PreHistory of Korea

from early settlements to the silla unification of Korea (preHistory–668)

the story of the first Koreans began on the plains of Northeast Asia in an area sometimes called Manchuria, which today makes up the three northeast provinces of China. Related to early nomadic peoples, the first Koreans began migrating into the Korean Peninsula between 2,000 and 10,000 years ago.

They did not come in a single wave. Rather, peoples of a similar culture and language, some earlier than others, gradually settled into areas north and south of the Yalu River, which forms the border between present-day China and North Korea.

Origin of the Early Korean Settlers

Since much of Korean civilization bears the marks of Chinese influence, it is easy to assume that Koreans descended from the Chinese. Among China’s major contributions to Korean civilization are the use of Chinese characters, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Korea is clearly part of the Chinese cultural realm, but this was not always so. The earliest Koreans shared common traits with peoples in Northeast Asia, including similarities in religion, social organization, housing, and language.

The Korean language shares some features with Mongolic, Turkic, and Manchu-Tungusic families, which is why some linguists classify it as Altaic, a language family quite different from the Chinese family. Chinese later came to have a dramatic influence on Korean: Today, as many as 60 percents of Korean words have Chinese origins. Korean structure, however, is very different from that of Chinese, indicative of a different origin and a separate language family.

Korean founding myths also indicate non-Chinese origin. The most popular Korean myth is that of Tangun, which was recorded in The Samguk Yusa, a Korean history written in 1285 C.E. It claimed that Tangun, the founder of Korea, who ruled the land wisely for 1,000 years, was born in the 50th year of the first emperor of China, 2333 B.C.E.

Tangun was born when a bear and a tiger both wanted to become human. The heavenly being, Hwanung, told them that if they would live in a cave and eat nothing but garlic and mugwort for 100 days, they could become human. The tiger could not endure the confinement; the bear did, and its wish was granted.

It was turned into a female human. Hwanung, finding her beautiful, took her to be his wife; she bore a son on the top of a mountain and named him Tangun. During the 1,000 years of his reign, the land was peaceful and prosperous.

Although the Tangun myth has similarities to the myths of the peoples of Northeast Asia, other Korean myths more closely resemble those found in Southeast Asia. These myths feature people being born from eggs or sailing in stone boats.

While there is evidence that some people may have immigrated to the Korean Peninsula by sea from the south, if migrations in large numbers from the south had taken place, one would expect a larger influence from southern cultures on the Korean language, material culture, and religion than is evident today.

Another indicator of a northern origin of the Korean people can be found in religion. Religions, like myths, contain elements or symbols that can be traced to prehistoric times. The indigenous religion of Korea is shamanism. Although it is not highly structured and does not have a written corpus of belief, it has ceremonies and symbols that have been passed down since prehistoric times.

One of its features is a ceremony led by a shaman (a spirit medium) to mediate with the spirit world. Symbols used in the ceremony include swords or knives, mirrors, and comma-shaped stones that resemble a tiger’s or bear’s claw. Mirrors and claws of jade are found in early Korean crowns buried with Silla and Paekche kings dating from the third through the early sixth centuries C.E.

The kings were also buried with their swords. The royal regalia of the Japanese emperor also included the sword, the mirror, and the stone. Archaeologists theorize that these religious symbols originated in shamanism practiced in prehistoric Northeast Asia and that over time they made their way, with migrating people, into the Korean Peninsula and across the Korean Strait to Japan.

Physical anthropology provides other clues that Koreans originated in Northeast Asia. Physical anthropology is the study of humans as physical beings. Koreans possess several physical characteristics that tie them to Northeast Asia rather than to China, two of which are tooth shape and high incidence of a birthmark known as the “Mongolian spot.”

A large percentage of Koreans have ridges on the inside edges of the front teeth called “shovel-shaped incisors” by specialists. They share this trait with other peoples in Northeast Asia. Babies born by people from Korea and places in Northeast Asia also have the “Mongolian spot,” a bluish-colored area of skin located low on the back. It is generally about the size of an adult hand, looks like a bruise, and fades away by the time a child is two or three.

Early Archaeological Findings

According to archaeologists several Paleolithic sites on the peninsula (dating 20,000 to 50,000 years old) and a very few Mesolithic sites (20,000–6,000 B.C.E.) predate the arrival on the peninsula of the first Koreans during the Neolithic period (6000–700 B.C.E.). It is unclear whether the earlier two stone ages were linked to the most recent one, the Neolithic Age, but it is quite certain that the Neolithic people were, indeed, the ancestors of the Korean people today.

The pottery of the Neolithic Age shows various styles and influences. One style, called the comb-pattern, shows a design on the side of the pots that looks as if it had been scraped with a comb. There was also a plain style of pottery, which is later found in combination with the comb-pat-tern.

Archaeologists suppose that these styles originated with two different groups that migrated into Korea in prehistoric times and then joined together as one people. Early records from Chinese sources tell of a Ye people and a Maek people and later of a Yemaek people. Perhaps these historic and archaeological records both speak of the same event.

About the ninth century B.C.E. a bronze culture was evident in Korea. The earliest bronze technology was of the Scytho-Siberian style, a technology developed in Central Asia and refined in North Asia. The Scythians were great bronze workers, and as nomads, they conquered other tribes thanks to their invention of a critical piece of equipment, the stirrup.

Stirrups kept them on their horses while their enemies were falling off theirs. They were experts in other kinds of bronze work too. Later on, around the fifth century B.C.E., a different kind of bronze technology began to appear, influenced by Chinese culture. These bronze implements included mirrors as well as ritual vessels.

The mirrors were handheld, circular objects about 6 inches in diameter with a highly polished side, the mirror side, and a decorated reverse side that often had a small handle surrounded by other designs. Ritual vessels included small pots and pitchers, apparently used in ceremonies. The record of these bronze artifacts points to early Chinese contact with Korea, and some historical records support this.

Among the evidence of early contact with China is the myth of Kija, which tells of a refugee from China at the fall of the Shang dynasty, purportedly around 1122 B.C.E. (Shim 2002, 271). The Kija myth first appeared in the early Koryo period (918–1392), a time when the Korean court was cultivating close ties with China; this timing suggests that the myth may have been created as an alternative to the nativistic Tangun myth.

In fact, each myth would be used at different times in Korean history and by different groups to support different political agendas. The Tangun myth became more popular with groups that wanted Korea to be independent; the Kija myth was more useful to those who wanted to show that Korea had a strong affinity to China.

The degree to which the myth contains an element of truth, in this case, that there were Chinese immigrants, is open to question. However, there is evidence of Chinese immigrants in historic times, and therefore the myth of earlier Chinese immigrants may well capture some element of early migrations into the Korean Peninsula.

Another historical record indicates early Korean contact with China. About 700 B.C.E. Chinese records mention the name Choson or Old Choson. The term was used again by a refugee from the Han dynasty named Wiman, who about 200 B.C.E. set up a kingdom in Korea called Wiman Choson. The name Choson is also used for a later dynasty when the term was revived in 1392 for the longest of the historic dynasties, which ruled for 518 years until 1910.

Kija Choson was a mythological dynasty about which little is known (Ho Jung Song 2004, 95). Wiman Choson left some traces, however, in Chinese records. The sophistication of the Wiman Choson society was evident in the legal code that survived. According to the record, murder was punishable by death; injury to another was compensated in grain; and theft was punishable by enslavement, the thief becoming a slave of the one whose property he stole. These laws delineate a fairly orderly and well-organized society. The historical record also tells of titles used by various officials in Wiman Choson, revealing a degree of social differentiation and sophistication.