Origins of the Teochew People - Archaeological Evidences (Part 1): Traces of Teochew's Oldest Inhabitants

"China has 5,000 years of history" must be a refrain thoroughly familiar to every one of us. Only in recent days an official of the mainland Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) was quoted by Xinhua for declaring that  a comprehensive investigation into the Chinese civilisation's origin and early development  has verified its existence for "at least 5,000 years".

In reality there was little reference to this 5000-year-old date before Liu Shipei, a revolutionary nationalist then 19 years young, made a passionate written argument in 1903  for China to adopt a calendar that begins from the birth of Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), a semi-mythical king who lived in the Central Plains. Liu calculated himself the year of this event to be 2711 BCE.

We know of course that endlessly repeated statements need not necessary represent the truth. After its chanced discovery in 1899, archaeological investigations into the oracle bone script (甲骨文) have revealed the oldest-known form of Chinese writing to be just over 3,200 years old. It would be far-fetched for China to already have a written history or dating system 1,800 years before its people learned to write.

On the other hand, archaeological discoveries since the 1920s of thousands of Neolithic (New Stone Age) sites in China prove irrefutably that the country was not only peopled as far back as ten thousand years before present, but also across several regions and not just in the Central Plains.

The appearance of homo sapiens or modern human traces back possibly to some 300,000 years. This is to say as much as 99% of our past as a race happened before our forebears began to record experiences and events using the written word. In this aspect archaeology, which according to a dictionary definition is “the scientific study of material remains (such as tools, pottery, jewellery, stone walls, and monuments) of past human life and activities”, has been crucial in helping to develop an understanding of our forgotten past.

For various historical and political reasons, archaeological efforts in China have been concentrated along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and discoveries in these two regions have been given exceptional media and scholarly attention. In contrast, there is considerably less publicity for equally fascinating findings in Guangdong and Fujian provinces that have shed light since the 1930s onto the possibility that China's southern coast was not uncivilised in prehistoric times, as formerly thought.

An Italian Jesuit & His Early Discoveries near Teochew

Often considered one of China’s most isolated regions, the area around Teochew’s Han River (韩江), has an archaeological pioneer in the unlikely figure of an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Rafael Maglioni.

Also known by his sinicised name Mai Zhaoliang (麥兆良), the Florence native first arrived in the Far East when the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Milan sent him to Hong Kong in 1928. Following a short stint in the then-British colony, he was stationed as a missionary in Shanwei (in Teochew: Swabue 汕尾), located in Haifeng (Haihong 海豐) district close to Teochew.

In 1934 Maglioni was visited by another Jesuit Father Daniel Finn, who was a trained archaeologist. Following a tip-off, the two men surveyed and found a site in Haifeng that contained archaeological materials similar to finds Finn had previously made on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. His curious thus aroused, Maglioni continued to search actively for pottery sherds and stone tools even after Finn had left. Local conditions were ideal for his pursuit. Riding out regularly on a lady’s vintage bicycle fitted with a front basket that kept a trowel and a screwdriver (his only tools), Maglioni soon found out that Haifeng was rich with artefacts exposed by deforestation, deflation of sand dunes and inland soil erosion.

Conspicuous by his foreign appearance and priestly robes, Maglioni tried his best to work away from the gaze of local people, and confined himself collecting surface finds or digging to no more than a few inches underground. Even so, by the time he was transferred back to Hong Kong in 1946, he managed to  investigate and collect from 25 principal sites in Haifeng, as well as eight more elsewhere nearby, including the Teochew counties of Teo-an (Chao’an 潮安), Thenghai (Chenghai 澄海) and Teo-yor (Chaoyang 潮陽).

Extraordinarily, Maglioni gathered 1800 pounds of pottery and 400 adzes in Haifeng alone and an even greater quantity of artefacts from his other surveys. His finds comprised of stone tools and weapons, distinctively ornamented pottery pieces, as well as bronze articles. Some of these objects were illustrated in the 1975 Archaeological Discovery in Eastern Kwangtung:


In 1938 Maglioni wrote the article “Archaeological Finds in Hoifung” that was published in the Hong Kong Naturalist. In the same year he also read a paper entitled “Some Aspects of South China Archaeological Finds” to the Congress of Prehistorians in Singapore. Together with “The Prehistory of South China” - his final voluminous work that was not published before his untimely death in 1953, it is known that Maglioni believed he had found three different Neolithic cultures* that existed within a territory defined by the Han and Pearl rivers and mountains that straddled the Guangdong and Fujian interior. 

(A “culture” in Chinese archaeological term refers to a collection of material remains and features found in a continuous geographical area, and are known to be contemporary and related one another. It is commonly named after the major archaeological location where it is first discovered.)

Using abbreviations derived from their primary sites in Haifeng, Maglioni identified these three cultures as:

  • SON (from Soa-khe North 沙坑北), which he placed in a time frame from 4000 to 3000 BCE;
  • SAK (from Sa-kak-bue 三角尾), from 3000 to 1500 BCE; and
  • PAT (Pat-ea-hui [菝仔園]),  from 2000 to 1000 BCE.

In line with the conventional school of thought of his days, which associated each prehistoric cultures with a distinct ethnic group, Maglioni saw the people of the SON culture as Haifeng’s earliest inhabitants, and those whom the SAK and PAT cultures expressed new tribes that entered the area later.

