Origins of the Teochew People - Archaeological Evidences (Part 4): The Question of Where From?

 The previous three articles of this series presented on archaeological evidences of showing Neolithic (New Stone Age) human settlement activities and progress in the Teochew region and its immediate surroundings from circa 6000 to 3500 years before present (“B.P.”) (i.e. 4000 to 1000 BCE). The signs of a relatively advanced society exhibited from the findings included the development of a pottery-making industry and distribution channels, the practice of organised burials and adoption of symbols of authority as means to create and maintain a social hierarchy, as well as the establishment of external trading relations to obtained bronze and jade artefacts not available locally.

Furthermore, it was demonstrated that the Teochew territory and adjacent lands belonging to Hokkien-speakers in southern Fujian, with whom the Teochews are akin in speech and cultural disposition, were once united by the indigenous Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Fubin Culture that thrived between circa 1500 and 900 BCE.

All these fly in the face of nationalist rhetorics that the Chinese civilisation has a single origin on the banks of the Yellow River (only) 5000 years ago. They also call into serious doubts of the authenticity of portrayals that the Teochew region was an uninhabited wilderness until a series of population migrations from the Central Plain, via Fujian, a few centuries back. 

An important resultant question is where did the prehistoric inhabitants of Teochew come from? This in turn might shed light as to whether these people were in fact the forebears of modern Teochews.

The Geography of Teochew

Surprising as it may sound for a place with half of its sons and daughters now living in diaspora across the world, the Teochew region is one of the most isolated areas in China.

Geographically the land of the Teochews is part of Southeast China that comprises also of Fujian province, even though Teochew is administered under Guangdong. Generally speaking Teochew itself is formed by the drainage areas of three major watercourses, the Han River, Rong River and Lian River. Along with a handful of small rivers, they flow in a southerly direction into the South China Sea. The river deltas of the three main rivers combine to form what Chinese scholars refer as the Chaoshan Plain (潮汕平原), which is the second largest river delta region on China’s southern coast after the Pearl River Delta.

Illustration of extent of Han River, Rong River and Lian River deltas in different periods of formation (source: The Teochew Store)

However the fertile lowlands take up no more than about one-third of the Teochew territory. The rest of the land is occupied by hills and low mountains, the highest point being the Phoenix Mountain (鳳凰山) peak at 1497.8m. These ridges mark the meeting point of the Nanling Mountains (南嶺) and Wuyi Mountains (武夷山) that physically divide Guangdong and Fujian from the rest of China respectively.

Despite having relative low altitudes, the Teochew highlands are on the whole steep and vertical, and present themselves as a formidable natural barrier to access. During the days of imperial China, the sole passage to enter Teochew by land travel from the China heartlands was through the difficult Ting River (汀江) in Fujian, an upper tributary of the Han River.

Even in today’s age of DNA science, many in China continued to be taught and believe in the monogenesis theory that all Chinese people descend from the Peking Man, who lived around Beijing some 750,000 years ago. If this was somehow true, the first inhabitants of Teochew must have come through the same path.

Yet, this wasn’t so.

Oldest Teochew Neolithic Site - Xiangshan Culture

Namoa (南澳, Nan'ao) is the largest island in Teochew. Separated from the mainland by seven kilometres of sea, it was once the hiding place of numerous pirate and smuggler lairs. During the 1990s, however, Namoa was found to be buried with a deeper secret after a man repairing the tomb of a relative dug out pieces of pottery sherds and alerted a local museum.

According to a report of this development, archaeological workers subsequently directed to investigate the Dongkengzai (東坑仔) site found in all two pieces of pottery net pendants (陶網墜), seven pieces of pottery beater (陶拍), more than 20 pottery stands (陶支座), 37 stone artefacts (石器), one stone spinning wheel (石紡輪) and seven pitted pebbles (凹石), in addition to over 100 sherd pieces. They were able to link the artefacts to the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Fubin Culture from about 3,500 to 4,000 years B.P. (i.e. 2000 to 1000 BCE). 

Surface designs of Dongkengzai pottery (source: 广东南澳县东坑仔古遗址)

As more archaeologists converged on the island because of this discovery, an assortment of prehistoric stone tools, stoneware, pottery artefacts, bronze items as well as fossilised deer antlers and teeth were uncovered in five more local sites. Among them, Xiangshan (象山, or “Elephant Hill”) yielded artefacts that appeared entirely unremarkable at first look – 150 or so pieces of dull-coloured flints, each measuring no more than two to four centimetres in length, in addition to a single piece ash pottery shard, decorated with motifs on both sides that was buried 1.55m beneath surface.

