18 January 2011

Prehistory and Gojoseon (700,000 BC - 108 BC)


History is defined as a written account of the past (the word "history" comes from the Latin word "historia" meaning narrative, account, or story).  So in many ways prehistory is not history at all.  Prehistory really falls more under the realm of archeology because it relies on archeological evidence to surmise what may have happened in the lives of ancient humans.  For this reason it is subject to change quite often, so my post may become outdated with the unearthing of new evidence.

However, I'll use the best available data to inform you about the current view on the lives of ancient Koreans.  Let me also apologize in advance for the lack of pictures in this entry.  Many of the artifacts from this time period are very simple stone, bronze or iron tools, which don't make for the best pictures.  They also don't appear to be very different from anything used by prehistoric man in other parts of the world.

Paleolithic Age
Hominids may have arrived on the Korean Peninsula as early as 700,000 BC.  The Paleolithic Age, or Stone Age, stretches from the arrival of Hominids on the peninsula to the creation of pottery in about 8,000 BC.  The Paleolithic is divided into the Lower Paleolithic Age between 700,000 and 100,000 BC, the Middle Paleolithic Age from 100,000 - 40,000 BC, and the Upper Paleolithic Age from 40,000 - 8,000 BC. Paleolithic man is known to have been both a cave-dweller and also to have built his own housing on level ground.  These people survived by eating fruit and hunting with stone weapons.  The life of Paleolithic man on the Korean peninsula does not appear to be very different from the lives of humans around the world during the same time.

Neolithic Age

The Neolithic Age, or New Stone Age, began in Korea around 8,000 BC.  The Neolithic Age on the peninsula began relatively early compared with the rest of the world.  The only two areas that appear to have entered the age earlier are found in the Fertile Crescent and in India.  The Neolithic Age on the Korean Peninsula is divided into the Jeulmun and Mumun Pottery Periods.

Jeulmun Pottery Period
The Jeulmun Pottery Period began at the end of the Paleolithic Age in 8,000 BC and ended in 1,500 BC.  Jeulman, or 즐문, means comb-patterned.  The pottery of this time period is gray with a V-shaped bottom and is known for the parallel lines on the outer surface that resemble lines made by a comb.  Pottery with this comb-pattern design has been found in Siberia, Manchuria, and Mongolia.  Most dwellings in this time period appeared near water, so fishing was extremely important, in addition to hunting and gathering.  Only later in this period does agriculture appear to have made a significant impact on society.  
The basic unit of society was the clan and these clans were totemistic, which means each clan identified itself with a certain object.  Another interesting fact is that Chaekhwa, or 책 화 (I think, I actually wrote that one out myself so I'm not positive), was a principle used in this time that prohibited hunting or fishing within another clan's territory and required retribution if an infraction occurred. 

Sites I may be seeing from this time period: Cheonjeon-ri, Dongsam-dong

Comb-pattern pottery
Mumun Pottery Period 
The Mumun Pottery Period, or 민무늬 토기 시대, began in 1,500 BC and ended in 300 BC.  The name comes from the Korean term for undecorated cooking vessels, which is the pottery that dominated this time period.  The Mumun Period is characterized by an increase in agriculture, the beginning of rice-farming, and the development of much larger settlements.  Megalithic burials have also been discovered from this time period, which indicates a a growing divide between the wealthy and the poor.

Sites I may be seeing from this time period: Namsan, Igeum-dong, Songguk-ri

Humans lived in huts during this period

The Gojoseon (also known as Old Choson or 고조선) kingdom was an ancient kingdom on the Korean peninusla.  It was supposedly founded at the end of the Jeulman Pottery Period in 2333 BC and spanned the entire length of the Muman Pottery Period until finally falling in 108 BC.  The first symbol in the name, , is pronounced go and means ancient in Korean.  Gojoseon began as a walled-town state, but eventually combined with other walled-town states to form a confederation.  

