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  • Writer's pictureLi Liu

Archaeological evidence for initial migration of Neolithic Proto Sino-Tibetan speakers

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Sino-Tibetan is the second largest language family in the world. Recent linguistic and genetic studies have traced its origin to Neolithic millet farmers in the Yellow River region of China around 8,000 y ago and also suggested that initial divergence among branches of Sino-Tibetan coincided with expansion of the Neolithic Yangshao culture to the west and southwest during the sixth millennium BP. However, archaeological investigations to date have been insufficient to understand the lifeways of these migrant Proto Sino-Tibetan speakers. Here, we present the results of the interdisciplinary research on the material culture and ritual activities related to the initial southwestward migration of Yangshao populations, based on evidence from microfossil remains on ceramics at three sites in Gansu and Sichuan, regional archaeological contexts, and ethnographic accounts of modern Gyalrong Tibetans. The first Yangshao migrants may have integrated with indigenous hunter-gatherers in the NW Sichuan highlands, and adopted broad-spectrum subsistence strategies, consisting of both millet farming and foraging for local wild resources. Meanwhile, the migrants appear to have retained important ritual traditions previously established in their Yellow River homelands. They prepared qu starter with Monascus mold and rice for brewing alcoholic beverages, which may have been consumed in communal drinking festivals associated with the performance of ritual dancing. Such ritual activities, which to some extent have survived in the skorbro-zajiu ceremonies in SW China, may have then played a central role in maintaining and reinforcing cultural identities, social values, and connections with the homelands of the Proto Sino-Tibetan migrants.

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