BCE 12,000 – BCE 300: Neolithic Korea

The Jeulmun and Mumun Periods of pre-historic Korea; Dolmens; The Dangun Wanggeom Creation Myth.


Welcome to the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, we talk about the Neolithic period in Korea.

[intro music] Another classic from Luna Lee, as she performs Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on her gayageum. Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcGHznR64NM


700,000?–10,000 b.c.



10,000?–1500 b.c. 

Neolithic (Jeulmun (Hangul: 즐문, Hanja: 櫛文), or 빗살무늬) 



  • Incipient Jeulmun (Yunggimun; Hangul: 융기문토기; Hanja: 隆起文土器))

The origins of the Jeulmun are 


  • Early Jeulmun

“Classic Jeulmun” or Bitsalmunui pottery (Hangul: 빗살무늬토기)


  • Middle Jeulmun

First dolmens


  • Late Jeulmun

(Xia -2,100)

1,500–300 b.c. 

Bronze Age (Mumun or undecorated (Hangeul: 무문토기; Hanja: 無文土器)) 


300–100 b.c.

Early Iron Age (Late Bronze Age)


In the last episode we explored the origins of man as far back as 2,000,000 years ago. But now we talk about early modern man after the last age ended, around 12,000 years ago.


We find pottery in Korea that dates back to 10,000 BCE (고산리), a comb-patterned pottery. We call this entire period Jeulmun, or translated, “comb pattern” pottery; it’s also called 빗살무늬, which also means “comb”. 

This period of warming climate roughly coincided with the early Neolithic period in Korea. Our chief source of information on Neolithic peoples in Korea comes from pottery. The earliest pottery is found on top of layers of pre-pottery sites. This, along with a continuity in the stone tools, suggests that the pottery cultures may have emerged from the preexisting cultures rather than be- ing the product of new peoples entering the peninsula.

Sarah M. Nelson, “The Politics of Ethnicity in Prehistoric Korea,” in National- ism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology, ed. Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 218–31.

The Jeulmun period can be roughly broken down into four subperiods.

  1. Incipient Jeulmun, or Yunggimoon (융기문);
  2. Early Jeulmun 
  3. Middle Jeulmun
  4. Late Jeulmun

The entire Jeulmun period lasts around 8,000 years from around 10,000 BCE to 1500 BC. After that, we enter the Mumun era. Mumun translated means plain pottery.

Comparison of Europe’s Linear Band Culture pottery from around 6,000 BCE.

Incipient Jeulmun: Yunggimun pottery 융기문 (10,000 – 5,000 BCE)

Yunggimun pottery 융기문 is the earliest period of Korean pottery found, and the date range is anywhere from 10,000 BCE to 5,000 BCE. There have been conflicting studies from radiocarbon dating. If the earlier date holds true, then 

Yunggimun pottery from Gosan-ni would be, along with central and southern China, the Japanese Archipelago, and the Russian Far East, among a group of the oldest known pottery in world prehistory. Kuzmin suggests that more absolute dating is needed to gain a better perspective on this notion.


But these pottery makers, in 10,000 BCE, who were they? Well if you read texts from the 20th century, the thinking was that these pottery makers were most likely from northern China / manchuria / the amur river basin.

They base this on the archeological evidence of the pottery and language. Pottery from 10,000 BCE shares characteristics with those found in the Amur River Basin (if you look on a map, it’s in present day Russia almost directly north of Korea), and with pottery found in Japan. 

Similar pottery found in Tsushima, Japan and near Novopetrovka in the Siberian Amur River (360 miles due north of Harbin, just across the China border in Siberia).

한편, 일본 대마도 고시다카유적〔越高遺蹟〕에서 동삼동의 것과 같은 한국식 덧무늬토기가 발견되고 그 연대는 서기전 5000∼4500년으로, 앞서 동삼동 최하층 문화보다도 오히려 앞서고 있다. 최근 양양 오산리 B지구에서 덧무늬토기가 나오고 그 연대가 서기전 5100년(7050±120B.P)대로 나타나 이제까지 나온 것 가운데 가장 연대가 올라가 일본 것과 거의 같거나 약간 앞설 뿐만 아니라, 한반도 내에서도 덧무늬토기가 빗살무늬토기보다 시기적으로 앞서는 것임이 확인되었다.