Before the trained eyes however, the flints were immediately recognised as the daily implements belonging to an Early Neolithic community, including scrapers (削割器), projectile points (尖狀器), stone drills (石鑽) and engraving instruments (雕刻器). Together with the location of the site of 9,000 square metres in front of a shoal bay and at 5 to 30 metres above sea-level, the items revealed the engagement of economic activities such as tool-making, hunting, foraging, fishing and harvesting of shrimps and shellfish from the sea. From what was available, the so-called Xiangshan Culture was assessed to be from about 8,000 years B.P. (circa 6000 BCE). This made it at least 2,000 years older than the Chenqiao Culture that was previously thought to be the earliest trace of human activity in Teochew, and at the same time the oldest Neolithic site in the whole of Guangdong province.

Interestingly Guangdong’s next two oldest Neolithic period sites at Shenzhen’s Xiantouling (深圳咸頭嶺) and Zhanjiang’s Liyudun (湛江鯉魚墩) (near Hainan island), both dated to about 7,000 years B.P., are also near the interior mountains, but lie right by the sea.

Corresponding Neolithic Cultures in Fujian and Taiwan

Meanwhile in Fujian, which is very much similar with Teochew in terms of geographical terrain, archaeologists were able to identify three important Early Neolithic sites on the coast at Fuguodun (复国墩) and Jinguishan (金龟山) on Kinmen (金門) island (currently under Taiwan administration) near Xiamen, as well as Keqiutou (殼丘頭) on Pingtan island (平潭島) that is off the coast of Fuzhou. They were assessed to be related to one another and given the collective label of Fuguodun Culture.

The materials obtained from these sites, along with other later Neolithic cultures discovered in coastal Fujian, have been noted to “display remarkable difference” and “represent different archaeological sequences” from their contemporaries in inland mountains within the province’s boundary. 

But on the other hand, the Fuguodun Culture pottery were recorded to bear incised markings (篦點紋) and shell-impressed patterns (貝齒紋), which are the definitive motifs of the Teochew Chenqiao Culture’s coarse-sand pottery. Just as it was at the Chenqiao Culture sites, the Fuguodun Culture ones were also found to have present substantial shell deposits. C-14 dates of marine shells taken from Keqiutou indicated an age of between 6500 and 5000 B.P., which approximates the Chenqiao Culture’s. At the same time, there were more than 100 postholes discovered at Keqiutou. This suggests that its prehistoric inhabitants lived in ganlan (干欄) stilt-dwellings, as it was in the case of Teochew’s Hutoupu Culture.

If they are indeed intimately related, the Fuguodun Culture and Chenqiao Culture link will push back the possible ancient ties between Teochews and Hokkiens by a few more thousand years.

Across the Taiwan Straits, archaeologists established that Taiwan once had a homogenous Early Neolithic material culture called Dapenkeng (大坌坑), which was estimated to be from 6,000 to 5,500 years B.P. (i.e. circa 4000 to 3500 BCE). It is believed to belong to a people with a maritime orientation, as most of the Dapenkeng Culture archaeological sites are situated along Taiwan’s western coastline, facing Southeast China, and also contain sizeable marine shells and fish remains deposits.

Locations of Early Neolithic sites in coastal Guangdong, Fujian and Taiwan (source: The Teochew Store)

For a period of time, much attention was paid to Dapenkeng Culture for two reasons.  Firstly, analysis showed its emergence in Taiwan was an abrupt event, for it bore few commonalities the island’s pre-existing Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) cultures. It managed to spread from the west coast to the east over a relatively short period of time and displaced its predecessors in the process. All these imply that Dapenkeng Culture was an invasive culture of a foreign origin.

Secondly, the style of Dapenkeng Culture pottery was highlighted to closely resemble those of Fuguodun Culture. The Taiwan Straits at its most narrow point is only about 150 kilometres wide and open sea voyaging across its two ends is entirely possible even on a primitive craft. Accordingly an argument arose that Dapenkeng Culture must have been the offshoot of Fuguodun Culture and the people who conceived it in Taiwan were prehistoric immigrants from mainland Southeast China.

However as plausible as this theory appears, it remains speculative. For no one was able pinpoint where exactly along Fujian’s 2,700 kilometres shoreline, or perhaps in Teochew, was the centre of Fuguodun Culture; much less suggest a scenario of how this migration could have unfolded.

