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Antiquity Vol 79 No 305 September 2005

The discovery of an 8000-year-old dugout canoe at Kuahuqiao in the Lower Yangzi River, China

Leping Jiang & Li Liu

During recent excavations at the Kuahuqiao site in south China, archaeologists discovered an 8000-year old waterlogged settlement. Numerous well-preserved organic remains from this ancient village indicate that rice, dogs and pigs had already been domesticated. The most astonishing discovery was a dugout canoe, revealing the earliest technology for constructing this type of watercraft in China, if not in the world.

Kuahuqiao
Kuahuqiao is located at Xianghucun in Xiaoshan district, Hangzhou city, Zhejiang province. It was discovered in the early 1970s when a local brick factory destroyed a large part of the site. Since 1990 archaeologists from the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology have conducted three seasons of salvage excavation there, covering a total area of 1080m2 (Jiang 2004).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Map showing sites mentioned in the text. Click to enlarge.
Figure 2

Figure 2. A painted pottery jar from Kuahuqiao. Click to enlarge.

The Kuahuqiao site, about 1m below sea level, is now situated on the southern bank of the Qiantang River mouth, facing the Hangzhou Bay. When it was inhabited, the site's boundaries were mountains in the north-west and fresh water bodies in the south-east. Above the settlement deposits is a layer of sediment 3-4m thick, belonging to the supralittoral and eulittoral zones. This suggests that the site was abandoned due to rising sea level and marine transgression. Based on 27 charbon 14 dates and 3 thermoluminescence dates, the site is dated to c. 8000-7000 cal. BP.

Thanks to the waterlogged condition of the site, a large number of artefacts made of pottery, stone, bone and wood have been uncovered. Ceramics are the most characteristic, representing a previously unknown assemblage. The pottery forms are distinctive, including fu (cauldron), guan (pot), pan (basin), dou (plate), and bo (bowl), as well as a large quantity of painted wares (Figure 2). These vessels have even and thin walls and were elaborately made, and the technological level is higher than that of the Hemudu site in the same region, which dates to 1000 years later than Kuahuqiao.

Many botanic remains were also found at the site, mostly wild species, including water caltrop, acorn, chestnut, and gorgon fruit. Acorns were often discovered in storage pits. Excavations yielded more than 1000 grains of rice, including 196 rough grains, 369 hulled grains, and 498 husks (Figure 3). The rice grains show characteristics of domestic form, similar to Oryza sativa var. indica, but rice phytoliths are similar to those of Oryza sativa var. japonica. In addition, some rice grains appear to resemble wild rice. These phenomena suggest that the Kuahuqiao rice was domesticated from the local wild rice, and that it was still in an early stage of domestication before the two sub-species (indica and japonica) evolved.

More than 5000 animal bones were unearthed, identified as 32 species, including crab, turtle, alligator, swan, crane, dolphin, dog, badger, raccoon dog, pig, tiger, leopard cat, rhinoceros, sika, Pere David's deer, antelope and water buffalo. Most of these animals are wild species, suggesting that hunting and gathering were the dominant subsistence strategies. The analysis of a few dozen pig mandibles revealed distorted alignment of teeth in several cases (Figure 4). This is because the length of the mandibles decreased while the size of the teeth remained relatively constant during the early process of pig domestication. Kuahuqiao pig remains are therefore one of the earliest domestic pig assemblages in south China discovered to date. Dog also seems to have been domesticated.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Carbonised rice grains from Kuahuqiao. Click to enlarge.
Figure 4

Figure 4. A pig mandible with distorted alignment of teeth. Click to enlarge.

Similar to the early Neolithic sites of Shangshan and many later Neolithic settlements in this region, residential structures at Kuahuqiao were pile-dwellings, as indicated by the remains of wooden structures and supporting earth walls. Some timbers show traces of tenon and mortise joinery techniques, and others were made in the shape of ladders, apparently used for climbing to the pile-dwellings.

The most important discovery at Kuahuqiao is a dugout canoe, dated to 8000 cal. BP (Table 1). The canoe is made of pine (Pinus sp.), 560cm in remaining length and 2.5cm in remaining thickness. One end is well preserved, revealing the prow to be flat in shape and 29cm in width. Some 25cm from the prow, the width of the canoe measures 52cm, which is the craft's original width. The depth of the hull is 15cm, measured at the point 1m from the prow. The interior and exterior surfaces of the canoe are smooth and flat; the upper part of its side appears to have been heavily worn, suggesting a used watercraft. Some burnt spots are visible on the interior surface, indicating that burning method was employed during manufacture (Figure 5).

Lab #Context of specimen Material 14C Date BP (T1/2=5568) Cal. 14C date (BC) Lab
  1σ (68.2%) 2σ (95.4%)  
BK2003006 Canoe Wood 7070155 6070 (67.2%) 5770
5760 (1.0%) 5750
6250 (95.4%) 5650 Peking University
ZK3173 Canoe Wood 699150 5980 (10.2%) 5950
5920 (58.0%) 5800
5990 (15.8%) 5940
5930 (79.6%) 5740
Institute of Archaeology CASS

Table 1. Carbon 14 dates of the dugout canoe from Kuahuqiao.

