DNA evidence of ethnic diversity in China

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

The recent findings that some villagers who live in north-western China contain 56% of DNA which is Caucasian in origin, bolsters the idea that ancient China was a mishmash of diverse peoples. This cultural diversity remains today. Simply travelling to Urumqi, for instance, one can observe peoples of very different cultural habits than those in central China. The archaeological evidence for these remote parts of  China is also strikingly different to that of other parts of China. More and more, archaeologists are revealing the extreme diversity of the peoples of ancient China.

However, while ethnic diversity seems important to us today, we need to contemplate the importance of this aspect of social identity for those in the past. Within Shang and Zhou archaeology for instance it is increasingly common to speculate on the ethnic identity of the tomb occupant based on certain types of burials goods. This idea presupposes that ethnic identity needed to be reified materially at burial and that certain objects stood as markers of an ethnic identity. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang (discussed in a previous post) shows the problems with such simplistic archaeological interpretations.

In short, sure we might get excited about this diversity in modern-day China, but we cannot assume that ancient peoples also shared this excitement or even thought about ethnic identity in the same way that we do.


The problem of determining ethnicity part 2: Fu Hao 妇好 and the Jin 晋 consorts at Beizhao

April 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

The case of male tomb M54 is unusual because most tomb occupants who are thought to be of different ethnic origins to the Shang and Zhou are female.  The assumption is that the Shang and Zhou elites married these females to consolidate power or to build ties with neighboring states or groups. As with tomb M54, the theoretical position of scholars who maintain that a female might be foreign rests on the presence of foreign objects inside the grave, and that these objects denoted the tomb occupant’s ethnicity.

In the Late Shang, royal consort Fu Hao (whose tomb was excavated in the late 1970’s) is commonly regarded as an outsider, as the tomb contained a number of foreign objects such as bronze mirrors, knives, bow-shaped objects and horse fittings (two bridles).

In the Zhou, several of the consorts to the Jin state lineage heads are also thought to have been from the Northern Zone. Tomb M113 (at the site of Beizhao) contained two bronze vessels which appear to have been modelled after ceramic pottery types found in the north.

1992_05_19.jpg (540×447)

A few of the Jin consort tombs also contained ornate and very unusual miniature bronze boxes (about 10cm long and 6cm high).

The exact function of these small bronze pieces is unknown (one idea is that they served as jewelery containers – in reality this seem unlikely). The argument runs that these unusual pieces were made for females who originated from outside of the Zhou realm.

However, while no male tomb contained similar bronze boxes, a few graves did yield gold belt fittings which almost certainly were foreign in origin and which a few archaeologists trace back to fashions in the Middle East. Moreover, these tombs also contained vessels in realistic animal form – a style which Rawson (2010) and Jacobsen see as originating in the north.

1992_05_28.jpg (414×560)

Thus, male tombs contained exotica of their own. When such pieces occur in male tombs, they are seen as evidence of the control of exotica to maintain power and status through difference. By contrast, when exotic objects occur in female tombs, they are seen seen as denoting the tomb occupant’s ethnic identity.

Some points on which to reflect:

1. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang shows that the simple correlation between foreign objects and ethnicity in burials is problematic. Can we continue to maintain this theoretical proposition?

2. How many foreign objects make a tomb occupant foreign? Is one object enough?

3. Why would mourners want to deposit objects to denote ethnic identity? Was ethnicity a salient part of one’s identity?

4. Is the different interpretation for the presence of these objects in male and female tombs due to modern preconceived gender bias notions – men were powerful and women were nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged and lacked any identity of their own?

The problem of determining ethnicity: the case of Shang tomb M54 at Anyang

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I came across a very surprising YouTube video which problematises some of the assumptions and theoretical notions floating around in Chinese Bronze Age studies at the moment.

Recently, questions about the extent to which a tomb occupant’s ethnic identity might be ascertained from the archaeological record, or more specifically ascertained from burial goods, have become popular within studies of the Chinese Bronze Age. As more detailed evidence comes to light of possible interactions between the Late Shang Dynasty, who resided at Anyang (Henan Province) from roughly 1250 to 1045 BC, and the nomadic peoples to the north (occupying modern-day areas of Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Liaoning, southern Mongolia) – and the influences of these mobile peoples on the Shang and their material culture – so scholars have begun to speculate about the possible ethnic identity of individuals who were interred with objects seemingly influenced from the northern zone. The theoretical proposition is that foreign objects denoted the ethnicity of the deceased.

The location of the Late Shang site of Anyang, Henan Province

Northern Zone sites

The case of tomb M54 at Anyang provides us with a fascinating example of both the pitfalls and the potential of such studies.

Generally, the chariot, chariot and horse riding paraphernalia, bronze knives with animal-pommels and ring-pommels, socketed weapons (as opposed to hafted weapons), jingles and rattles, bronze mirrors, and realistic animal forms, all of which appear at Anyang, are regarded as northern or foreign objects or motifs, which were appropriated and adopted by the Late Shang elites.

Bronze animal-headed knives from Anyang

Bow-shaped object (possibly a reins holder)

a – Animal-headed knife

b – Bronze mirrors

c – Bow-shaped object

These bronze objects were sometimes deposited in rich tombs which are usually interpreted as housing members of the Shang elite. The assumption that these tomb occupants who were buried with such bronze objects might have been of northern descent is based tenuously on the direct correlation between the ethnicity of the deceased and the objects placed in his or her tomb. In short, a person buried buried with northern objects was a northerner. 

Tomb M54 at Anyang appears to turn these assumptions and theoretical propositions on their heads.

The grave was published in 2001 and is one of the most lavish tombs to be excavated in recent years, stirring much excitement in Chinese archaeological circles.


Below is a selection of the fabulous bronze ritual vessels (used for offering food and drink to the ancestors) and weapons found in tomb M54:


The ritual vessels and some of the weapons were inscribed with the title Ya Chang – possibly the name of the tomb occupant.

Alongside the vast quantities of bronze weaponry and other bronze objects such as bells and tools, the tomb also contained six bow-shaped objects.

One of the bow-shaped objects (pictured above) carried terminals in the form of realistic animal heads and mosaic or inlay decoration on the main body. The tomb also contained animal-headed knives, similar to those pictured above.

Moreover, it is also likely that the coffin was decorated in gold leaf. Gold was a feature of the northern peoples and is rarely found in Bronze Age China. (When gold is found in Shang or Zhou tombs, it is taken as exotica.)

Thus, based on the presence of gold leaf decoration, six bow-shaped objects and various animal-headed knives in tomb M54, and taking the theoretical proposition that individuals buried with foreign or exotic objects might be outsiders in origin, one might reasonably conclude that the tomb occupant of M54 was a northerner.

Now watch the documentary (part 5 of 7) on YouTube (ignore the title “warrior queen” and other dramatizations) which discusses the occupant of tomb M54 and the tests carried out on the skeletal remains from the grave:


The results suggest that the tomb occupant (Ya Chang) did not come from Anyang! However, he did not come from the north either. In fact, Ya Chang appears to have been a southerner – possibly from the Xinyang region – 400km south of Anyang.

Therefore, while Ya Chang was an outsider, he did not originate from where the exotica might lead us to believe. In short, the tomb occupant was a southerner interred with a few northern objects. The assumed one-to-one correlation between foreign objects in a tomb and the ethnic origins of the tomb occupant is, in this case, not accurate. And, I believe that this rupture now means that we are on very shaky ground in following such a line of reasoning.

At the same time, tomb 54, the presence of Northern Zone objects at Anyang and the fact that chariots and horses would have initially required trained people such as ostlers and chariot repairmen – all of whom were possibly northerners who resided at Anyang – suggests that the Shang site was composed of peoples from across present-day China. Indeed, one would not expect Anyang to have been homogeneous in its population.

However, using burial goods to determine the origins of tomb occupants is problematic as tomb M54 shows.

The wider implication of this study is other graves where the tomb occupants have been interpreted as foreigners through this type of reasoning need careful reconsideration. I will discuss some of these tombs in later posts.

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