Prehistoric Korea: Wikis


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This article is about the prehistory of the Korean Peninsula, from circa 500,000 BCE through 300 BCE. See History of Korea, History of North Korea and History of South Korea for more contemporary accounts of the Korean past. See also Names of Korea.

Globular, high-collared jar with slightly flaring rim

The Prehistoric Korea is the era of human existence in the Korean Peninsula for which written records did not exist. It, however, constitutes the greatest segment of the Korean past and is the major object of study in the disciplines of archaeology, geology, and palaeontology.


Geological prehistory

Korea unified vertical.svgHistory of Korea

 Jeulmun period
 Mumun period
Gojoseon 2333–108 BC
 Jin state
Proto-Three Kingdoms: 108–57 BC
 Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye
 Samhan: Ma, Byeon, Jin
Three Kingdoms: 57 BC – 668 AD
 Goguryeo 37 BC – 668 AD
 Baekje 18 BC – 660 AD
 Silla 57 BC – 935 AD
 Gaya 42–562
North-South States: 698–935
 Unified Silla 668–935
 Balhae 698–926
 Later Three Kingdoms 892–935
  Later Goguryeo, Later Baekje, Silla
Goryeo Dynasty 918–1392
Joseon Dynasty 1392–1897
Korean Empire 1897–1910
Japanese rule 1910–1945
 Provisional Gov't 1919–1948
Division of Korea 1945–1948
North, South Korea 1948–present
 Korean War 1950–1953

Korea Portal
Korea Neolithic age axes

Geological prehistory is the most ancient part of Korea's past. The oldest rocks in Korea date to the Precambrian. The Yeoncheon System corresponds to the Precambrian and is distributed around Seoul extending out to Yeoncheon-gun in a northeasterly direction. It is divided into upper and lower parts and is composed of biotite-quartz-feldspar schist, marble, lime-silicate, quartzite, graphite schist, mica-quartz-feldspar schist, mica schist, quartzite, augen gneiss, and garnet-bearing granitic gneiss. The Korean Peninsula had an active geological prehistory through the Mesozoic, when many mountain ranges were formed, and slowly became more stable in the Cenozoic. Major Mesozoic formations include the Gyeongsang Supergroup, a series of geological episodes in which biotite granites, shales, sandstones, conglomerates andesite, basalt, rhyolite, and tuff that were laid down over most of present-day Gyeongsang-do Province.

The remainder of this article describes the human prehistory of the Korean Peninsula.

Periods in Korean human prehistory

Settlement sites of the Mumun Period that are mentioned in the text of this article.


The origins of this period are an open question but the antiquity of Hominid occupation in Korea may date to as early as c 500,000 BCE. Yi and Clark are somewhat skeptical of dating the earliest occupation to the Lower Palaeolithic.[1] The Palaeolithic ends when pottery production begins c 8000 BCE.

The earliest radiocarbon dates for this period indicate the antiquity of occupation on the Korean peninsula is between 40 000 and 30 000 BP[2] If Hominid antiquity extends as far as 500 000 BCE, it would seem to imply that Homo erectus could have been present in the Korean peninsula.

At Seokjang-ri, an archaeological site near Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do Province, artifacts that appear to have an affinity with Lower Paleolithic stone tools were unearthed in the lower levels of the site. Bifacial chopper or chopping-tools were also excavated. Hand axes and cleavers produced by men in later eras were also uncovered.

During the Middle Paleolithic Period, hominids dwelt in caves at the Jeommal Site near Jecheon and at the Durubong Site near Cheongju. From these two cave sites, fossil remains of rhinoceros, cave bear, brown bear, hyena and numerous deer (Pseudaxi gray var.), all extinct species, were excavated.

From Jeommal Cave a tool, possibly for hunting, made from the radius of a hominid was unearthed, along with hunting and food preparation tools of animal bones. The shells of nuts collected for nourishment were also uncovered.

In Seokjang-ri and in other riverine sites, stone tools were found with definite traces of Palaeolithic tradition, made of fine-grain rocks such as quartzite, porphyry, obsidian, chert, and felsite manifest Acheulian, Mousteroid, and Levalloisian characteristics. Those of the chopper tradition are of simpler in shape and chipped from quartz and pegmatite. Seokjang-ri's middle layers showed that hominids hunted with these bola or missile stones.

