17. Cultural Diffusion from the West via Lake Baikal

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The Shang seem to have significant links with the prehistoric cultures of Central and Western Asia. However, there is an abundance of evidence, which suggests that the Shang culture was an indigenous development. The Shang were Mongoloid like the preceding Neolithic peoples; their bronze technique was unique from the techniques of the west, and their style of writing was extremely different from that of Mesopotamian cultures. These facts led archaeologists to abandon the idea of outright invasion and to replace it with the theory of indigenous origination.

Cultural Diffusion

Universal? Transmitted? In the air?

How then are these incredible similarities and tendencies across the Eurasian continent explained? Were these similarities built into the gene pool? Is sacrifice to the gods an inherent human function, as witnessed by its practice in such diverse areas as Mexico, the Middle East and China? Or is it instead part of a technology of culture that was passed around the globe before the end of the last Ice Age? Or most fantastic of all, perhaps the ideas were ‘in the air’.

This author: Cultural transmission

This author will pursue the line of thought that there was a connected human culture linking Siberia, China, and the Middle East, through the ‘Corridor of the Steppes’. Furthermore we will demonstrate that an Ice Age culture connected cultures of Siberia with the cultures of the American continents. But we are getting ahead of our story. We would speculate that Ti, the supreme god of the Shang, with his supreme qualities and need for sacrifice, human or otherwise, was not a universal, nor was it ‘in the air’, but instead was the result of cultural transmission. While it is unlikely that the Chinese of the Yellow River Valley were actually invaded and conquered by cultures from the Middle East, it is likely that there was an incredible amount of diffusion due to military conflict.

Military Shang need weaponry

Evidence indicates that Chinese bronze technology developed in what is now southern China. These southern cultures were influenced by Southeast Asia. Remember that some of the most sophisticated bronze work in the world was produced by the Khorat culture of the Mekong River Valley long before there was any evidence of bronze work in China. However all of the Khorat bronze work was for ornamental purposes.

Decorative objects did not serve the militaristic purposes of the early Shang dynasty. The Shang needed weaponry, not ornamentation. They required weaponry to establish order and supremacy, as well as defend themselves from aggressive nomadic tribes to the north.

Predator/Prey Interaction an arms race

Predator/prey interactions involve an arms race. The prey’s ability to defend itself grows at a similar rate to the rate at which the predator can attack. In a similar vein, successful cultures had to keep up with the latest military technologies for defense. A culture’s survival was and is dependent upon its ability to successfully adapt to foreign military strategies.

Needed to defend selves from the north

The Shang did not have to defend their society from the peaceful cultures to the south. However the north was a different story. Not only did nomadic raiders attack from the northeast, out of Manchuria, but also increasingly they began attacking from the northwest across the Pass between Mongolia and the Upper Yellow River. For this reason, walled fortifications began to be built to keep the ‘barbarians’ out. What military technology did these peoples to the north possess that was so threatening to the Shang?

The spread of Bronze Age military technology from the Near East

Let us look briefly at the development and spread of bronze military technology to get a better perspective on the question.

From copper smelting to bronze in the Near East

In the 4th millennium BCE copper smelting was developed in Iran. During this millennium, other metals were mixed with copper to make a superior product. Eventually they began to mix copper with tin. This eventually led to the production of bronze by about the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE.1

Bronze military technology necessary for survival

Because of hardness, malleability, and anti-corrosive characteristics, bronze was rapidly turned into weaponry. This military technology spread wherever there was military expansion. Either the cultures would adopt the new technology or they would perish or be dominated. Many times the conquering culture would splinter creating many groups with similar military technologies. Sometimes different cultures would develop similar military technologies in competition with each other.

Kurgan culture of Lake Baikal raids Europe and Near East causing shift

The militaristic pastoral Kurgan culture developed on the Central Asian steppes west of Lake Baikal. The Kurgans swept in waves into the Near East and Europe starting about 4000 BCE disrupting the peaceful fertility based agrarian -cultures located there. These raids militarized the remaining agri-cultures. From this point, the interest shifted from crafts to weaponry, with which to protect, defend and, of course, attack. As the interest in military technology grew, bronze weaponry was discovered and exploited.

Bronze military technology spreads in all directions

Cultural survival became dependent upon bronze military technology. As the cultures spread, the bronze military technology expanded to fill the surrounding areas. This technology spread south into Egypt, westward into Europe, and eastward across the steppes of Central Asia to Lake Baikal. From the Lake Baikal region, the bronze technology spread across the Mongolian plain to the Ordos region of the upper Yellow River. From here bronze weaponry made the easy step into China.

Bronze Age sites in steppes earlier than 2000 BC

Indeed bronze work in the steppes north of China preceded the Shang by centuries. The Shang dynasty didn’t even begin producing bronze weaponry until about 1700 BCE. Neither of the prior Neolithic Yellow River Valley cultures used bronze. There are, however, Bronze Age sites in the steppes and forests of Central Asia that date before 2000 BCE.

“Some of the Bronze Age sites [in the steppes and forests of Central Asia] are of great antiquity — earlier than 2000 BC.” (A History of Far Eastern Art, p. 26)

Bronze military technology from Siberia to China

It seems that the bronze military technology did not go straight from Central Asia to China, but instead spread from Central Asia into Siberia and then to China.

