Labor costs for prehistoric earthwork construction: Experimental and archaeological insights from the Lower Yangzi Basin, China

Liye Xie, Steven L Kuhn, Guoping Sun, John W Olsen, Yunfei Zheng, Pin Ding, Ye Zhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

8 Scopus citations


This paper examines choices of earth-working tools made by Neolithic Chinese populations. In the Hemudu Culture (7000-5000 B.P.), bone (scapula) digging tools were used from the earliest times, whereas peoples in surrounding areas used stone spades. A range of experiments on manufacturing costs, durability, and use efficiency under realistic conditions show that bone and stone spades are functionally equivalent when soils are soft, but that stone implements provide significant and easily perceived advantages when working harder soils. The persistence of scapular spades in the Hemudu Culture would have constrained decisions about undertaking large construction projects under normal soil conditions. Our results show that, in addition to generalized labor for construction, labor demands for producing earth-working implements for large-scale prehistoric earthworks could have also been substantial. These findings not only help explain the processes of intensifying rice-agriculture and sedentary settlements in the Lower Yangzi Basin, but also create a solid foundation for further investigation of how the recruitment of both generalized and specialized laborers, the organization of craft production, and the relevant logistics for large-scale earthworks may have paralleled concentrations of political power in prehistory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-88
Number of pages22
JournalAmerican Antiquity
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2015


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • History
  • Archaeology
  • Museology

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