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Prehistoric Korea

Early man first inhabited the Korean Peninsula roughly half a million years ago. In the past decade archaeological excavations have shed much new light on the prehistoric society of Korea. At Seokjang-ri near Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do province, artifacts of lower Paleolithic industry including choppers and scrapers were unearthed in the lower part of the site. Bifacial chopper or chopping-tool culture followed. Hand axes and cleavers produced by men in later eras were also uncovered. At Sangwon near Pyongyang, numerous fossilized faunal remains were discovered from dietary debris of the early inhabitants of the Lower Paleolithic Age.

During the Middle Paleolithic Period, Pre-Neanderthal and Neanderthal men dwelt in caves at Jeommal near Jecheon and Durubong near Cheongju. From the two caves, fossil remains of rhinoceros, cave bear, brown bear, maccacus, hyena and numerous deer (Pseudaxi gray var.), all extinct species, were excavated. Some bones of dietary debris were engraved with delineations of human faces as well as animal figures such as tigers, leopards, fish, birds, etc. These findings have led to the conclusion that Neanderthal man had the capacity to create art.

From Jeommal cave a tool, possibly for hunting, fashioned from the radius of a Pre-Neanderthal man was unearthed, along with hunting and kitchen tools of animal bones. The shells of nuts collected for nourishment were also uncovered.

Stone Implements Excavated at Sangmuryong-ri Village. Site of Amsa-dong Prehistoric Relics.


In Seokjang-ri and elsewhere in the riverine sites, numerous chipped stone tools were found with definite traces of Paleolithic tradition, made of fine-grain rocks such as quartzite, porphyry, obsidian, chert, and felsite manifest acheulian, mousteroid, and levalloisian. Those of the chopper tradition are of much cruder shape and chipped from quartz and pegmatite. Seokjang-ri middle layers showed that early men hunted with these bola or missile stones.

There are more upper Paleolithic sites as well. From an interesting habitation site at Seokjang-ri locality 1, some human hairs of Mongoloid origin were found 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, which carborn dated some 20,000 years. The living floor of compact clay was hollowed out in the shape of a whale. It is quite possible that was done to pray for good fishing and hunting. Obsidian microblades were used for the carving and scraping of fish. The people may have been the early homo sapiens of Mongoloid stock who were ancestors of modern Koreans.

A few Mesolithic sites have been discovered recently with microlits. Many of the Mesolithic sites in the coastal areas of the west seem to have sunk due to the rise of sea levels during the Atlantic Neolithic Period. Flat-bottomed unmarked pottery of the early Neolithic Period first appeared, followed by pottery with geometrical marks, a sign of the cultural relationship between the Ural-Altaic regions where similar pottery developed.

With a few deviations, this pottery with a geometric surface design is similar to kamm-keramic or comb pottery, which is widespread in Korea. The design is incised in a herring bone pattern or simple sets of slanted lines. This pottery is of a half-egg shape with a round bottom and straight lip. The pottery was made of clay or sandy clay mixed with talc, shell, asbestos and steatite temper, built by the coiling method and fired at a low temperature in an open kiln.

There are numerous sites of Neolithic habitation. Known for the cluster of dug-out huts of this era are the following: Cheongho-ri along the Daedonggang river near Pyongyang; Misa-ri and Amsa-dong along the Han-gang river near Seoul; and Dongsam-dong in the Nakdonggang river estuary near Busan. These sites are of the early Neolithic Period, which came into existence about 6 to 7 thousand years ago. The people of this period lived by fishing, hunting and gathering wild fruits. They had also started to grind acorns and wild grains on saddle querns.

In the late Neolithic Period, probably the fourth millennium B.C., there was a change in the surface design on pottery. Parallel wavy lines or sets of pit marks in the shape of lightning flashes were adopted. There are many sites with this type of pottery along the riverine areas of the western and southern coasts of the peninsula.

Incipient dibbling and planting were developed together with the breeding of cattle. Digging sticks made of animal horn and stone hoes were used in the early stage of farming. At the Jitap-ri site, carbonized millet was found in the pottery. The early Neolithic peoples made spindles and spindle-whorls to spin and weave clothes and fishing nets. They gradually began to use bone needles for sewing; they also selected seeds and destroyed weeds to protect the crops. Their huts were built in a round or semi-rectangular dugout form with a hearth; one of these with five hearths has been uncovered.

They believed in animism, and thought all natural objects had spirits. Shamanism was prevalent as it was elsewhere in the northeastern Asian regions. Shamans were believed to have supernatural power enabling them to contact the heavenly spirit in order to protect the family and community from evil spirits.

The Bronze Age began around the 15th century B.C. Pottery without any surface design and with a flat bottom was made during this period, as well as some black pottery and burnished red pottery. Red beans, soybeans and millet were cultivated, as indicated by the imprint of such grains found on the surface of the pottery at Yangpyeong, and some gray organic flour was found in pottery at Hogok-dong, Musan. Agriculture during the Bronze Age included rice cultivation in the southern part of Korea, as evidenced by the discovery of carbonized rice grains at Hunam-ri, Yeoju. One of the dwelling sites of this period was carbon dated 2760 B.C. A bronze ritual ornament unearthed near Daejeon depicts a man ploughing the land, and semi-lunar knives of polished stone are found almost everywhere in the site of unmarked pottery. Rectangular huts and burial sites in the form of dolmen and stone cists are much larger than those of the previous era.

As agriculture developed, surplus was stored, and specialization of labor into peasant, artisan and bondman emerged, a change which brought about mutual influence between kinship groups. The increase of food production contributed to the rise of population and necessitated migration; some of the Neolithic people possibly migrated to Kyushu, southern Japan at this stage.

Clans within these communities all came into contact with each other and together they made advances in the technology of smelting bronze, which also stimulated peaceful relations as well as the practice of exogamy. Metallurgy possibly started from firing at pottery kilns. The rise of smiths and miners of raw material also contributed to the emergence of the ruling and the ruled. The distribution of dolmens and menhirs is pervasive in Korea, showing that the spread of megalithic-bronze culture developed extensively on the peninsula.

In this period the mastery of bronze technology served as a powerful weapon for the conquest of different clans, and thereby expedited the rise of larger units of tribal society.


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