19. The Northern Siberian connection

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In a prior chapter, we mentioned that the bronze military technology associated with the chariot was transmitted from Central Asia to the Shang in China via Siberia. The Siberian connection to the Shang was more involved than just military technology. We’ll explore this northern connection in this section.

Animal motifs unique to Shang

We’ve seen that the Shang belonged to the same race as the cultures that preceded them in China – the Longshan and Yangshao. Furthermore we’ve seen that there was a distinct cultural continuity between the prior Neolithic cultures and the Shang. It also seems the Shang bronze military technology was connected with Central Asia via Siberia. Now let us talk about their design motifs.

Shang motifs from multiple sources

Just as we observed with Shang pottery and weaponry designs, we can see influences of three cultures upon their motifs – the Near East, Siberia, and the indigenous population.

“Shang Dynasty bronze vessels display fantastic animal designs: ornamental motifs, with feline, cervine, and bovine types. To these are added very complex geometric designs. Some of the animal elements are related to those of the ancient Near East, while the geometric ornament appears to be in part native, like that we have seen in the painted pottery culture, and in part related to certain Siberian cultures.” 1

Animal motifs non-existent in Neolithic but Siberia abound

While certain geometric motifs seemed to have indigenous roots, the Shang obsession with animal-motifs does not have a precedent from Chinese Yellow River culture.

Shang: no plants, while lots of animals

Plant motifs are non-existent in Shang artwork2, while animal motifs abound3. These animal motifs have no antecedents in the Longshan or Yangshao cultures. Furthermore, the heraldic style that these animals were represented in was unique to the Shang in China.

Animal style west Asia through Siberia to China 1500-1000 BC

While there was no animal representation in the preceding cultures, there was a similar animal style from the north in Siberia and to the northwest from Mongolia.

“It seems that an animal style existed simultaneously in western Asia, Siberia and China roughly between 1500 and 1000 BC and that China drew upon this from her western neighbors and at the same time contributed to it from her own increasingly rich repertoire of animal forms.”4

It seems that there was a triangle of geographically-separated northern cultures, which were interacting. We’ve mentioned the Lake Baikal region in Siberia as an interactive and dividing point. To the west of Lake Baikal, we find the nomadic cultures connected with the Middle East. On the eastern side, we find the Mongolian Hunter cultures of Siberia, descendants of the Beringians. To the south in Northern China, we have the Shang.

Movement of Animal motifs from Near East to China

While there was an interaction between this triangle of cultures, at this time the flow of ideas generally proceeded west to east.

“The general movement of the animal motifs seems to have been from the ancient Near East via the Armenian or the Kurdistan regions into the flatlands of Central Asia and then on into China through Mongolia and Suiyuan above the Gobi Desert. In the Suiyuan, the Ordos region even down until the Han Dynasty and later, the persistent animal style is found on the small bronze horse trappings used by nomads and hunters of that region.”5

Shang similarities with Hunting cultures of Siberia

While the Longshan shared similarities with the dairy farmers of the Middle East and the Yangshao had affinities with the preceding fertility cultures, there were many parallels between the Shang and the Hunting cultures of Siberia.

Passion for animals

One similarity is their passion for animals. The Shang share this obsession with the Siberian and Northwest American Indian cultures. This connection suggests Beringian roots.

“The origin of the [Shang] decoration on the bronzes represents a difficult problem. The most striking element in it is the profusion of animal motifs, not one of which appears in Chinese Neolithic art. The Shang people, the contents of whose tombs reveal this extraordinary passion for animals, had cultural affinities with the steppe and forest folk of Siberia and more remotely, with the peoples of Alaska, British Columbia and Central America. The similarities between certain Shang designs and those, for example in the art of the North-west Coast Indians of North America are too close to be accidental.”6

Also American Indians

It seems that there is a cultural similarity between the Shang and the Mongolian culture from Siberia that doesn’t exist between the Shang and the preceding cultures. Additionally there are cultural affinities with the forest Indians of the west of the North American continent. It seems that the Beringian culture of the last Ice Age moved south onto both continents. These cultures evolved separately, while sharing the same roots.

Beringian woodworking spreads south

Bronze techniques from woodcarving

The roots of the Shang carved pottery and bronze work seems to be in the woodwork of the forest cultures to the North.

“There is a considerable amount of data showing a connection between woodcarving in north and the bronze of the Shang.” 7

Shang bronzes, bone, ivory like Indians of Northwest US

These wood working techniques extended to ivory and bone work also. From Siberia to the forest cultures of northwest America, to Shang China, the artistic style seems to be derived from woodworking. Furthermore there is a motif similarity that is striking.