이밖에 덧무늬토기의 원류로 보아왔던 시베리아 아무르강 중류역의 노보페트로프카 유적에서 출토된 토기의 내부탄화물을 측정한 결과 13000∼9000B.P가 나왔다. 다만, 이 토기와 덧무늬토기의 절대연대와 지역간 관련성의 사실여부는 아직 밝혀진 바가 없다.


These people are categorized as “broad spectrum hunting and gathering”.

Here’s another researcher’s perspective on where the Jeulmun people came from:

Eun-Sook Song (2010) suggests that Korea’s Comb-pattern pottery culture began through the diffusion of the complex hunter-gatherer culture of the Liao River region and the fishing-focused hunter-gatherer culture of the Russian Primorye. She argues that these cultures spread, respectively, into all regions of the Korean Peninsula through the Liao-Daedong River route and a route down the east coast of Korea. It has also been argued that sedentism predates agriculture in East Asia (S.-M. Ahn 2006).

  • Seung-Og Kim

The Primorye is Russia bordering North Korea, at the far southeastern tip of continental Russia.

Early Jeulmun Period (c 6000-3500 BC)

The period that comes after is called the Early Jeulmun Period, or “Classic Jeulmun”.

The Early Jeulmun period (c. 6000-3500 BC) is characterized by deep-sea fishing, hunting, and small semi-permanent settlements with pit-houses. Examples of Early Jeulmun settlements include Seopohang, Amsa-dong, and Osan-ri.[10] Radiocarbon evidence from coastal shellmidden sites such as Ulsan Sejuk-ri, Dongsam-dong, and Ga-do Island indicates that shellfish were exploited, but many archaeologists maintain that shellmiddens (or shellmound sites) did not appear until the latter Early Jeulmun.

A pit house is basically a shelter that’s dug into the ground. From wikipedia:

“Classic Jeulmun” or Bitsalmunui pottery (Hangul: 빗살무늬토기) in which comb-patterning, cord-wrapping, and other decorations extend across the entire outer surface of the vessel, appeared at the end of the Early Jeulmun and is found in West-central and South-coastal Korea in the Middle Jeulmun.

Middle Jeulmun Period (3,500 – 2,000 BCE)

Next is the middle jeulmun period.

Based on 14 middle jeulmun excavation sites, archeologists have found evidence of cultivation via the form of carbonized plant remains and agricultural stone tools. The earliest evidence of grains is the foxtail millet seed from the Dongsam-dong excavation site.

In Jitamri in North Korea, scientists found a pit-house with several hundred grams of what they believe is millet. Some archeologists however cannot confirm that it is domesticated millet.

It’s around this time that the world’s earliest civilizations started, including the Sumerians around 3,500, Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE.

It’s also during this period, in 2,333 BCE, that Korea’s origin myth is set. We will get to that later.

Late Jeulmun Period (2000 – 1500 BCE)

By around 2,000 BCE, we’ve entered the Late Jeulmun period, and we’re finally starting to recognize these humans, at least on the Korean peninsula, as modern societies. 

By this time, these early Koreans have moved away from a hunting and gathering diet, primarily reliant on shellfish, to a “subsistence” pattern, relying more on plants. This could be because the shellfish populations were stressed or because these inhabitants moved more inland.

This period is contemporary with, in terms of history, the Xia Dynasty (2070 BCE); and in terms of archeology, the Lower Xiajiadian culture (2200-1600 BCE) in China. Of course, the Xia Dynasty is not completely accepted by the broader historian community; however the Xiajiadian culture is.


It’s also around this time that we’ve found evidence of dolmens existing. A dolmen is “a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone or “table””. A megalith is a large stone. So this definition is just a precise way of describing two really big rocks holding up another big rock like a crude table. 

