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image of Journal of East Asian Archaeology

Based on the analysis of burial patterns found at several archaeological sites in the Yellow River valley, this study demonstrates the existence of various forms of ritual practice directed towards ancestors during the Neolithic period. Different ritual behavior revealed in the data clearly indicate the development of the ancestral cult in three respects: (1) the ancestors venerated shifted from collective groups to exclusive individuals with high social status; (2) the worshippers who performed the rituals changed from large social organizations at the community level (probably represented by multi-lineage groups) to small social groups at the lineage or family level; and (3) social beneficiaries of the ritual changed from the entire community to selected social sectors of the whole, mainly lineages or families with high social status. Ancestor worship in ancient China, therefore, can be characterized by two basic forms, "group ancestor worship" and "individual ancestor worship," with a number of variations within the two. The former form may have been associated with an egalitarian social organization, and the latter seems to have deeply influenced the religious and political systems of the Shang dynasty.

Although the shift from the equal treatment of group ancestors to the unequal treatment of individual ancestors is parallel with the overall development of social organization from egalitarian to stratified, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the two progressions. Unequal treatment of dead forebears, who were identified with different social sectors, may have occurred in basically egalitarian societies while veneration of particular individual ancestors probably appeared in societies in which socio-economic stratification among community members had yet to develop.

Affiliations: 1: La Trobe University


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