“Like the bronzes, these bone and ivory carvings show striking similarities with the art of the North-west Coast Indians of North America.” 8

Shang/Mayan connection

As a personal experience: when I began looking at the Shang bronzes for the first time, I suddenly thought that I had picked up a book on Mayan Art instead. I have traveled frequently to many Mayan sites in Central America and so am quite acquainted with their hidden animal design motifs. The architecture initially looks like only pattern. Upon closer inspection, the design turns into an animal. The similarities certainly tricked me momentarily. While the Shang worked in bronze, the Mayans worked in cement.

First wave of Beringians through Central America

As an affirmation of this personal perspective, some scholars believe that the first wave of Beringians traveled all the way to Central America by way of the coastal plain before being able to cross the mountains. One theory proposes that Central America was the initial entry point for the Beringians. Only after the Ice Age was abating were the Beringians able to settle in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Later waves enters North America

This was the second wave of Beringians. The third wave was not really a wave, but a split. The oncoming water of the melting Ice Ages the Eskimos of Asia and North America from their common homeland of Beringia. By human standards, the tide came in permanently to separate them forever. The Siberian Hunter cultures probably spread south into the American continents as well as into China.

Beringia south, not Shang north

It was probably not the Shang culture whose influence spread northward and across the Bering Straits into North, South and Central America. Instead it was the Beringian culture that spread south onto both continents. This southward migration yielded the stylistic similarities, not cultural diffusion from China.

Intermediate stages in Siberia, not China

The existence of intermediate cultural developments in eastern Siberia validates the transmission of culture from north to south. In Siberia in the Lake Baikal region, there is a well-documented sequence of stages, which are not found in China.

“No truly primitive stages of writing or metalworking have been discovered in China. Both arts had evolved to a high level in Asia Minor some fifteen hundred earlier. Max Loehr has suggested the northern regions as the connecting passage through which the metal culture was transmitted, but Chinese scholars, such as KC Chang believe these origins to have been indigenous in origin.” 9

5 Distinct prehistoric cultures in Siberia

First there is archaeological evidence for 5 distinct cultures in the Lake Baikal region: The Khin’skaya 5000-4000 BCE, the Isakovo 4000-3000 BCE, the Serovo 3000-2500 BCE, the Kitoi 2500-1700 BCE, and the Glazkovo 1700-1200 BCE. There is no equivalent differentiation of cultures in China. This could be because there is so much population and culture that have overlaid these intermediate sites in China.

Intermediate pottery stages in Siberia

These Eastern Siberian cultures possess the intermediate pottery stages that don’t exist in the Yellow River Valley of China or Mongolia.

“There is no equivalent in China for either a pre-ceramic state of the order of Khin’skaya or an early pottery stage like those of Isakovo and Serovo. It is of interest, too, that the arrow points of Mongolia do not occur until what appears to be Serovo times.”10

Hunting cultures

Easy hunting in forests and rivers of Siberia

Furthermore, these Siberian cultures were primarily based in hunting and fishing, not agriculture. The many rivers and dense forests provided such an abundance of fish and game that agriculture was not necessary to develop a distinctive and thriving community.

Shang primarily a hunting culture

The Shang also exhibited many traits of a hunting culture.

“The abundance of the faunal remains and the continual reference to hunting in the oracle bones emphasizes the importance of that pursuit in the lives of the Shang people. Though there is every evidence to indicate that the basis of the economy was agriculture … the role of hunting hardly seems subordinate. In fact one might almost think that this was a hunting culture were it not for the evidence of the oracle-bone inscription and the size of the city, whose population hunting alone could not support. Again we must remember that hunting is frequently the ‘sport of kings’ and in a royal city the splendors of the chase would naturally be stressed. In this regard we cannot escape comparing the rulers of Shang with those of Egypt of the New Kingdom, Assyria, and Persia. Mounted in chariots these lordly monarchs were depicted slaughtering the game while their retinues cheered or stood in awe. The Rid-Veda of Aryan India echoes the godly qualities of the warrior-hunter.” 11

Shang only Hunting dynasty of China

There are a few points to be made. The Shang were the only Chinese dynasty to be so heavily focused upon hunting. The Chou dynasty, which supplanted the Shang, even de-emphasized hunting in their legendary history. They said that the Divine Farmer invented agriculture because the Chinese had become too numerous to survive on hunting. The Chou didn’t invest nearly so much energy in the Hunt as the Shang did. While the Yangshao and Longshan hunted to supplement their diets, they were primarily agrarian cultures. For the Shang, hunting seemed to be almost a religion.