The canoe, placed in a position parallel to the bank of the lake/river, was surrounded by about a dozen vertical wooden piles, and laid on top of a long timber and a large rock. On one side of the canoe is a cluster of pine timbers in various sizes, up to 2.8m long. Some appear to have been worked, with traits of chopping and cutting; others are unworked natural branches. The function of these timbers is unclear. They may have been used for repairing this old canoe, or they are the remains of an outrigger, which was attached on one side of canoe for keeping the watercraft in good balance in the water. However, there is no sign of a mechanism on the canoe for connecting an outrigger, since a large part of the top portion of the canoe sides was not preserved.

Three paddles were unearthed at the site. Two of them, both 1.4m in length, were placed on each side of the canoe, apparently unused (Figure 6). Whetstones, stone adzes, wooden adze handles, and flakes chipped off from adzes have been found near the canoe. Several pieces of matting, made of cane or bamboo, were also found near the canoe. One piece (60 x 55cm in size) appears to have had double layers, attached to a T-shaped wooden frame. Due to the small size of the remains, it is unclear whether the mats are the remains of a sail or of roofing attached to the canoe (Figure 7).

All these remains suggest that the site was a village associated with a workshop for making or repairing canoes, and this watercraft is the earliest example of a dugout canoe discovered in China. Use of canoes for water transportation has a long history in China. Before the discovery of Kuahuqiao the earliest wooden stern of a watercraft was unearthed at Chengtoushan in middle Yangzi River region. However, it dates to c. 6000 years ago, some 2000 years later than Kuahuqiao.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Remains of the dugout canoe from Kuahuqiao.
Figure 6

Figure 6. A wooden paddle from Kuahuqiao.

The Kuahuqiao canoe is rather narrow and shallow, probably only suitable for navigating in rivers and lakes, rather than for seafaring. However, this canoe may represent the earliest watercraft technology developed in south-east China, where the Austronesian people originated. The further development of this technology eventually facilitated Austronesians to colonise the Pacific islands a few thousand years later (Haddon & Hornell 1975, Lewis 1994, Ling 1970).

The Kuahuqiao site represents a newly discovered and independent archaeological assemblage. Three phenomenon are notable: first, Kuahuqiao has no predecessor cultures in the archaeological record, showing no connection with the Shangshan assemblage 1000 years earlier than Kuahuaqiao; second, the site was inundated by marine transgressions; and third, a few hundred Neolithic sites dated later than Kuahuqiao have been found in the adjacent region, but none of them can be identified as the successor of the Kuahuqiao assemblage.

Conclusion
Kuahuqiao has revealed a unique material assemblage unknown in the previously established archaeological sequence. It disappeared from the landscape after flourishing for a thousand years, leaving no successor cultures in the region. This advanced Neolithic settlement could not have existed in isolation. The Kuahuqiao people settled at the site during an episode of low sea level when the geographic conditions were unstable. Its predecessor and contemporary settlements, therefore, may be distributed in areas today inundated by Hangzhou Bay. An episode of marine transgressions destroyed Kuahuqia around 7000 years ago, after which environmental conditions become stabilised and favourable for long-term human settlement in this region, which led to the rise of Neolithic cultures such as Hemudu and Majiabang during the sixth and fifth millennia BC. It is clear that the rise and fall of Neolithic cultures in south-eastern coastal areas of China were closely related to nearby changes of sea level.

Nevertheless, Kuahuqiao village did not simply vanish in prehistory. Its cultural traditions continued, as testified by the advanced woodworking and seafaring techniques mastered by ancient populations, which later flourished in the south-east coast region of China.

Acknowledgements
We thank Peter Bellwood, Harold Conklin and Geoffrey Hewitt for their input and information on dugout canoes, and the Institute for Advanced Studies at La Trobe University for its generous support which made this collaborative project possible.

References

  • HADDON, A.C. & J. HORNELL. 1975. Canoes of Oceania. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.
  • JIANG, L. (ed.). 2004. Kuahuqiao. Beijing: Wenwu Press.
  • LEWIS, D. 1994. We, the Navigators: the Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • LING, S. 1970. Zhongguo Yuangu yu Taiping Yindu Liangyang de Fanfa Gechuan Fangzhou he Louchuan de Yanjiu (A Study of the Raft, Outrigger, Double, and Deck Canoes of Ancient China, the Facific, and the Indian Oceans). Nankang: Institute of Ethnology Academia Sinica.

Figure 7

Figure 7. Remain of mat with wooden frame from Kuahuqiao. Click to enlarge.

Leping Jiang: Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, China.
Li Liu: La Trobe University, Australia

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