- Prehistoric Societies on the Northern Frontiers of China: Archaeological Perspectives on Identity Formation and Economic Change during the First Millennium BCE by Gideon Shelach
This new book builds on more than 15 years of Gideon Shelach’s archaeological field research in the Chifeng area of Eastern Inner Mongolia. He previously investigated social and political changes during the Late Prehistoric and early historic periods of this area (Shelach 1999). Here, however, Shelach expands his geographical scope to cover the entire steppe region across China’s northern frontier, the so-called “Northern Zone.” He focuses on explaining the process by which an apparent dichotomy emerged from the [End Page 134] second to first millennia b.c.e. between pastoral groups in the steppe regions and agricultural societies to the south. He first argues that there was a great deal more diversity in economic practices among groups in the steppe areas than this dichotomy suggests. In fact, Shelach argues, the transition to pastoralism in the steppe was gradual and sometimes incomplete. Shelach then proposes that the distinctions that developed between these broad regions were “ethnic-like” in the sense that they were the result of emergent social identities rather than economic activities. The emergent steppe identity was based on the conscious use of symbols at a local scale, which both emphasized long-distance interactions and explicitly distinguished steppe societies from the Chinese states to the south.
Shelach constructs his argument over the course of four chapters. He begins with an overview of changes that occurred across the Northern Zone between 1100 and 600 b.c.e. (chapter 2). He then considers evidence for change in economic and political processes (chapter 3), the use of symbols related to identity (chapter 4), and interaction at various local, regional, and global scales (chapter 5). Throughout these chapters he provides an excellent summary of archaeological evidence from across his region of interest. This summary will be a useful resource for other scholars interested in this area.
This book is written for a relatively specialist audience and assumes some familiarity with East Asian history and geography. For example, although Shelach often uses names of Chinese provinces for geographical orientation, the map provided does not include provincial boundaries nor do other figures in the book. Shelach may have deliberately left off these borders to make the point that modern political boundaries often obscure ancient patterns of similarity or difference (Falkenhausen 1995), but consequently the maps are less useful as a reference tool for those not already familiar with the locations of Chinese provinces.
In general, the figures in the book are disappointing, particularly when compared to the excellent quality of the text. For example, the book’s first figure (the aforementioned map, Figure 2.1) is included in a color plate section in the middle of the book, which makes it a little difficult to find. This line map of Northern East Asia includes the national borders of Russia, Mongolia, and China; across the middle it has a color-scale Digital Elevation Model (DEM) to show the topography of the Northern Zone. The map is unprojected so it exaggerates east–west distances in the northern latitudes relative to those in the southern part of the map. This makes the scale bar on the map misleading. It is not clear why the topography provided by the DEM is necessary, since it is mostly not referred to in the text and many of the sites and other geographical referents used in the text (such as province locations or the position of the Great Wall) are not included on the map. These factors, as well as somewhat sloppy placement of river names and unnecessarily thick national borders result in a figure that is not very helpful in orienting the reader. One of only two other maps in the book — Figure 4.9 — is also not ideal since the (again unnecessary) topography is too dark and obscures the site locations, a problem because the site locations are the...