Probably the most famous example is Stonehenge in Wilshire England. That’s basically a collection of dolmens arranged in a circle. Spinal Tap references aside.

A model of a dolmen from the movie Spinal Tap. Although the scale of this model would not qualify it for dolmen status.

With around 35,000 dolmens (고인돌), Korea is estimated to have 40% of the world’s dolmens. In Korean, (Hangul: 고인돌). It’s speculated that the first dolmens in Korea showed up around 3,000 BCE, some of them depicting

The prehistoric cemeteries at Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa contain many hundreds of examples of dolmens – tombs from the 1st millennium BC constructed of large stone slabs. They form part of the Megalithic culture, found in many parts of the world, but nowhere in such a concentrated form.


Dolmen at Ganghwa Island, South Korea (c300 BCE).

How they might have been constructed. From https://namu.wiki/w/%EA%B3%A0%EC%9D%B8%EB%8F%8C

Dolmen chart source: https://web.archive.org/web/20160924011040/http://optik2.mtk.nao.ac.jp/~somamt/gendai3/004-014HJYang.pdf

Mumun Period Bronze Age (1,500–300 b.c.)

So we’re finally past the Jeulmun age, which lasted over 8,000 years and saw the evolution of Koreans from hunter gatherers gathering shellfish from the shore to inland inhabitants of settlements with rudimentary agriculture. We again  distinguish the next period by the type of pottery associated with it. In this case we call it the Mumun period, or undecorated (Hangeul: 무문토기; Hanja: 無文土器)). 

This is what westerners have broadly categorized as the Bronze Age, although that categorization, with its genesis in early Indo-European civilizations, presents some problems when applied to Korea (and probably everywhere else), not the least of which is that bronze didn’t show up in Korea until the 8th century BCE.

It is here when intensive agriculture shows up in Korea. It seems like the Mumun people started in the Liao River basin and North Korea. They were slash and burn cultivators, who must have displaced the Jeulmun Period people with their subsistence patterns.

Early Mumun (1500 – 850 BC)

Shifting cultivation, fishing, hunting and settlements with rectangular, semi subterranean pit houses. The first part of the period saw egalitarian type societies, but by the end, saw increasing competition between settlements and perhaps the presence of “big-man” leadership. 

Most of these early settlements were concentrated along the Geum River in west-central Korea. Later, there would be a lot of long-houses in places such as 백석동 (Baekseok-dong), which is in modern Cheonan City in 충청남도, the province which is just south of the province in which Seoul resides.

This was also the period in which there is construction of megalithic burials, or the dolmens that we just talked about. This accompanied ceremonial and mortuary systems that seemed to have started in this period.

Early Mumun is contemporary to The Shang Dynasty and the Erligang society in China around 1500 BCE, and then later the Zhou Dynasty in 1045 BCE. Shang Dynasty is where we found so many oracle bones, and the earliest Chinese script. So by this time, China was quite advanced. This was also the time of Ancient Greece, which started roughly around this time. 

In England, around 1300 BCE, burial sites showed family graves, cremated and laid in decorated urns. Men and women sported ornaments of gold and bronze.

Middle Mumun (850 – 550 BC)

The Middle Mumun period is characterized by intensive agriculture, as evidenced by “more than 32,000 square metres of dry-fields were recovered at Daepyeong” (대평 유적; 大坪 遺蹟), which is a famous archeological site in southern korea. Most of this was dug up in 1996-2005, so it’s a recent discovery, but it’s an important site for not just Korea but all of East Asian prehistory.

The Classic Mumun period is also called the Songguk-ri culture, (송국리 유적; 松菊里 遺蹟), named after another important historical site in 충청남도.

Songguk-ri culture is defined by the following components: houses with an ovalshaped pit in the centers of their floors (yielding jars with outwardly curved mouths), flask-shaped red burnished pottery, stone daggers with attached handles that do not have a central horizontal groove, triangular stone knives, and grooved adzes. 