There are more Upper Palaeolithic sites as well. From an interesting habitation site at Locality 1 at Seokjang-ri, excavators claim that they excavated some human hairs of Mongoloid origin along 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. Reports claim that these were carbon dated to some 20 000 years ago.

Jeulmun Pottery Period

Korean earthenware vessel in the classic Jeulmun comb-pattern style over the whole vessel. c 4000 BCE, Amsa-dong, Seoul. British Museum.

The earliest known Korean pottery dates back to c 8000 BCE or before. This pottery is known as Yungimun Pottery (ko:융기문토기) is found in much of the peninsula. Some examples of Yungimun-era sites are Gosan-ri in Jeju-do and Ubong-ri in Greater Ulsan. Jeulmun or Comb-pattern Pottery (즐문토기) is found after 7000 BC, and pottery with comb-patterns over the whole vessel is found concentrated at sites in west–central Korea between 3500–2000 BC, a time when a number of settlements such as Amsa-dong and Chitam-ni existed. Jeulmun pottery bears basic design and form similarities to the Jōmon culture in Japan and to that of the Russian Maritime Province, Mongolia, and the Amur and Sungari River basins of Manchuria.[3]

The people of the Jeulmun practiced a broad spectrum economy of hunting, gathering, foraging, and small-scale cultivation of wild plants. It was during the Jeulmun that the cultivation of millet and rice was introduced to the Korean peninsula from the Asian continent.

Layout of archaeological features at Igeum-dong
Representations of a dagger (right)and two human figures, one of which is kneeling (left), carved into the capstone of Megalithic Burial No. 5, Orim-dong, Yeosu, Korea.

Mumun Pottery Period

Agricultural societies and the earliest forms of social-political complexity emerged in the Mumun Pottery Period (c 1500–300 BCE). People in southern Korea adopted intensive dry-field and paddy-field agriculture with a multitude of crops in the Early Mumun Period (1500–850 BCE). The first societies led by chiefs emerged in the Middle Mumun (850–550 BCE), and the first ostentatious elite burials can be traced to the Late Mumun (c 550–300 BCE). Bronze production began in the Middle Mumun and became increasingly important in Mumun ceremonial and political society after 700 BCE. The Mumun is the first time that villages rose, became large, and then fell: some important examples include Songgung-ni, Daepyeong, and Igeum-dong. The increasing presence of long-distance exchange, an increase in local conflicts, and the introduction of bronze and iron metallurgy are trends denoting the end of the Mumun around 300 BCE.

The period that begins after 300 BCE can be described as 'protohistoric', a time when some documentary sources seem to describe socieites in the Korean peninsula. The historical polities described in ancient texts such as the Samguk Sagi are an example. The Korean Protohistoric lasts until 300CE-400CE when the early historic Korean Three Kingdoms formed as archaeologically recognisable state societies.

Perspectives on Korean prehistory from the discipline of History

Ancient texts such as the Samguk Sagi, Samguk Yusa, Book of Later Han or Hou Han Shou, and others have sometimes been used to interpret segments of Korean prehistory. The most well-known version of the founding story that relates the origins of the Korean ethnicity explains that Dangun came to the earth in 2333 BCE. A significant amount of historical inquiry in the 20th century was devoted to the interpretation of the accounts of Gojoseon (2333–108 BCE), Gija Joseon (323–194 BCE), Wiman Joseon (194–108 BCE) and others mentioned in historical texts.

A great deal of archaeological activity has taken place in both North and South Korea since the mid-1950s, but no direct archaeological evidence has yet been discovered of these entities from the discipline of Korean history. It is difficult to even link indirect archaeological evidence with Gojoseon or the others, so tenuous are the current links between the archaeological data and historical texts.

However, in the 1990s North Korean media reports claimed that Dangun's tomb was discovered and partially excavated. Archaeologists and mainstream historians outside of North Korea are generally skeptical of the dating methods, since the government has not permitted independent access and testing. Additionally, the claims made about the partial excavation of a large-scale burial dating to before 2000 BCE are even more unusual given that other contemporary archaeological sites consist of small isolated settlements and subsistence-related sites such as shellmiddens.