Hunters become warrior kings

The hunting tradition of the military aristocracy could be evidence of cultural diffusion.  However, it seems more likely that this tradition reflects the cultural roots of the warrior king political structure. While farmers are cultivating their agricultural talents, hunters are cultivating their military talents. Farmers nourish plant and animal life to maturity before harvesting their fruits. Hunters kill animal life. Farmers are sedentary, while hunting tends to be nomadic. It is easy for hunters to become warrior soldiers, while difficult for farmers.

Hunting always a pursuit of the rich and powerful

Hunting has always been the prerogative of the rich and powerful, even unto modern times. This indicates the predatory nature of leadership. Hunting reflects the roots of power. Hunters can’t cultivate compassion when going for the kill. On the negative side, the affinity for hunting by the powerful reflects their attitude of dominance and lack of compassion for the planet. On the positive side, it lets them get necessary business done by making hard decisions.


First Siberians migrating

Summarizing our findings: The Mongoloid race evolved in isolation in Siberia and Beringia during the last Ice Age. After the last Ice Age, they spread south into northern China, breeding with the indigenous peoples. Thus the Chinese are of mixed Mongoloid stock. These early waves of southward migration adapted to the local environment. They were influenced by agriarian societies from the west and the south. These early immigrants formed local agricultural traditions.

Thus far we are on stable ground. The next step is not so stable. Many historians believe that the Imperial tradition represented by the Shang dynasty emerged indigenously. In support of this hypothesis, it is pointed out that there was a cultural continuity between prior clan-based cultures of the Neolithic agrarian societies and the Bronze Age culture of Imperial China.

Indigenous emergence doesn’t deal with facts that Siberian influence does

While there is  continuity of culture and artistic forms between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age cultures, there are many facts that are not dealt with by the hypothesis of indigenous emergence. However there is another hypothesis that does provide a plausible explanation for many of these mysterious factoids. This perspective holds that a Siberian culture moved in and became the Shang dynasty, China’s first historical kingdom. . First, the Shang motifs were dominated by an animal style that is found in the Beringian hunter culture. This motif spread southwards into Siberia and North America after the last Ice Age. This animal style was not found in Neolithic China.

Second, Shang bronze work shows many more similarities with northern woodworking than with indigenous pottery. The angularity of the bronze work seems to derive from woodwork. Third, Siberian culture centered on Lake Baikal shows evidence of the many intermediate stages of stonework and pottery that are non-existent in China. Finally due to its emphasis upon hunting, the culture of the Shang rulers seemed to be unique from any prior Chinese culture.

Peaceful takeover

While there are some indications of military invasion, the continuity of culture seems to indicate a peaceful takeover. This theory is supported by Chinese legendary history, which has Yu taming the floodwaters of the Yellow River and beginning another dynasty.

Plausible Scenario: Came to help out, stayed and ruled

Siberian hunting culture still maturing

What is a plausible scenario for this peaceful takeover? As the hardy inhabitants of Siberia were moving south into China to form Neolithic cultures, the primary Siberian hunting/fishing culture was evolving in conflict with the cultures of Western Asia. Fighting with the nomadic warriors of Central Asia, the Siberians of Lake Baikal learned about Bronze Age weaponry and military technology.

Asked to help out and then they stay

The Yellow River Valley was in the midst of major flooding that is characteristic of the region. Due to ancient rivalries, the many Longshan clans had a time cooperating with each other. They request assistance from their brothers to the north. A branch of the Siberians came to help out. To deal with the flooding, they centralized the Chinese government. They then remained to rule as the first Middle Kingdom of Northern China. This theory provides a plausible explanation as to why there was both a cultural continuity with the Neolithic cultures as well as extreme cultural differences.

Modern antecedent

This scenario also has a relatively modern Chinese antecedent. The Manchurians from the north were asked for assistance in putting down social turbulence during the late Ming Dynasty. They helped out and then came and stayed as rulers, becoming more rigidly Chinese than the Chinese themselves. The overwhelming Chinese culture absorbed many military cultures during the millennia of its history. The Siberian hunting culture of the early dynasties was just an earlier example of cultural absorption.


1 A History of Far Eastern Art, p. 27

2 Munsterberg, 1972 p. 41, “[During Shang dynasty], Plants were never shown in the decorative designs.”

3 EB, China 5-517 d, “The Shang white pottery … [was] carved in a technique foreign to the Neolithic potters and decorated also with animal images of the abstract heraldic style that is one of the Shang novelties."

4 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p. 37

5 A History of Far Eastern Art, p. 27

6 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p. 38

7 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p. 38

8 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p. 40

9 Munsterberg, 1972, p. 38

10 Origins, p. 177

11 Origins, p. 126


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