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Ordos culture

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Ordos culture

Location of the archaeological finds of the Ordos culture.
Gilt-bronze belt buckle, Ordos, 3rd-1st century BCE

The Ordos culture occupied a region centred on the Ordos Plateau, now in the south of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, during the Bronze and early Iron Ages, or on some definitions and uses of the term, also in the Paleolithic and the modern period.

The region had been occupied by humans since at least Upper Paleolithic, when the culture may be known as Ordosian,[1] followed by the Zhukaigou culture of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, preceding the Ordos culture. While the Zhukaigou culture population appears to have been predominantly Mongoloid, as known from their skeletal remains and artifacts,[2] the Ordos culture is thought to have been the most eastern extension of Eurasian nomads, and at least partly of Europoid peoples.[3] Under the Qin and Han dynasties the area came under at least loose Chinese control.

The Ordos culture of about 500 BCE to 100 CE is known for its "Ordos bronzes", blade weapons, finials for tent-poles, and small plaques and fittings for clothes and horse harness, using animal style decoration with relationships both with the Steppes art of regions much further west, and also Chinese art. Its relationship with the Xiongnu is controversial; for some scholars they are the same, and for others different.[4] Many buried metal artefacts have emerged on the surface of the land as a result of the progressive desertification of the region.[5]

Prehistoric people

The Ordos people were located at the doorstep of Qin China, and were just east of the Yuezhi in the 3rd century BCE.

The Ordosian culture, also sometimes called the Ordos culture,[6] is documented from the Upper Palaeolithic. The points and sides of their tools indicate a "Moustero-Levalloisian" element. They seemed to have a masterful knowledge of Upper Palaeolithic technology, producing blades as much as fifteen centimeters long.[7]

The Zhukaigou culture is one of the neolithic cultures at Ordos, dated between 2200 and 1500 BCE. It is associated with about 327 burials, with recent maternal genetic evidence showing that they were related to the remains from Yinniugou, as well as modern populations like Daurs and Evenks.[8] The archaeological finds at the site are similar to those of the lower Xiajiadian culture. These finds are important as they are associated with the development of snake pattern designs on the decoration of weapon and animal-depicting artifacts which later would become a characteristic style of the Ordos.[9]

The people of Ordos are recorded in the area of the Ordos desert from the 6th to the 2nd centuries BCE. What kind of populations occupied the area before them is unclear but may have been Mongoloid.

The skeletal remains at Taohongbala (桃紅巴拉) tomb dated to between the 7th and 6th centuries BCE are generally identified as belonging to the Xiongnu bronze culture and show strong Mongoloid features.[10][11]

A similar type of burial at Hulusitai around Bayannur, uncovered in 1979 and dated to between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, is considered the only Xiongnu site along the northern slope of Yinshan. The site consisted of mainly bronze artifacts and pottery and 27 horse skeletal remains.[12] Further excavation in 1983 at Guoxianyaozi uncovered a total of 31 burials dated to the 6th to 5th century BCE revealing strong north Mongoloid features. These generally decreased towards the south, and skeletal remains of east and north Mongoloid type can be seen from finds in Maoqinggou and Yinniugou dated to around the 7th century BCE, amounting to a total of 117 burials.[13] Many bronze weapons of these cultures are similar to those of Chinese style.[14]

Depictions of the Ordos people tend to show straight hair. This is especially true of archaeological finds from Baotou (M63:22, M63:23, M84:5), Etuoke (M1, M6), Xihaokou (M3), lower Woertuhao (M3:1), and Mengjialiang.[15]

Sakas and Scythians

Bronze statuette of a man, Ordos, 3-1st century BCE. British Museum.
Belt buckle, Ordos, 3rd-1st century BCE.

Later, horse nomads occupied the area from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE before being driven away by the Xiongnu. According to Lebedynsky, they are thought to be the easternmost people of Scythian affinity to have settled here, just to the east of the better-known Yuezhi.[16] They are mainly known from their skeletal remains and artifacts.

They were in contact and often at war with the pre-Han and Han populations of the period. Their former territory is now located just north of the Great Wall of China, and on the south bank of the northernmost hook of the Yellow river.

According to Lebedynsky, the people represented in archaeological finds tend to display Europoïd features, and are thought to be of Scythian affinity.[17] The weapons, found in tombs throughout the steppes of the Ordos, are very close to those of the Scythians, especially the Sakas.[18]

The Ordos people manufactured belt plaques, horse gear and weapons depicting animals, often in combat. The "animal-style" is similar to other steppes art nomadic traditions found in Central Asia, such as that of the Scythians.


