Physiological stress, workload and social relations in early village life before 5000 BP: two case studies of Jiahu and Beiqian

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Underhill, Anne


The emergence of social inequality has long intrigued scholars across the globe. However, the issue of how and when social ranking emerged in early China remains understudied, because the archaeological features used to assess differentiation in social status, such as quantity and quality of grave goods and size of burials, are not discernable until the late Neolithic period, ca. 5000 BP, in China. Some scholars propose that social differentiation resulted from attitudes relating to natural factors, such as age and biological sex. Others think social differentiation was generated by social actions, such as the accumulation of differences during reciprocal exchanges. I hypothesize that social differentiation emerged from differences in health conditions, diet and labor in addition to age and sex and that it started before the Late Neolithic period in China. My dissertation research is based on two case studies of Middle Neolithic sites in northern China: Jiahu (9000-7500BP, inland, Henan province) and Beiqian (5700-4900BP, coastal, Shandong province). These two sites had mixed subsistence strategies and have no indications of overt social ranking. In total, I evaluated 109 individuals from Jiahu (Phase I-17, Phase II-54, Phase III-38), and 43 individuals from Beiqian (Phase I-15, Phase II-10, Phase III-18). By examining their skeletal remains, I propose that social differentiation at Jiahu emerged from a combination of biological factors, such as sex and age, and social factors as evidenced by differences in both skeletal markers and mortuary treatment among spatially-defined burial clusters in the cemetery. My research also reveals the importance of considering specific archaeological context when discussing issues such as trajectories to social complexity. My dissertation employs osteological evidence, including dental changes resulting from physiological stress and diet in addition to discernible markers on bones produced by labor practices, to study the emergence of social complexity in China. Through an examination of skeletal parameters that reflect the general health and activity patterns of an individual’s life, I investigate differences in health and workloads at several scales including comparisons of age, sex, intra-burial clusters, inter-burial clusters, intra-site, and inter-site patterns for all the phases at the Jiahu and Beiqian sites. Despite methodological challenges, the patterns of health indicators shows the process of incipient social differentiation. For instance, my study reveals that skeletal indicators for workloads are greater in certain segregated areas of the burials suggesting social differentiation within the community. I take individuals—who interact with each other and form social relations through foodways and daily activities—as the most basic social unit. I explore how each individual relates to others in his/her social groups based on age, sex and spatially-defined burial cluster in each community. To answer questions about social relations that archaeologists could not previously assess from traditional mortuary analysis, I analyze the osteological data in three steps. First, I assess the overall life quality of the population and social groups to determine the average range of stress and workload in that society. Second, I introduce a temporal scale to evaluate whether changes occurred in the overall life quality of these social groups between periods of the settlement. Lastly, I build an osteobiography for the individuals who stand out from the average patterns of their social group cohorts. Combining these osteobiographies with their mortuary treatment, such as grave goods and burial locations in relation to the other social members, I analyze the possible social roles of each individual and speculate what caused them to live a different life than their peers in terms of stress, diet and workload. My results suggest that social differentiation existed beyond sex and age at Jiahu, while it was minimum at Beiqian. I reveal that Jiahu was a society with more individual autonomy where identity was expressed through mortuary practice. For example, individuals with skeletal markers of strenuous lives were buried with production tools that may indicate their occupations. By contrast, Beiqian society placed greater emphasis on community identity as evidenced by secondary commingled burials and skeletal markers of strenuous work across sampled burials, such as kneeling facets and degenerative joint diseases. My research shows that contextualized osteoarchaeology provides additional evidence for long-standing debates on the emergence of social differentiation during the Neolithic period in China. It also cautions against ranking individuals solely based on mortuary treatment because of the challenge of understanding the concepts of wealth and value in ancient societies. An individual with a large quantity of grave goods could have been buried with his/her tools that he/she valued in life, but these objects might not have had a broader social esteem. Future human osteobiographic studies will provide invaluable contributions to the discussions of initial social complexity.

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