Social complexification and pig (Sus scrofa) husbandry in ancient China: a combined geometric morphometric and isotopic approach

Thomas Cucchi, Lingling Dai, Marie Balasse, Chunqing Zhao, Jiangtao Gao, Yaowu Hu, Jing Yuan, Jean-Denis Vigne

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Pigs have played a major role in the economic, social and symbolic systems of China since the Early Neolithic, 8,200 years ago. However, the interaction between the history of pig domestication and transformations in Chinese society since then, have not been fully explored. In this paper, we investigated the co-evolution from the earliest farming communities through to the new political and economic models of state-like societies, up to the Chinese Empire, using 5,000 years of archaeological records from the Xiawanggang (XWG) and Xinzhai (XZ) sites (Henan Province). To trace the
changes of pig populations against husbandry practices, we combined geometric morphometric analysis of dental traits with a study of the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios from bone collagen.
The domestication process intensified during the Neolithic Yangshao, prompted by greater selective pressure and/or better herd control against wild introgression. After that, pig farming, in XWG, relied on local livestock and a gradual change of husbandry practices overtime. This was characterized by a gentle increase in millet foddering and animal protein intake, until a complete change over to household management during
the Han dynasty. The only rupture in this steady trend of husbandry occurred during the Longshan period, with the appearance of small sized and idiosyncratic pigs with specific feeding practices (relying on millet and household scraps). From three exploratory hypothesis, we explored the possibility of anti-elite pig production in XWG during the Longshan
period, as a means to resist incorporation into a new economic model promoting intensified domestic production. This exploratory hypothesis is the most suitable to our dataset; however, numerous areas need to be explored further in order to adequately document the role of pigs in the rise of China's complex societies.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0158523
Number of pages20
JournalPloS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding: This work was supported by the CNRSCASS program for the training of Chinese PhD students.


  • zooarchaeology
  • animal domestication
  • teeth
  • bone
  • geometric Morphometric
  • stable isotopes
  • China
  • Neolithic
  • Bronze Age
  • pig husbandry
  • farming economy


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