Founding Legend
In Korean Mythology (see my Korean Mythology post for more information), Hwanin was the Emperor of Heaven and his son, Hwanung, wanted to live on earth so that he could bring peace and order to mankind.  Hwanin consented, so Hwanung descended from heaven and founded Shinshi ( 신시 ), which means "City of the Gods", at the Mount Taebaek in modern-day North Korea.  While in the process of teaching humans various skills, a tiger and a bear approached him with the request that he make them human.  Hwanung provided them with wormwood and garlic, and instructed them to eat only these two things while staying in a cave for 100 days.  The tiger, who was impatient, was unable to do this and gave up quickly.  But the bear was resolute, and after only 21 days was transformed into a woman named Ungnyeo ( 웅녀 ).  Ungnyeo desired to have a child, but no man would wed her due to the fact that she was previously a bear (can you really blame them?).  Hwanung took pity on her and decided to briefly take human form in order to provide her with a child.  She bore a son, whose name was Dangun ( 단군왕검 ).  Dangun founded a kingdom called Asadal ( 아사달 ) near the current location of Pyongyang.  The name of the kingdom was later changed to Joseon, which later became known as Gojoseon.  Dangun lived to the age of 1,908, at which point he moved into the mountains and became the mountain god known as Sanshin.

Interpretation of Founding Legend
Obviously the events in this legend didn't actually take place.  But what can be inferred about actual events after reading this myth?  Well, as stated in my post on Korean mythology, people in this time period held totemistic beliefs.  It seems as though a clan, which lived in a walled-town state in the area of modern-day North Korea became very powerful and began to incorporate other walled-town states into its kingdom.  This clan probably held the sun as its totem, which explains the incorporation Hwanin (who in edition to being known as the Emperor of Heaven, was also known as the Sun God).  Based upon the story of the tiger and the bear, this clan probably chose to include a clan who worshiped the bear, while excluding one who worshiped the tiger.  A man named Dangun was later born and he began a kingdom known as Joseon.

What is Actually Known About Gojoseon?
The founding date of this kingdom is unknown, but it is known that Gojoseon had become a powerful kingdom prior to the 4th century BC.  The rulers of Gojoseon had begun to use the Chinese term "wang" ( 王 ), which means king.  This is obviously a title much better fit for the ruler of kingdom, rather than the leader of a walled-town state.  It is also recorded that Gojoseon intended to go to battle with the Chinese state of Yan ( 燕国 ), which would have required a very formidable military. Yan eventually invaded at the end of the 4th century BC, and this led to a period of decline in Gojoseon.  However, China was about to undergo turbulent times, as the area controlled by Yan passed to the Qin Dynasty ( 秦朝 , pronounced "chin", which led to the name China) in 222 BC and then subsequently passed to the Han Dynasty ( 汉朝 ) in 207 BC.  These uneasy times caused many people, including one man named Wiman, to flee China and settle in Gojoseon. 

Wiman Joseon ( 위만조선 )
Wiman had brought many followers with him from China and in 194 BC he succeeded in using his following to drive the king of Gojoseon (King Jun) from the throne and assert himself as king.  Despite the fact that Wiman fled from China, the amount influence that China actually held over Wiman Joseon is unknown.  Wiman Joseon was previously thought to of acted as a Chinese colony, but the fact that Wiman retained the name "Joseon" and that many of the officials of Gojoseon maintained their places of power during Wiman's rule suggests that this kingdom was in fact separate from China.  Wiman Joseon had a very successful military campaign in which he conquered many states and attempted to keep other states from direct contact with the Han Dynasty so he could profit from Han's trade.  The Han Dynasty didn't like this very much.  In 109 BC, with the excuse of violence against a Chinese envoy, Han invaded Wiman Joseon and the kingdom fell a year later in 108 BC.  This officially brought an end to the kingdom that was at least rumored to have lasted for over 2000 years.

Sites I may be seeing from this time period: None.  Thanks North Korea. 

So there you have it!  700,000 years of Korean history wrapped up into one blog post.   I'm planning on doing these history posts sporadically throughout the year as I get the time.  Next up is some information on the Han Commanderies and the Confederated Kingdoms (or Proto-Three Kingdoms).


  1. wow, some interesting pictures. cool...

  2. The pictures are really interesting: could you tell us their reference? Which museum are they from?