Use of Three-age system of periodisation

Historians in Korea use the Three-age system to classify Korean prehistory. However, this system was made to classify the European prehistoric sequence, not Korea. The three age system was applied during of the post-Japanese colonisation period (1945 -) as a way to counter the erroneous claims of Japanese colonial archaeologists who insisted that, unlike Japan, Korea had no 'Bronze Age'.[4] The three age system stuck until the 1990s despite the fact that it does not fit with the unique intricacies of prehistoric Korea. For example, until recently the periodisation scheme used by Korean archaeologists proposed that the 'Neolithic' began in 8000 BCE and lasted until 1500 BCE. This is despite the fact that palaeoethnobotanical studies clearly indicate that the first bona fide cultivation did not begin until circa 3500 BCE. Furthermore, archaeologists used to claim that the 'Bronze Age' began in 1500 or 1000 BCE and lasted until 300 BCE. This periodisation has been repudiated however, because bronze technology was not adopted in the southern Korean Peninsula until circa 700 BC. The archaeological record clearly indicates that bronze objects were not consumed in relatively large numbers until after 400 BCE. [5][6] Despite the obviously poor fit with Korean prehistory, some historians who are experts in early Korean history (C.300BCE-668CE) continue to use the unsuitable Neolithic-Bronze-Iron monikers. However, most prehistoric archaeologists recognize the problems with the three-age system and have adopted a periodisation scheme based on changes in pottery design and technology, ie the Jeulmun (c8000BCE-1500BCE) and Mumun Pottery Periods (1500BCE-300BCE).

See also


  1. ^ Yi Seon-bok and G A Clark. 1983 Observations on the Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Northeast Asia. Current Anthropology 24(2): 181–202.
  2. ^ Bae, Kidong. 2002 Radiocarbon Dates from Palaeolithic Sites in Korea. Radiocarbon 44(2): 473–476.
  3. ^ Stark, Miriam T (2005). Archaeology Of Asia. Blackwell Publishing. p. 137. ISBN 1405102128.  
  4. ^ Kim, Seung Og. 1996 Political Competition and Social Transformation: The Development of Residence, Residential Ward, and Community in Prehistoric Taegongni of Southwestern Korea. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Proquest, Ann Arbor.
  5. ^ Kim 1996
  6. ^ Lee, June-Jeong. 2001 From Shellfish Gathering to Agriculture in Prehistoric Korea: The Chulmun to Mumun Transition. PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madision. Proquest, Ann Arbor.

Further reading

  • Ahn, Jae-ho. (2000) Hanguk Nonggyeongsahoe-ui Seongnip [The Formation of Agricultural Society in Korea]. Hanguk Kogo-Hakbo [Journal of the Korean Archaeological Society] 43: 41–66. ISSN 1015-373X
  • Bale, Martin T. (2001) Archaeology of Early Agriculture in Korea: An Update on Recent Developments. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 21(5): 77–84. ISSN 0156-1316
  • Bale, Martin T and Min-jung Ko (2006) Craft Production and Social Change in Mumun Period Korea. Asian Perspectives 45(2): 159–187.
  • Choe, C P and Martin T Bale (2002) Current Perspectives on Settlement, Subsistence, and Cultivation in Prehistoric Korea. Arctic Anthropology 39(1–2): 95–121. ISSN 0066-6939
  • Crawford, Gary W and Gyoung–Ah Lee (2003) Agricultural Origins in the Korean Peninsula. Antiquity 77(295): 87–95.
  • Im, Hyo-jae (2000) Hanguk Sinseokgi Munhwa [Neolithic Culture in Korea]. Jibmundang, Seoul. ISBN 89-303-0257-2
  • Kim, Jangsuk (2003) Land-use Conflict and the Rate of Transition to Agricultural Economy: A Comparative Study of Southern Scandinavia and Central-western Korea. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10(3): 277–321.
  • Kuzmin, Yaroslav V (2006) Chronology of the Earliest Pottery in East Asia: Progress and Pitfalls. Antiquity 80: 362–371.
  • Nelson, Sarah M (1993) The Archaeology of Korea. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-40783-4
  • Nelson, Sarah M (1999) Megalithic Monuments and the Introduction of Rice into Korea. In The Prehistory of Food: Appetites for Change, edited by C. Gosden and J. Hather, pp. 147–165. Routledge, London.
  • Rhee, S N and M L Choi (1992) Emergence of Complex Society in Prehistoric Korea. Journal of World Prehistory 6: 51–95.


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