“There is now a strong body of opinion that the use of bronze was both a native invention and development. However, it still seems possible that the use of bronze, in weapon form at least, was introduced in to Neolithic China from Western Asia by way of Siberia.”2

Bronze crafts south, weapons north

The implication is that Chinese bronze technology was ‘indigenous’, in that it originated from southern China. Weapon technology probably came from the north via Siberia.

“The casting technique [of the Shang] may have been imported first from Siberia, which received it in turn from somewhere farther west; and objects, rather than technique, must have come at first in the form of weapons such as the ax and the dagger.”3

While the bronze work of the Central Asian cultures was weapon based, the Chinese probably already had a sophisticated bronze technology for producing ornamentation. This was likely derived from the Khorat culture of the Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia. It was an easy step for the Shang to shift from ornamental objects to weaponry., The Shang may have first seen bronze weaponry while fighting Siberians. Instead of utilizing the lost wax techniques of their opponents, they may have adapted their indigenous bronze casting techniques to produce axes and daggers.

A Chinese pattern to pursue technology

Just as the Chinese went after the Arabian War Horse over a thousand years later, they probably actively pursued the blade technology of the Siberians. They in turn possibly acquirede it from the Kurgan culture of Lake Baikal in Central Asia, who in turn had obtained it up while raiding Western Asia. The Chinese, as always, experts at copying foreign technology, were able to discover how to cast bronze blades and axes using their own metal working methods. The techniques of bronze making had been present but were only employed for ornamental objects. Now the Shang adapted this indigenous technology for military purposes.

It seems that the Shang in the north utilized the existing bronze technology of Southern China for both defense and to more effectively dominate their citizenry. The government seized control of the sources of tin and copper. Bronze became a royal prerogative. It could only be used by royalty for weaponry or for their most magnificent creation, their immense bronze cauldrons, i.e. ting. Recall that these cauldrons were just a beautiful way of storing pounds of bronze for the future use of weapons – as we saw with the 9 ting of Yü, the first emperor of the Xia.

Because bronze could be recast indefinitely, most likely all ornamental bronze objects would have been seized and melted down for weaponry. The paucity of early bronze works could easily be linked with this mechanism of recasting bronze into weaponry. Europe provides an example of this phenomenon in Renaissance times. Michelangelo created an enormous bronze of the Pope, which later generations melted down for cannonballs. Cultural survival first; art second.

Post Ice Age reconnection of cultures separated by Lake Baikal rift

The hunter fishers of Siberia probably got their bronze military technology from nomadic cultures to the west of Lake Baikal.

Siberians interact with Kurgans after the Ice Age

Remember that a group of humans were trapped in northeast Asia, i.e. east of Lake Baikal, north of China, and west of Alaska, with the waxing of the last Ice Age. In order to survive the Ice Age, these people evolved into the Mongoloid race, i.e. lacking facial hair and having narrow eyes to ward off the extreme cold. With the physical changes also came psychological changes. This race developed an extreme discipline in order to survive the long Ice Age winters. With the retreating Ice Age, the Lake Baikal region was connected with the rest of the world once again, which meant that cultural influences from the west, specifically Central Asia, could again be felt.

Nomads to the west, hunters to the east

The last Ice Age separated the cultures from the West and East of Lake Baikal. Each developed in their own unique way. While the cultures on both sides of Lake Baikal had similar characteristics, there were a few major differences. The eastern side was basically a hunting culture with an emphasis upon fishing, while the western side was basically pastoral and nomadic. The eastern side did lots of woodworking because of the abundant forests, while the western side was influenced by Western Asian influences, which they transmitted to the east.

“To the west [of Lake Baikal], in the Minusinsk region of the Upper Yenisei, the Bronze Age sequence is rather clear, … The sequence Afanasievo, Andronovo, Kara Suk, Kurgan cultures are stages in the development of pastoral nomadic cultures not completely divorced from the boreal forest economies of hunting and fishing, nor the pottery stone-tool manufacturing techniques and styles apparent farther east. Nonetheless these are generally distinct as horse-possessing, bronze-using pastoralists, whose affinities were to the grasslands and the deserts. These horse-nomads probably spread into the East and South sometime after 1500 BC, beginning to exert those political and military pressures which eventually led to the construction of the Great Wall.”4

The Kurgans to the west were a nomadic culture of the desert and steppes, while the Siberians to the east were basically a hunter-fisher culture.

Cyclical influence from Near East to Siberia to China and back

Hence there is a triangle of influence that went from the Near East to Lake Baikal where it was transmitted south to Northern China via the Ordos region of the Northern Yellow River or the coastal Manchurian route. At later dates, the influences came back the other way5. However for the purposes of Shang bronze weaponry, the technological diffusion was from west to east.


In exploring the roots of Shang bronze work, we first saw that their bronze production techniques were probably the result of cultural diffusion from the craft-oriented Khorat culture of Southeast Asia. While this explains the ‘indigenous’ origins of Chinese bronze making, it does not explain the Shang use of bronze for military purposes. For this, we looked north into Siberia. The forest dwelling Siberians had obtained their bronze military technology from military interaction with Central Asian cultures. Due to armed conflict between Siberia and China via the Ordos plain or Manchuria, the military technology then probably spread to Shang China.


1Grolier Interactive, Bronze Age 1997

2 A History of Far Eastern Art, p 27

3A History of Far Eastern Art, pp. 35-36

4Origins  p 177


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