The neighbours of Ordos may have been identical with the Yuezhi who, after being vanquished by the Xiongnu, migrated to southern Asia to form the Kushan empire. They were also culturally related to another nomadic tribe to the east, the Eastern Hu (Chinese:東胡, "Donghu"), who shared a similar "art of the steppes" but appear to have been Mongoloids (Donghu is synonymous with Dongyi, which refers to the inhabitants of Korea, Japan, and what is now northeast China; the ancestors of the people living there today are likely to be these Eastern Hu or related to them in some way).[19] They may also have been related to the Di people (Chinese:氐 "Western Barbarians") of Chinese annals.

By one account, the area of Ordos was the legendary original land of the Turks.

Xiongnu occupation

In Chinese accounts, the Xiongnu first appear at Ordos in the Yizhoushu and Shanhaijing during the Warring States period before it was occupied by Qin and Zhao. It is generally thought to be their homeland, however when exactly they came to occupy the region is unclear, and it might have been much earlier than traditionally thought, as suggested by archaeological finds.[20]

As the Xiongnu expanded southward into Yuezhi territory around 160 BCE under their leader Modun, the Yuezhi in turn defeated the Sakas and pushed them away at the Issyk Kul. It is thought the Xiongnu also occupied the Ordos area during the same period, when they came in direct contact with the Chinese. From there, the Xiongnu conducted numerous devastating raids into Chinese territory (167, 158, 142, 129 BCE).[21]

The Han Dynasty started to fight the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BCE under emperor Han Wudi, and colonized the area of the Ordos under Shuofang commandery in 127 BCE. Prior to the campaign, there were already commanderies established earlier by Qin and Zhao until they were overrun by the Xiongnu in 209 BCE.[22]


Main artifacts of the Ordos people, as displayed in the British Museum (Asian Gallery):


  1. ^ Silberman, Neil Asher; Bauer, Alexander A., eds., The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, p. 297, 2012, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0199735786, 9780199735785, google books
  2. ^ Ma 2005, p. 196-197
  3. ^ Lebedynsky, p131
  4. ^ Compare this and this account, both from the 1970s. Bunker, 200, sees them as the same, or rather the Ordos people as a subgroup of the Xiongnu.
  5. ^ Bunker, 200
  6. ^ PALEOANTHROPOLOGY AND PALEOLITHIC ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA, Editors Wu Rukang, John W Olsen, p. 187, 2009, Left Coast Press, ISBN 1598744585, 9781598744583, google books
  7. ^ Jacquetta Hawkes and Sir Leonard Woolley, History of Mankind: Volume I. (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p.172.
  8. ^ Mitochondrial DNA analysis of remains from Zhukaigou archaeological site in Inner Mongolia. WANG Hal-jing, CHANG E, CAI Da-wei, ZHANG Quan-chao, ZHOU Hui, ZHU Hong (1. Ancient DNA Laboratory, Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology, Jilin University, Changchun 130012, China: 2. Teaching and Research Center of Chemistry, College of Chemistry, Jilin University, Changchun 130021, China; 3. Macromolecular Laboratory, College of Life Science, Jilin University, Changchun 130023, China). 2007.
  9. ^ Ma 2005, p. 298-299
  10. ^ Ma 2005, p. 231
  11. ^ Wuen, Taohongbala Tombs. Encyclopedia of China, 1st ed.
  12. ^ Ma 2005, p. 230-231
  13. ^ Ma 2005, p. 232-233, 278-279
  14. ^ Ma 2005, p. 282-290
  15. ^ Ma 2005, p. 188-189
  16. ^ "The Mongoloid types of the Transbaikal area and Central and Eastern Mongolia are strongly contrasted with the Europoid type displayed at the same time by the Scythian nomads occupying Western Mongolia and their predecessors of the Bronze age". "Les Saces", Lebedinsky, p125
  17. ^ "Europoid faces in some depictions of the Ordos, which should be attributed to a Scythian affinity", Iaroslav Lebedynsky, p125
  18. ^ Iaroslav Lebedynsky, p127
  19. ^ Lebedynsky, p.124
  20. ^ Ma 2005, p. 220-225
  21. ^ Lebedymsky p131
  22. ^ Ma 2005, p. 224


Further reading

  • Kozłowski, J. K., "The problem of the so-called Ordos culture in the light of the Palaeolithic finds from northern China and southern Mongolia", 1982, Folia Quaternaria 39: 63-99
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