Erlitou culture

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Erlitou culture
Relief map of eastern China with oval marking an area in western Henan, and the Erlitou site just south of the Yellow River
Erlitou in eastern China
Geographical rangeWestern Henan
PeriodBronze Age China
Datesc.  1900–1500 BC
Type siteErlitou
Preceded byLongshan culture
Followed byErligang culture
Defined byXu Xusheng
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese二里頭文化
Simplified Chinese二里头文化

Coordinates: 34°41′35″N 112°41′20″E / 34.693°N 112.689°E / 34.693; 112.689

The Erlitou culture was an early Bronze Age urban society and archaeological culture that existed in the Yellow River valley from approximately 1900 to 1500 BC.[1][2]( A 2007 study of radiocarbon dating proposed a narrower date range of 1750 to 1530 BC.[3]) The culture was named after the site discovered at Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan. It was widely spread throughout Henan and Shanxi and later appeared in Shaanxi and Hubei. Most archaeologists consider Erlitou the first state-level society in China.[4] Chinese archaeologists generally identify the Erlitou culture as the site of the Xia dynasty, but there is no firm evidence, such as writing, to substantiate such a linkage,[5][6][7] as the earliest evidence of Chinese writing dates to the late Shang dynasty.

Erlitou site[edit]

Bronze jue (wine vessel)

The Erlitou culture may have evolved from the matrix of Longshan culture. Originally centered around Henan and Shanxi province, the culture spread to Shaanxi and Hubei provinces. After the rise of the Erligang culture, the site at Erlitou diminished in size but remained inhabited.[8]

Discovered in 1959 by Xu Xusheng,[9] Erlitou is the largest site associated with the culture, with palace buildings and bronze smelting workshops. Erlitou monopolized the production of ritual bronze vessels, including the earliest recovered dings.[10] The city is on the Yi River, a tributary of the Luo River, which flows into the Yellow River. The city was 2.4 by 1.9 kilometres (1.5 by 1.2 mi); however, because of flood damage only 3 km2 (1.2 sq mi) are left.[8]

The Erlitou Relic Museum, located in Luoyang, Henan province, which has more than 2,000 items excavated from the Erlitou site in its collection, opened in October 2019.[11]


Plan of palace 1 (phase III)
Early symbols appearing on ceramics; from the site of Yanshi near Erlitou site

The site's growth is divided into four phases.[12]

During Phase I, covering 100 ha (250 acres), Erlitou was a rapidly growing regional center with an estimated population of several thousand people,[13] but not yet an urban civilization.[14]

Urbanization began in Phase II, expanding to 300 ha (740 acres) with a population of around 11,000.[13] A palace area of 12 ha (30 acres) was demarcated by four roads. It contained the 150 m × 50 m (490 ft × 160 ft) Palace 3, composed of three courtyards along a 150-metre axis, and Palace 5.[8] A bronze foundry was established to the south of the palatial complex and was controlled by the elite.[15]

The city reached its peak in Phase III, and may have had a population of around 24,000.[14] The palatial complex was surrounded by a two-meter-thick rammed-earth wall, and Palaces 1, 7, 8 and 9 were built. Palace 1, the largest, had an area of 9,600 m2 (103,000 sq ft).[16] Palaces 3 and 5 were abandoned and replaced by Palace 2, measuring 4,200 m2 (45,000 sq ft), and Palace 4.[17]

In Phase IV, the population decreased to around 20,000, but building continued. Palace 6 was built as an extension of Palace 2, and Palaces 10 and 11 were built. Phase IV overlaps with the Lower Phase of the Erligang culture (1600–1450 BC). Around 1600 BC, a walled city was built at Yanshi, about 6 km (3.7 mi) northeast of Erlitou.[18]

Production of bronzes and other elite goods ceased at the end of Phase IV, at the same time as the Erligang city of Zhengzhou was established 85 km (53 mi) to the east. There is no evidence of destruction by fire or war, but, during the Upper Erligang phase (1450–1300 BC), all the palaces were abandoned, and Erlitou was reduced to a village of 30 ha (74 acres).[19]

Bronze in Erlitou[edit]

Erlitou is the earliest large-scale bronze industry discovered in China, with the new-fashioned section-mold process there to produce ritual vessels and other bronzes.[20]

Although the remains of bronze have been found in the Qijia Culture and Siba Culture, the progress and achievements of the Erlitou Culture bronze casting industry are far beyond the reach of the Qijia Culture and the Siba Culture. The Erlitou culture not only has bronze tools and bell musical instruments, but also bronze weapons and unique animal-faced plaques, especially more than ten kinds of bronze vessels have been unearthed. This shows that the bronze casting of Erlitou is diverse and systematic.

