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Majiayao Culture

The Majiayao Culture is one of the most important Neolithic cultures in Chinese prehistory. In 1923 the Swedish geologist and archaeologist, Johan Gunnar Andersson, excavated several archaeological sites, including Banshan and Machang in Gansu province in northwest China. He collected a large number of distinctive painted pottery vessels, which are today housed in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm. Dr. Andersson and his colleagues first affiliated these cultural materials with the Yangshao culture of central China, located well to the east of where he was excavating. The finds became well-known in the Western world for most of the 20th century as representative examples of this Chinese Neolithic culture. After 1949, Chinese archaeologists carried out further archaeological investigations in the region and re-defined this material as Majiayao culture, in order to reflect its separate existence in the upper reaches of the Yellow River (an area that covers parts of Gansu, Qinghai, and Ningxia provinces).

As a result of further archaeological discoveries in the later 20th century, the Majiayao culture is now recognized as a major Neolithic manifestation in the northwestern region of China, dated approximately to 3300 - 2000 BC. Today, over 2,200 Majiayao sites have been identified, but only about 50 of them have been excavated. Archaeological evidence implies that the Majiayao culture was a simple egalitarian society with an economy based on farming (made possible by the domestication of millet) and animal husbandry. The Majiayao culture is especially well-known for its mass production of pottery. The most characteristic artifacts are large pottery vessels embellished with spiral circles, undulating lines and geometric patterns painted in black-and-red (and sometimes white) on the top part of the vessels. New archaeological research suggests that Majiayao painted pottery was influenced by Yangshao pottery designs from central China, and reached its peak during the 3rd millennium BC, when painted pottery disappeared in other parts of China. Based on changes in pottery forms and designs, Majiayao ceramic production is further divided into three phases: Majiayao (3300 - 2600 BC), Banshan (2600 - 2300 BC), and Machang (2300 - 2000 BC).

Source: Royal Ontario Museum 2006

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