To tell the story of early humans in China intelligibly it is best to draw from specific sites that give a glimpse into the material life of the early communities. The larger framework (which is constantly under debate by specialists) also gives a rough time line to synch up the story.
Homo erectus appears in fossils found in East Africa's Rift Valley dating from about 1.9 million years ago. Until recent years the earliest traces of Homo erectus found in East Asia dated from perhaps a million years later.
A new wave of archaeological finds has shown a much earlier dispersion of Homo erectus. There are finds of stone tools dating from 1.9 million years ago at Riwat in Pakistan, three Homo erectus skulls from Sangiran and Mojokerto in Java dated from 1.8 - 1.6 million years ago, and Homo erectus teeth and stone artifacts from Longupo in China dating from 1.9 million years ago; this implies that early populations of Homo erectus travelled into East Asia within a few hundred thousand years of the species arising in Africa.
Homo erectus is found in China and the Far East, and thought to have arrived there crossing through South Asia. Many Chinese scholars prefer to think that Homo sapiens evolved independently from Homo erectus in China as well as in Africa. The non-Chinese scholars’ consensus is that Homo sapiens arose in Africa and spread from there to other regions of the world, including China, following strings of ecological niches they could scavange from, as the earlier hominids had done in their earlier diffusions.
Even the analysis of early hominids into species seems to be subject to constant blurring by new finds that lie midway between previously defined types. Two famous archaeological finds in China (a hominid skeleton at Jinniushan in the northeast in 1984 and a skull at Dali in the southwest in 1978) show archaic humans from about 200,000 years ago who combine anatomical traits of both Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.
Archaic Homo Sapiens
During a period of expanding glaciers that peaked around 100,000 years ago sea levels fell and land corridors opened up from the East Asian mainland to the areas that are now Japan, Taiwan, the Phillipines, and the Indonesia islands, making it possible for early humans to spread into new territories.
Archaic Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at numerous sites all over China dating from what archaeologists term the Middle Paleolithic period (125,000 to 40,000 years ago). The relative scarcity of fossil remains and stone tools found in China from that period puzzles scholars.
The stone tools from this period were made using a technique that involved carefully preparing the stone core from which blades were struck off.
Notable sites that represent this stage of the human story in China include Xujiayao in Shanxi province in North China, which contains human fossils and stone and bone tools. This site is decribed in detail here.
Another famous site for archaic Homo sapiens is Zhoukoudian Locality 15 near Beijing. This is detailed here.
The early traces of anatomically modern human beings in China date from the so-called Late or Upper Paleolithic period (40,000 to 12,000 years ago). Archaeological finds show evidence of increased sophistication in stone-working and toolmaking.
A site at Shuidonggou (dated 30,000 to 15,000 years ago) in Ningxia province in Northwest China shows that the people working stone there carefully prepared the stone cores from which they struck off blades, and seemingly had developed a repertoire of standard types of tools.
A site at Xiachuan (dated 20,000 to 12,000 years ago) in Shanxi province in North China seems to show the development of intensive food collecting and preparation. It contains such tools as pestles, scrapers, millstones, saws, grindstones, and reaping hooks. This site is described here.
A site at the Zhoujoudian Upper Cave near Beijing dated about 11,000 years ago shows evidence of intentional burials. There are tools made of bone, such as needles and awls. A necklace suggests these early people were interested in personal adornments. The presence of seashells and fishbones at a site over a hundred miles inland suggests the people carried on a relatively long distance trade.
In the past, archaeologists defined a Mesolithic Period in China lasting from around 12,000 to 9,000 years ago. Given that the last glacial maximum in China occurred around 20,000 to 18,000 years ago, the terms scholars prefer nowadays for the people in this era is “postglacial foragers.”
These people began to experiment with cultivating plants and domesticating animals. They created more complex tools combining stone with other materials, like wood and bone. Groups of these people began to stay in one place for more extended periods of time.
Various archaeological sites exemplify this period.
Guxiangtun is a postglacial forager site near Harbin in Heilongjiang province in Northeast China. The stone industry features projectile points and many scrapers, suggesting a hunting economy. There are bone tools such as chisels and awls. There are remains of deer, moose, water buffalo, rhinoceros, and mammoths associated with the site.
Another notable site is at Djalai Nor in Inner Mongolia. Here anatomically modern humans inhabited the dunes around small seasonal lakes around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago. There are traces of woven baskets or fishtraps made out of wooden strips. These people apparently lived by hunting and fishing, but the existence of semi-permanent settlements hints at the beginnings of plant cultivation.
A site in South China at Wuming in Guangxi province contains traces of a wide variety of tools made of bone and antlers. Judging from their garbage middens, the people here consumed a lot of freshwater shellfish and hunted deer, water buffalo, and monkeys. Some large worked slabs of stone might have been used to grind grain.
The Neolithic Period in China dates from about 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists define the Neolithic worldwide characterized by ceramics, polished stone tools, permanent settlements, signs of craft specialization and, of course, the rise of agriculture.
One revealing site for China in this period was discovered at Cishan in the southern part of Hebei province. The Neolithic layer dates to around 7,300 years ago. The site contains dozens of structures, including pit-houses and storage pits. There are hand made pottery vessels in the tripod shape that is so characteristic of later Chinese civilization. There are querns and rollers for grinding grain, and a wide variety of bone tools. Most of the animal remains are from domesticated pigs and dogs. There are caches of wild nuts the people gathered for food, and storage pits containing millet, which may or may not have been domesticated.
Another site from this era is at Peiligang near Zhengzhou, today a major city in northern Henan province. This too dates from 8,000 - 7,000 years ago. The graves investigated here show artifacts parallel to those found at Cishan: undecorated pottery tripods, saddle querns and rollers, axes, shovels, sickles, hand grinders. Dogs are the only domesticated animals in evidence.
These two sites are somewhat enigmatic, since they reveal domesticated animals, but no clear proof of agriculture. The querns and rollers used to grind grain could have been used with grain that was gathered, not cultivated.
The period of Chinese prehistory from about 8,000 to 5,000 years ago is conventionally known as the Yangshao Culture, after a famous Neolithic site discovered in Yangshao in Henan province in 1921. Further research has suggested that more probably there were many regional cultures in those days, variants on the Middle Neolithic pattern. Every site tells a different story, and archaeologists are always tempted to declare each site the representative of a culture.
The people in those days practiced slash-and-burn agriculture (millet in the North, rice in the South) and kept domestic pigs and dogs. They made pottery by hand, and sometimes painted it or marked the wet clay to decorate it. They wove baskets and knew how to sew. They made many tools out of bone and ground stone. They lived in permanent villages (as opposed to temporary seasonal camps). These villages had graveyards, and there are differences in wealth apparent in different styles of burial. Archaeologists sometimes think they can discern regional cultures revealed in the stylistic differences among the artifacts of the period.
An important site representing one regional variant of the Yangshao culture is at Banpo, near the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. This is the relatively dry, deeply eroded land of fine fertile wind-blown soil and sheltered river valleys, now almost treeless, then well forested. This version of Yangshao culture looks like a prototype of the millet culture of historical North China.
Here archaeologists in 1953 uncovered traces of a 6,000-year-old Neolithic village containing some forty-five houses of various styles and shapes, two hundred storage pits, six kilns, and a graveyard. Tools that survived included needles, arrowheads, and fish hooks. It seems that the people pursued a wide range of economic activities: they hunted and fished, grew millet, raised pigs and dogs as domestic animals, and fired their hand-made pottery in kilns. The pottery is painted with designs that appear to depict fish, animals, and plants.