi) north of the present-day city of Wuyang, Henan Province.

Most archaeologists recognize the site to be one of the earliest examples of the Peiligang culture. Settled around 7600 BC, the site was sadly flooded and evacuated around 5700 BC. The settlement was enclosed by a moat and covered a relatively large area of 55,000 square meters. At one time, it was “a complex, extremely organized Chinese Neolithic society,” home to at least 250 people and perhaps as many as 800.

The notable findings of the Jiahu archaeological site incorporate the Jiahu symbols, perhaps an early example of proto-writing, carved into tortoise shells and bones; the thirty-three Jiahu flutes dissected from the wing bones of cranes, believed to be amongst the oldest playable musical instruments in the world; and proof of wine fermented from rice, honey, and hawthorn leaves.

A broad variety of other artifacts shows a fairly advanced settlement for the early Neolithic period, including houses, burial sites, pottery kilns, an assortment of tools made of stone and earthenware, and a large central structure believed to be a communal workspace. To date, 45 residences have been excavated at Jiahu. Most of these are small, between four and ten meters. Most of these were semi-subterranean (partially dug into the earth) and with a single room; however, some of these had additional rooms built on later. Rubbish pits and storage cellars were also excavated, and nine pottery kilns were identified.

Discovery and excavation

Found by Zhu Zhi in 1962, extended excavation of the site did not happen until the 1980s. Most of the site still has not been excavated, although work is gradually advancing. The excavation of Jiahu burial sites and rubbish pits has been fruitful, yielding abundant evidence about the lives of the Jiahu people.

Agriculture and Evolution

The residents of Jiahu planted foxtail millet and rice. While millet cultivation is popular in the Peiligang culture, rice cultivation at Jiahu is unique and tends to support the theory that Jiahu was a separate culture from the Peiligang grouping. On the other hand, the difference in local climate, moisture, and soil conditions may have made cultivating rice in the Peiligang area more difficult. Jiahu rice cultivation is one of the earliest found (Indians discovered it and the Chinese took it from India), and the most northerly found at such an early stage in history. The rice was a kind of short-grained japonica rice. Scholars had previously thought the earliest domesticated rice belonged to the long-grain Indica subspecies. The rice cultivation by Jiahu might be a part of the ancient Indo-Chinese trade relation with the Jiahu finding a way to learn and acquire the agricultural skill from the Indians. 

There is ample proof of millet farming in cool, dry high latitudes of the Yellow River Valley, and rice farming predominated in warm, moist low latitudes of the Yangtze River Valley. The ancient Neolithic site of Jiahu lies near the boundary between the cool, dry north and the warm, moist south. In another sign of advancement, Jiahu’s farmers had moved on from the usual slash-and-burn methods of Neolithic farmers, and were using intensive cultivation in permanent fields.

Jiahu is also the site of the earliest find (Only second to India) of wild soybean seeds in China; a great number of soybean remains were discovered at Jiahu.

Food was plentiful, from farming as well as hunting and foraging, and provided significant population growth for such an early settlement. Women of the Jiahu gathered wild pears and apricots and foraged for acorns, chestnuts, broad beans, edible roots and tubers in the surrounding countryside. There is evidence of domesticated pigs, dogs, poultry, and small numbers of cattle. The Jiahu people used manure from their pigs and cattle as fertilizer, substantially increasing the yield of their rice crops. The livestock produced meat, milk, and eggs. The red-crowned crane, a large bird indigenous to the region, was hunted for meat; its bones and feathers were also used for other purposes.

Due to this regularly improving and varied diet, the health, and longevity of the Jiahu people constantly developed. This has been documented through a comparison of the archaeological evidence. Over 400 burials have been unearthed at Jiahu, and many hundreds more are believed to await excavation. Skeletons have been marked and carefully examined, revealing the height, weight, gender, and approximate age of each of the deceased Jiahu at the time of death, as well as the overall health, and in many cases the reason of death. The three phases of Jiahu history correspond to steadily increasing numbers of middle-aged and older people, suggesting an increase in durability and life expectancy, and fewer remains of children and infants, suggesting a reduction in child and infant mortality. By the third phase, the normal height of an adult had increased by 0.8in (2 cm) and the bones and teeth were in comparatively better condition.

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