However in recent times, the ethnohistory approach Maglioni took has been deemed obsolete, as scholars lean towards seeing indigenous changes as the reason for differences in materials cultures. Furthermore, Maglioni was found by subsequent examinations to have inadvertent mixed items from different periods in the cultures he theorised, owing to various circumstances including the chaos of the Second World War as well as the relocation of himself and his properties to Hong Kong. 

The shortcomings notwithstanding, scholars have accepted the dating of Maglioni's Neolithic artefact collections to be substantially correct, and recognised his success in establishing the basic idea that the South China region was “an area containing independent and quite highly developed cultures that were originally quite distinct from those of the North”.

Breakthrough Find within Teochew

With the restoration of peace after the Second World War and the Chinese civil war, archaeological explorations  in Guangdong were resumed under local initiatives in the 1950s. The Guangdong Provincial Museum, for example, conducted a series of archaeological surveys in eastern Guangdong from 1956 to 1960 that reportedly uncovered 241 Neolithic sites. However, the breakthrough find was made by a survey team of the Guangdong Administrative Committee for Cultural Heritage working in Teo-an county, who were alerted to an critical clue in 1956 by lime shell mining activities  in a local village.

Chenqiao (in Teochew: Danggie 陳橋) village  is nondescript community on the western outskirts of the historical Teochew Prefectural City (or Chaozhou 潮州府城). It lies on depressed terrain, some 30 km from the seafront. Inspite of its location, members of the survey team stumbled upon a 1.4m high mound in a village that was formed by tens of thousands of discarded marine shells, such as oyster and clam. This was a heap of waste to the common man, but not a trained archaeologist. Even though shell middens  like this can be found by coastlines, lagoons, tidewater flats, rivers and streams throughout the globe, they are not natural formations, but cultural deposits created by human activities. Specifically meals eaten four to ten millennia ago.

Possibly a result of dramatic climatic and environmental changes, this period concerned saw a worldwide transition of modern humans from roaming hunter-gatherers to sedentary settlers. Challenged to feed themselves but within reduced territorial space, our primitive forebears responded by learning to diversify their diet through any readily accessible sources of nutrition. Shellfish that could be gathered by hand from shallow waters was quickly seen as an easy option. Accordingly the shells they discarded after eating became thousands of years later important markers of their settlement presence.

Based on sea-level indicators, such as the presence of marine shells or mangrove pollens, scientists have determined that sea-level around the Teochew region was up to 2.5 m higher between 6,000 to 4,500 years before present, compared with today. This implies that the Han River delta, which now extends southwards before Teochew City into the South China Sea, was completely submerged, and the site of Chenqiao village was then a stone’s throw away from the coastline - as the presence of its shell mound suggested in the first place.

When the ground shell layer at Chenqiao village covering over 3,200 square metres was cleared, a wide range of artefacts confirming ancient human settlement were brought to light. Besides bone instruments, polished stone tools (including adzes and oyster pries) and decorated pottery shards, there were also bone remains of fish, turtle, deer, goat and pig, which suggested of hunting activities in surrounding hills and possible early animal domestication. The imagination of the archaeologists were further stirred by the unearthing of partially fossilised skeletons of ten humans, whom scholars later dubbed as the “Chenqiao people”.

Photo of the animal bones found at Chenqiao archaeological site. These bones were probably kept to be produced into tools.

A 1961 survey report on the finds in Chenqiao village, as well as two other shell midden sites nearby at Shiweishan (Zieh-bhue mountain 石尾山) and Meilinhu (Bhue-lim lake梅林湖), briefly characterised the pottery discovered to be coarse sand-tempered, and decorated with incised patterns in the neck and shoulder area. Some of the items were pointed out to have red slips or were painted. The author of the survey report did not assign a date to the materials, but assessed them to be from the Early Neolithic era, which in the context of China dates between 10000 BCE and 2000 BCE).  

In subsequent years, shell-midden sites containing similar artefacts were in Teo-an’s Haijiaoshan (Hai-gag mountain 海角山) and Chihu (Di lake 池湖), Thenghai county’s Neidi (Lai-di 内底), Meilong (Bhue-leng 梅隴) and Guanglong (Guang-leng管隴), as well as Honggang (Ang-gang 洪崗) in Gek-yor (Jieyang 揭陽) county. In addition, at least two other sites in Gek-yor have produced pottery deemed to be almost as old.

Photo of the Chihu archaeological site. 

Photos of a bone awl (骨錐) (top) and a scrapper (刮削器) (bottom) found at Chihu.

Photos of bone shovels (骨鏟) found at Chihu.

Photo of a half-polished stone adze (半磨製石錛) (left) found at Haijiaoshan and an illustration of how it was probably used as a tool (right).  Stone adzes were cutting tools used for woodwork.

On the whole, the pottery pieces and stone tools of the Chenqiao Culture were not dissimilar to those in Maglioni’s SON culture. Through their comparisons, in addition to observations of other prehistoric archaeological advances in Fujian and Taiwan, local scholars are now in the view that the Chenqiao people lived between 6,000 and 5,500 years ago (i.e. circa 4000 BCE to 3500 BCE), which is  well before the purported beginning of Chinese history.

The inevitable question that arose on the minds of the archaeologists then (as on some of ours now) is, who were these Chenqiao people from?

The Cultural Revolution upheavals in the 1960s prevented an immediate answer, as none of the sites identified in Teochew were investigated beyond surveys and small-scale test excavations. But even then, the voices of the past demanded to be heard as another unexpected discovery was to come in 1974. (To be continued…)


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