– Kim, 2015

By now, it is very clear that the social structure of these settlements indicate the presence of elites and social competition–i.e., the social structure that we more or less see today. High status burials containing greenstone (jade) ornaments. Bronze daggers, jade, and red-burnished vessels have been found in large, deep shaft burial grounds. This is also the start of rice farming, although evidence suggests it wasn’t the primary crop yet. People grew millets, barley, wheat, legumes and continued to hunt and fish.

To give these developments context, contemporary to the Classic Mumun period was the end of Western Zhou and the start of Eastern Zhou in 772 BCE in China. While there is still some lingering doubt, mostly from Western skeptics, about the historical accuracy of the earlier Xia and Shang dynasties, by now we are firmly in widely accepted historical truths: there are well documented kingdoms in China such as the Zhou and the Chu and they are at war during this period.

In England, the inhabitants enter the iron age in 700 BCE. We don’t quite have a historiography yet with names of tribes or individuals. But we know there are chieftains, warriors, priests, workers and slaves.

In Greece, the first Olympics are held in 776 BCE.

Late Mumun (550-300 BC)

Late Mumun is characterized by evidence of conflict. There are ring-ditches some 13 feet high and 40 feet wide, suggesting protection from enemies. There are fewer, but larger settlements, suggesting mergers of settlements into larger groups. 

Settlements similar to Mumun show up in Northern Kyushu in Japan during this period.

In China, Confucius is born in 600 BCE. In England, a Greek merchant Pytheas makes landfall and gives England it’s name of Brettaniai.

The Late Mumun ends in 300 BC when iron is introduced to Korea.


2333 BCE: DANGUN CREATION MYTH (단군왕검/檀君王儉)

According to the Dangun creation myth, Hwanung(환웅, 桓雄) yearned to live on the earth among the valleys and the mountains. Hwanin (환인; 桓因) permitted Hwanung and 3000 followers to depart and they descended from heaven to a sandalwood tree on Baekdu Mountain (태백산/太伯山), then called Taebaek Mountain (태백산/太伯山). There Hwanung founded Sinsi (신시/神市, “City of God”) and gave himself the title Heaven King. In a cave near the sandalwood tree lived a bear and a tiger who came to the tree every day to pray to Hwanung. One day Hwanung gave the bear and the tiger twenty bulbs of garlic and some divine mugwort (쑥). Hwanung promised if they ate only his garlic and mugwort and stayed in the cave out of the sunlight for one hundred days he would make them human.[1]

The tiger and the bear agreed and went back to the cave, but tiger was too hungry and impatient to wait, leaving the cave before the 100 days were done. But the bear remained, and on the 21st day was transformed into a beautiful woman, who gratefully honored Hwanung with offerings. With time the woman grew lonely, and prayed to Hwanung that she might have a child. So Hwanung made her his wife and gave her a son called Dangun, a name which has two meanings: “Altar Prince” and sandalwood. Dangun eventually founded Gojoseon


The Tan’gun Myth
The Wei shu tells us that two thousand years ago, at the time of Em- peror Yao, Tan’gun Wanggo ̆m chose Asadal (Korean: 아사달; Hanja: 阿斯達) as his capital and founded the state of Choso ̆n. The Old Record notes that in olden times Hwanin’s son, Hwanung (환웅, 桓雄), wished to descend from Heaven and live in the world of human beings. Knowing his son’s desire, Hwanin surveyed the three highest mountains and found Mount T’aebaek the most suitable place for his son to settle and help human beings. Therefore he gave Hwanung three heavenly seals and dispatched him to rule over the peo- ple. Hwanung descended with three thousand followers to a spot under a tree by the Holy Altar atop Mount T’aebaek, and he called this place the City of God. He was the Heavenly King Hwanung. Leading the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of Clouds, he took charge of some three hundred and sixty areas of responsibility, including agriculture, allotted life spans, illness, punishment, and good and evil, and brought culture to his people.

