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Cultural Geography and Interregional Contacts in Prehistoric Liangshan (Southwest China)


The identification of cultural groups in the archaeological record, and the reasons for and mechanisms of contact between them, have been major topics of discussion in archaeology since its beginnings as a discipline. The methodological and theoretical aspects of these questions have largely been argued on the basis of ethnographic studies and socio-anthropological theories, but they are notoriously difficult to apply to archaeological research. To bridge this gap between socio-anthropological models and the material record, this dissertation starts from a concrete body of archaeological material that reflects the lives and movements of various groups of people living at a crossroad of different contact routes.

The Liangshan area in Southwest China is located at the intersection of several cultural-geographic regions and is crisscrossed by many rivers connecting it to places in the far north and south, while the high mountain ranges divide it into many microclimates. In spite of many different kinds of contact and exchange over long distances, most cultural phenomena therefore tend to be localized, making the Liangshan region an ideal case study for research on cultural groups and their relationship with the local environment on the one hand, and directions and mechanisms of short and long-distance contacts on the other.

Research in the region has been hampered by the fact that a multitude of groups that have lived in, passed through, and intermingled here since the late Neolithic, leaving a complex archaeological record that is still not well understood. For the first time, this study compiles a comprehensive catalog of all prehistoric material of the Liangshan area, providing separate analyses of all types of artifacts and archaeological features, and offering a chronological scheme for the whole region. Furthermore, this study relates the archaeological material to the geographical context and discusses local, regional, and supra-regional cultural developments.

This study starts at the micro-level of single objects, considering their technical properties of production and function, before widening the scope to the intermediate level of sites and features, and finally moving toward the regional and supra-regional picture. At each level this study questions the geographic preconditions and patterns of human-environment interaction that contribute to the formation of the archaeological record. One of the main methods employed in this endeavor is computer-aided spatial analysis (GIS) together with traditional archaeological methods of typology and statistics. This combined approach gives a third, spatial dimension to problems of chronology and cultural assignation, on which traditional approaches of classification and multivariate analyses provide insight.

Through the application of a variety of methods to this very special body of material, this study is able to re-conceptualize the objects and features in their geographical, temporal, and cultural context, and sketch out local developments, while at the same time answer questions about the mechanisms and underlying reasons for inter-group contact. This study thus makes valuable contributions both to theoretical and methodological discussions on the nature of cultural groups and inter-group contacts, and their identification in the archaeological record.

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