Majiayao culture key to East-West exchange

By GUO ZHIWEI / 11-03-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Painted ceramic jar with nude figure in relief, unearthed from a Majiayao site in Qinghai Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

A century ago, Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson embarked on an archaeological survey in northwest China with the aim of testing his hypothesis that “Chinese painted pottery originated from the West.” In 1924, Andersson discovered a painted pottery site in Majiayao Village, about 10 kilometers south of Lintao, Gansu Province. This discovery is now known as the famous Majiayao site.

In 1944, Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai launched a scientific expedition in the northwest, visiting and excavating a series of sites in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. He proposed to name the remains from the Yangshao Period (c. 5000–3000 BCE) in Gansu after the original site, the Majiayao culture. Today, nearly a century has passed since the Majiayao site was discovered, which continues to captivate the world with its brilliant painted pottery art.

Origins from Yangshao culture

The Majiayao culture was originally considered part of the Yangshao culture [a Neolithic culture that existed extensively along the middle reaches of the Yellow River from around 5000 to 3000 BCE]. Noticing the similarities between Majiayao and Yangshao cultures, particularly in their painted pottery, Andersson classified Majiayao culture as a subset of Yangshao culture. Afterwards, although Xia Nai proposed the naming of Majiayao culture, he didn’t deny the close relationship between Majiayao and Yangshao. Scholars have since reached wide consensus that the Majiayao culture indeed originated from Yangshao culture. Chinese archaeologist Yan Wenming noted that the Majiayao type emerged later than the Miaodigou type [the Miaodigou type refers to the culture of Miaodigou I (c. 4005–2780 BCE), which was the continuation of Yangshao culture, corresponding to the middle phase of the Yangshao period]. Furthermore, Yan regarded the Majiayao culture as a continuation and progression of the Miaodigou type in Gansu, inheriting many elements from it.

This speculation has been confirmed in subsequent archaeological excavations and studies. From a stratigraphic perspective, archaeologists have detected Miaodigou relics overlaid with Majiayao remains at the Majiayao site. A rich trove of Majiayao painted ceramics and some Miaodigou-style painted ceramics have been unearthed from the Majiayao site. Among them, the patterns on the early painted pottery of the Majiayao culture bear obvious characteristics of the Miaodigou earthenware, indicating a development process in which the Majiayao culture evolved from the Yangshao culture, gradually acquiring its own distinct features. In addition to painted pottery, the Majiayao culture shares similarities with the Yangshao culture in various aspects, including other types of artifacts, architectural structures, settlement patterns, ways of life, and aesthetic preferences.

In short, a wealth of evidence supports the theory that the Majiayao culture emerged as an extension of the Miaodigou type within the Yangshao culture in the Central Plains. This expansion occurred westward into the hinterland of present-day Gansu and Qinghai, where the culture adapted to the local environment and further developed and evolved.

Heading westward

Yangshao culture is the earliest recognized archaeological culture in China, enduring for more than 2,000 years. It is one of the most important prehistoric archaeological cultures in the hinterland of the Central Plains. Yangshao culture reached its peak during the Miaodigou phase, and began to decline afterwards.

Around 5,300 years ago, the Yangshao culture in the hinterland of the Central Plains underwent major changes. Part of its population remained in the Central Plains, adjusted their development strategies, and entered the late Yangshao period. Others continued to migrate westward. Archaeological discoveries show that the Yangshao culture of this period had penetrated deeply into the plateau region of western Gansu. A certain number of Miao-digou remains have been found in many sites across eastern Qinghai.

Yangshao culture traced its way up the Yellow River and its tributaries, establishing settlements in the fertile river valleys. During this process, it may have merged with early local cultures, giving rise to the distinctive Majiayao culture. Since then, the ancestors of Majiayao settled in this area and thrived for over a thousand years.

Majiayao livelihood 

Like the Yangshao culture, the Majiayao people depended in some way on agriculture for their livelihood. The latest research indicates that the plant seeds unearthed from the Majiayao site primarily consist of domesticated shu (broomcorn millet) and su (foxtail millet). At the same time, the Majiayao ancestors also domesticated animals, as evidenced by domestic pig bones unearthed at the site.

In addition to their agricultural practices, the Majiayao culture also developed a unique pottery industry. Renowned for their mass production and widespread use of painted earthenware, the Majiayao culture achieved remarkable accomplishments in terms of the sheer quantity, relative proportion, and exquisite craftsmanship of their painted pottery. This artistic tradition reached unprecedented heights within the culture.

Why did the Majiayao attach so much importance to the production of painted pottery? The answer might be related to the environment in which the Majiayao people lived. For example, the lower reaches of the Tao River, where the Majiayao ruins are located, had limited arable land for farming in its valley. However, the surrounding areas on both sides of the river were rich in laterite resources from the Tertiary Period, which served as ideal materials for pottery production. The loess platforms with crisscrossing ravines, along with the outstanding structural properties of loess itself, provided an excellent environment for constructing kilns. The kiln and pottery-making technology inherited from Yangshao were preserved and further developed by the Majiayao culture.

The fondness of the Majiayao people for painted ceramics can likely be attributed to two main factors. The first lies in the tradition of painted pottery originating from within Yangshao culture. The second may be related to the demands of commercial production. In regions with limited agricultural resources, investing in the development of handicrafts, such as pottery, becomes a choice of necessity, as a portion of their output could be used for trade and exchange. Studies have pointed out that the Majiayao painted ceramics were likely shipped over long distances to the present-day Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and even to northwest Sichuan. Rivers may have been important channels for the transportation of painted pottery.

Pioneering East-West exchange

China’s geographic landscape and location determines that early communications with Eurasia may have been achieved through land routes and rivers in the west and north directions. Starting from the hinterland of Majiayao culture, multiple northwestward access channels led to the Hexi Corridor in northwest China. From the Hexi Corridor, the route westward would have finally arrived at the hinterland of the Eurasian continent. Owing to its geographic location, the Majiayao culture may be China’s earliest archaeological culture that established contact with the civilizations in the hinterland of Eurasia and to have engaged in direct or indirect exchanges. 

Archaeological findings from the Majiayao culture provide valuable clues in support of these claims. For example, bronze knives unearthed at the Linjia site, located in the hinterland of the Majiayao culture, date to the early Majiayao period and are the earliest known bronzeware in China. The copper smelting remains discovered at the Xichengyi site in Zhangye at the western end of the Hexi Corridor have been dated as early as the late Machang period [the last phase of the Majiayao culture, roughly between 2300-2000 BCE]. It is generally believed that metallurgy originated in West Asia and was introduced to China through Central Asia around 5,000 years ago. Considering the aforementioned archaeological discoveries, it is very likely that the Majiayao culture was the first to assimilate metallurgy technology from West Asia in China.

Majiayao culture represented the first large-scale exploration of northwestern China by the Central Plains civilization. This culture took root and developed in the northwest highlands and persisted for thousands of years, exerting an enduring and profound influence on the civilizational processes of northwestern China. 

Guo Zhiwei is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS.