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The Prehistoric Korea is the era of human existence in the Korean Peninsula for which written records did not exist. It, however, constitutes the greatest segment of the Korean past and is the major object of study in the disciplines of archaeology, geology, and palaeontology.
Historians in Korea use the Three-age system to classify Korean prehistory.
The three age system was applied during of the post-Imperial Japanese colonization period as a way to refute the claims of Imperial Japanese colonial archaeologists who insisted that, unlike Japan, Korea had "no Bronze Age".
There are some problems with the three-age-system applied to the situation in Korea:
- The periodization scheme used by Korean archaeologists proposes that the Neolithic began in 8000 BCE and lasted until 1500 BCE. This is despite the fact that palaeoethnobotanical studies indicate that the first bona fide cultivation did not begin until circa 3500 BCE.
- The Korean Bronze Age is taken to begin around 800 BCE, ending around 300 BCE. This periodization has been criticized, because bronze technology was not adopted in the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula until circa 700 BCE, and the archaeological record indicates that bronze objects were not consumed in relatively large numbers until after 400 BCE.
Geological prehistory is the most ancient part of Korea's past. The oldest rocks in Korea date to the Precambrian. The Yeoncheon System corresponds to the Precambrian and is distributed around Seoul extending out to Yeoncheon-gun in a northeasterly direction. It is divided into upper and lower parts and is composed of biotite-quartz-feldspar schist, marble, lime-silicate, quartzite, graphite schist, mica-quartz-feldspar schist, mica schist, quartzite, augen gneiss, and garnet-bearing granitic gneiss. The Korean Peninsula had an active geological prehistory through the Mesozoic, when many mountain ranges were formed, and slowly became more stable in the Cenozoic. Major Mesozoic formations include the Gyeongsang Supergroup, a series of geological episodes in which biotite granites, shales, sandstones, conglomerates andesite, basalt, rhyolite, and tuff that were laid down over most of present-day Gyeongsang-do Province.
The remainder of this article describes the human prehistory of the Korean Peninsula.
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The origins of this period are an open question but the antiquity of hominid occupation in Korea may date to as early as 500,000 BCE. Yi and Clark are somewhat skeptical of dating the earliest occupation to the Lower Palaeolithic.
At Seokjang-ri, an archaeological site near Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do Province, artifacts that appear to have an affinity with Lower Paleolithic stone tools were unearthed in the lower levels of the site. Bifacial chopper or chopping-tools were also excavated. Hand axes and cleavers produced by men in later eras were also uncovered.
From Jeommal Cave a tool, possibly for hunting, made from the radius of a hominid was unearthed, along with hunting and food preparation tools of animal bones. The shells of nuts collected for nourishment were also uncovered.
In Seokjang-ri and in other riverine sites, stone tools were found with definite traces of Palaeolithic tradition, made of fine-grain rocks such as quartzite, porphyry, obsidian, chert, and felsite manifest Acheulian, Mousteroid, and Levalloisian characteristics. Those of the chopper tradition are of simpler in shape and chipped from quartz and pegmatite. Seokjang-ri's middle layers showed that humans hunted with these bola or missile stones.
During the Middle Paleolithic Period, humans dwelt in caves at the Jeommal Site near Jecheon and at the Durubong Site near Cheongju. From these two cave sites, fossil remains of rhinoceros, cave bear, brown bear, hyena and numerous deer (Pseudaxi gray var.), all extinct species, were excavated.
The earliest radiocarbon dates for the Paleolithic indicate the antiquity of occupation on the Korean peninsula is between 40,000 and 30,000 BP. From an interesting habitation site at Locality 1 at Seokjang-ri, excavators claim that they excavated some human hairs of Mongoloid origin along with limonitic and manganese pigments near and around a hearth, as well as animal figurines such as a dog, tortoise and bear made of rock. Reports claim that these were carbon dated to some 20,000 years ago.
The Palaeolithic ends when pottery production begins c 8000 BCE.
Jeulmun Pottery Period
The earliest known Korean pottery dates back to c 8000 BCE or before. This pottery is known as Yunggimun Pottery (ko:융기문토기) is found in much of the peninsula. Some examples of Yunggimun-era sites are Gosan-ri in Jeju-do and Ubong-ri in Greater Ulsan. Jeulmun or Comb-pattern Pottery (즐문토기) is found after 7000 BC, and pottery with comb-patterns over the whole vessel is found concentrated at sites in west–central Korea between 3500–2000 BC, a time when a number of settlements such as Amsa-dong and Chitam-ni existed. Jeulmun pottery bears basic design and form similarities to that of the Russian Maritime Province, Mongolia, and the Amur and Sungari River basins of Manchuria and the Jōmon culture in Japan.
The people of the Jeulmun practiced a broad spectrum economy of hunting, gathering, foraging, and small-scale cultivation of wild plants. It was during the Jeulmun that the cultivation of millet and rice was introduced to the Korean peninsula from the Asian continent.
Mumun Pottery Period
Agricultural societies and the earliest forms of social-political complexity emerged in the Mumun Pottery Period (c 1500–300 BCE). People in southern Korea adopted intensive dry-field and paddy-field agriculture with a multitude of crops in the Early Mumun Period (1500–850 BCE). The first societies led by chiefs emerged in the Middle Mumun (850–550 BCE), and the first ostentatious elite burials can be traced to the Late Mumun (c 550–300 BCE). Bronze production began in the Middle Mumun and became increasingly important in Mumun ceremonial and political society after 700 BCE. The Mumun is the first time that villages rose, became large, and then fell: some important examples include Songgung-ni, Daepyeong, and Igeum-dong. The increasing presence of long-distance exchange, an increase in local conflicts, and the introduction of bronze and iron metallurgy are trends denoting the end of the Mumun around 300 BCE.
The period that begins after 300 BCE can be described as 'protohistoric', a time when some documentary sources seem to describe socieites in the Korean peninsula. The historical polities described in ancient texts such as the Samguk Sagi are an example. The Korean Protohistoric lasts until about the 4th to 5th centuries, when the Korean Three Kingdoms adopt Chinese writing, leaving early records in Old Korean.
Ancient texts such as the Samguk Sagi, Samguk Yusa, Book of Later Han, and others have sometimes been used to interpret segments of Korean prehistory. The most well-known version of the founding legend that relates the origins of the Korean ethnicity explains that Dangun came to the earth in 2333 BCE, while however, no evidence has been found that supports whatever facts may lie beneath this myth. A significant amount of historical inquiry in the 20th century was devoted to the interpretation of the accounts of Gojoseon (?–108 BCE), Gija Joseon (?–194 BCE, currently its existence in controversy), Wiman Joseon (194–108 BCE), and others mentioned in historical texts.
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