The bronzes of the Erlitou culture have obvious features of imitating pottery, with plain surfaces or simple geometric patterns. In the third phase of the Erlitou culture, the perforated decoration that was very popular throughout the Erlitou culture appeared on the bronze Jue.[21]

The earliest bronze Ding have been found in China, unearthed in the fourth stage of the Erlitou culture, decorated with striped grid patterns.[22]


The earliest metal bells, with one found in the Taosi site, and four in the Erlitou site, dated to about 2000 BC, may have been derived from the earlier pottery prototype.[23]

The first bronze dagger-axe or ge appeared at the Erlitou site,[24] where two were being found among the over 200 bronze artifacts (as of 2002) at the site,[25] three jade ge were also discovered from the same site.[26]

Relation to traditional accounts[edit]

Erlitou sites (black) and Xia capitals identified in traditional sources (red, with numbers for those from the "current text" Bamboo Annals)

A major goal of archaeology in China has been the search for the capitals of the Xia and Shang dynasties described in traditional accounts as inhabiting the Yellow River valley.[27] These originally oral traditions were recorded much later in histories such as the Bamboo Annals (c. 300 BC) and the Records of the Grand Historian (1st century BC), and their historicity, particularly regarding the Xia, is an area of debate for the Doubting Antiquity School of Chinese history.[28] The discovery of writing in the form of oracle bones at Yinxu in Anyang definitively established the site as the last capital of the Shang, but such evidence is unavailable for earlier sites.[29]

When Xu Xusheng first discovered Erlitou, he suggested that it was Bo, the first capital of the Shang under King Tang in the traditional account.[18] Since the late 1970s, archaeologists in China have tended to identify the site with Zhenxun, the last Xia capital.[30][31][32][33] The traditional account of the overthrow of the Xia by the Shang has been identified with the ends of each of the four phases of the site by different authors. The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project identified all four phases of Erlitou as Xia, and the construction of the Yanshi walled city as the founding of the Shang.[34] Other scholars, particularly outside China, point to the lack of any firm evidence for such an identification, and argue that the historiographical focus of Chinese archaeology is unduly limiting.[35]

Archaeological evidence of a large outburst flood at Jishi Gorge that destroyed the Lajia site on the upper reaches of the Yellow River has been dated to about 1920 BC. This date is shortly before the rise of the Erlitou culture in the middle Yellow River valley and the Yueshi culture in Shandong, following the decline of the Longshan culture in the North China Plain. The authors suggest that this flood may have been the basis for the later myth, and contributed to the transition of cultures. They further argue that the timing is further evidence for the identification of the Xia with the Erlitou culture.[36] However, no evidence of contemporaneous widespread flooding in the North China Plain has yet been found.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Allan 2007, p. 475.
  2. ^ Liu & Xu 2007, p. 886.
  3. ^ Zhang et al. 2014, p. 206.
  4. ^ Shelach-Lavi 2015, p. 185.
  5. ^ Allan 2007, pp. 489–490.
  6. ^ Liu 2004, p. 238.
  7. ^ Liu & Xu 2007, pp. 897–899.
  8. ^ a b c Li 2003.
  9. ^ Liu & Chen 2012, p. 259.
  10. ^ Liu 2004, p. 231.
  11. ^ "Erlitou Relic Museum opens in Central China -".
  12. ^ Liu & Xu 2007, p. 887.
  13. ^ a b Liu 2006, p. 184.
  14. ^ a b Liu 2004, p. 229.
  15. ^ Liu 2004, pp. 230–231.
  16. ^ Liu 2004, p. 230.
  17. ^ Liu & Xu 2007, pp. 889, 891.
  18. ^ a b Liu & Xu 2007, p. 894.
  19. ^ Liu & Xu 2007, p. 892.
  20. ^ Peng, Peng (2020). Metalworking in Bronze Age China: The Lost-Wax Process. Cambria Press.
  21. ^ Zhang, Hanyu (2020). On the Casting Technique of Bronze Vessels of Erlitou and Erligang Culture in the Perspective of Decorative Complication.
  22. ^ Zheng, Guang (1991). "河南偃师二里头遗址发现新的铜器 New bronze ware found at Erlitou site in Yanshi, Henan". Kaogu (12): 1138.
  23. ^ von Falkenhausen (1994), pp. 132, 329, 342.
  24. ^ Lu (2006), pp. 123–124.
  25. ^ Liang & Sun (2004), pp. 35, 38.
  26. ^ Chen (2003), p. 24.
  27. ^ Liu & Chen 2012, p. 256.
  28. ^ Liu & Xu 2007, p. 897.
  29. ^ Liu & Chen 2012, pp. 256–258.
  30. ^ Dematte, Paola (2007). "Early Chinese Dynasties" (PDF). Archaeologica. Lone Cove, Australia: Global Book. pp. 246–247. Retrieved 18 January 2020.
  31. ^ Cao, Dingyun (2004). "Identification of Writing in the Xia Period: A Study of Pottery Glyphs in the Erlitou Culture" (PDF). Chinese Archaeology. 5 (12): 76–83.
  32. ^ Sit, Victor F. S. (2010). Chinese City And Urbanism: Evolution And Development. World Scientific. pp. 45, 60. ISBN 978-981-4293-730.
  33. ^ Liu 2004, p. 226.
  34. ^ Lee 2002.
  35. ^ Liu & Chen 2012, p. 258.
  36. ^ Wu, Qinglong; Zhao, Zhijun; Liu, Li; Granger, Darryl E.; Wang, Hui; Cohen, David J.; Wu, Xiaohong; Ye, Maolin; Bar-Yosef, Ofer; Lu, Bin; Zhang, Jin; Zhang, Peizhen; Yuan, Daoyang; Qi, Wuyun; Cai, Linhai; Bai, Shibiao (2016). "Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China's Great Flood and the Xia dynasty". Science. 353 (6299): 579–582. Bibcode:2016Sci...353..579W. doi:10.1126/science.aaf0842. PMID 27493183. S2CID 206646492.
  37. ^ Normile, Dennis (2016). "Massive flood may have led to China's earliest empire". News. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 5 August 2016.

Works cited[edit]

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