Clarity to these would help to explain who were the prehistoric people in Southeast China, and perhaps their ultimate origin. However, as things stand, a change of the situation is unlikely. Knowledge about the Fuguodun Culture and the rest of Southeast China’s (including Teochew) prehistory appears doomed to remain fragmentary, owing to a lack of political will and funding to back archaeological studies into this part of China that is still seen as the periphery; and in more damaging terms, an ongoing property development craze in the country.

(Information of Neolithic Cultures in Fujian and Taiwan are referred from The Neolithic Of Southeast China)

Answers Outside China?

Yet, all hopes for answers may not be lost.

Amidst all the focus on the connection between Fuguodun Culture and Dapenkeng Culture, an important point that has been overlooked is that virtually all the earliest Neolithic sites in coastal Guangdong, Fujian and Taiwan, are situated either right on the edge with the sea, or even in the middle of it. This does not appear to be a coincidence and deeper consideration is warranted.

The significance of this is even greater in view that, to date, no related Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age, a period until 10,000 years B.P.) site has been found in these areas. Furthermore, with the exception of Xiangshan Culture, archaeological traces dated between 10,000 years and 7,000 years B.P. are also missing. It could be that these evidences are still there waiting to be dug (if the construction excavators have not already beaten the archaeologists), or if they are not to be found in China in the first place.

Significantly, geologists tell us that due to the Last Glacial Maximum, the sea level of the South China Sea 20,000 years ago was 120 metres below present. Consequently, the Sunda Shelf that adjoins mainland Southeast Asia with the region’s primary islands was fully exposed, as was extensive tracts of land along the China coastline that is now below the sea. But the water rose as the climate became warmer and the glaciers melted, in a change that was another always gradual. For example, the research of Stephen Oppenheimer, author of Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, contends that there were at least three cataclysmic surges of the South China Sea as the result of massive pulses of flood that happened between 15,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Illustrations of South China Sea sea-level at 20,000 years B.P., 15,580 years B.P., 10,880 years B.P. and 9,530 years B.P. Shaded areas represent present sea-bed that were exposed (source: Emergence of cultural diversity in Mainland Southeast Asia: A view from prehistory)


As late as 11,000 years B.P. mainland Southeast China and Taiwan were connected by a land bridge, and the waters did not retreat to present levels until after 7,000 years B.P. Given the importance of the sea as a resource for food, especially before the advent of agriculture and husbandry, it is highly probable that the prehistoric populations of southern China were originally settled on coastal grounds that are now submerged.

The transformation of land into seabed would explain the “missing evidences”, while the chain of offshore Neolithic settlement sites are probably the outcomes of desperate retreats to higher ground to escape sudden floods.

More to Come

Research into the Neolithic Cultures in Teochew and other issues discussed in this series of articles are still work in progress and any assessment cannot be said to be conclusive. Unfortunately, in the absence of proper support archaeological work within Teochew has come to a standstill and this line of investigation may have come to a close.

However, archaeology brought us so far as to establish that if there is indeed an ancestral relationship between Teochew’s prehistoric and present inhabitants, the proof for it almost without doubt lies in or near the area, rather than in far away northern China. Our search for our ancestral origin has to continue through other avenues.


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Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • TeochewHokkienTENTHOUSANDAGES says...

    Hello TheTeochewStore!

    When the Truth will come out soon – and it WILL come out soon – at last, there will be total freedom and emancipation for your people(s) (Teochew, Hokkien).

    (Don’t worry. You’ve done your good part from analyzing both your own Teochew/Hokkien sources, and the foreign Chinese sources. The Truth I mention will be coming from even beyond.)

    Until then, I sincerely pray and encourage Gaginang/Gagilang (Teochews and Hokkiens) to further strengthen their own ties and solidarity with each other.
    And ESPECIALLY in Taiwan.

    At the end of it all, you are your only true kin.
    Please don’t fall for the flimsy names such as “Chinese” “Han Chinese”, and not even for “Southern Chinese solidarity”. Last time I looked carefully, honestly, Cantonese and Shanghainese don’t give a damn about being anything but Chinese, Han Chinese – historically (see the KMT – again, ESPECIALLY applying in Taiwan) AND now.

    On the other hand, you Teochew and Hokkien, please, keep enduring and keep remaining on the side of TRUTH! You are in BY ABSOLUTE FAR the best position for FREEDOM among all the SO-CALLED – SO-CALLED! – “Han Chinese”.


    January 20, 2023

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