At that time a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Holy Hwanung to transform them into human beings. He gave them a bundle of sacred mugworts and twenty cloves of garlic and said, “If you eat these and shun the sunlight for one hundred days, you will as- sume human form.” Both animals ate the species and avoided the sun. After twenty-one days the bear became a woman but the tiger, unable to observe the taboo, remained a tiger. Unable to find a husband, the bear- woman prayed under the altar tree for a child. Hwanung metamor- phosed himself, lay with her, and begot a son called Tan’gun Wanggo ̆m.

[Tan’gun later was often considered the first Korean and/or founder of the first Korean state. This account goes on to say that in the “fiftieth year of the reign of Emperor Yao,” on a date calculated as October 3, 2333 BCE, Tan’gun was said to have established the state of Choso ̆n. This date has become a national holiday in South Korea. Koreans today often refer to the “5,000 years of Korean history,” a phrase based on this legendary date.]
—from the Samguk yusa 1:33–34A[19]

  1. Peter H. Lee and William Theodore De Bary, eds., Sources of Korean Traditions, vol. 1, From Early Times through the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 5–6.


Pleistocene 2,588,000 to 11,700


 “Neolithic” (신석기시대) and “Bronze Age” (청동기시대).

The name of Korea is believed by some to be derived from the phrase “high mountains, sparkling streams,” and another name, Chosdn,is often translated “the land of morning calm.”

In Korea, the Iron Age is characterized by jeomtodaetogi (rolled-rim pottery) (manoa)

fossil men of Tzuyang and Liuchang

it seems plausible that the Korean people might have been formed in the Mongolian-Manchurian plains as well as the coastal area of the Yellow Sea, and gradually moved to the peninsula in quest of better climatic and environmental conditions.

plus the hiatus in the middle of the palaeozoic, are similar to conditions in southern Manchuria and northern China,but a small portion in the southeastern region and the stratigraphy of younger rocks from middle mesozoic to recent, resembles more closely that of the Japanese islands.

The origins of the Koreans are yet to be proved by further scientific research; however, it is noted that Koreans form a race in the sense of an isolated gene pool with singular language. Known facts of anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, geography and history lead to the conclusion that the ancestors of the Korean race might have had links with the people of central Asia, Baikal region, Mongolia, Manchuria and the coastal areas of the Yellow Sea. The upper palaeolithic tool types, assemblages and petro- glyphs that are found in Sokchang-ni, Kongju, are very similar to those of the Baikal region and Mongolian area. 



Historical Series: Korean History 2 – Gija 기자 箕子

Transition from the Prehistoric Age to the Historic Age: The Early Iron Age on the Korean Peninsula



John King Fairbank – China. A New History [2006][A].pdf



Paleolithic Archaeology in Korea https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4939-6521-2_17

Early Korea 1: Reconsidering Early Korean History through Archaeology Paperback – November 30, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/Early-Korea-Reconsidering-History-Archaeology/dp/0979580013

우리 조상들 게놈에 데니소바인 피 두 차례 섞였다! (In our ancestors genome two times, dennisovan blood was mixed!)

THE HISTORY OF KOREA, Sohn Pow-key Kim Chol-choon Hong Yi-sup. Korean National Commission for Unesco/ Seoul, Korea. 1970

A History of Korea. Seth, Michael J. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham: 2011.

Korea – Forty Three Centuries.Published Cultural Series — Vol. I.Tae Hung Ha, 1962. Yonsei University Press


Choi Mou-Chang

Jimoondang International 2004.



Korea Old and New: A History

Carter J. Eckert, Ki-baik Lee, Young Iek Lew, Michael Robinson, Edward W. Wagner

Harvard University Press 1990.


Recent Archaeological Discoveries in the Republic of Korea

Kim Wong-Yong



Goguryeo: In Search of Its Culture and History

Ho-tae Jeon

Hollym International 2008


The History of Korea

Sohn Pow-key, Kim Choi-choon, Hong Yi-sup



Korea: Forty Three Centuries

Tae Hung Ha

Yonsei University Press 1982





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.