BCE 2,000,000 – BCE 12,000: Land, Language and Pre-Origins

How big is the Korean peninsula? What did Korea look like during the Ice Age? How did Koreans evolve from Homo Erectus? DNA evidence of Koreans and the Denisovan. The origins of the Korean language.




Welcome to the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, we start from the very beginning and explore the land, and the origins, of the Korean people.

Intro music

If we want to understand the origins of Koreans, we need to start from the very beginning.

13.5 Billion years ago, Big bang.

3.8 billion years ago, life begins on earth.


So before we get to the story, we need to talk geography. Why? Because nothing more determines a people than the physical environment in which they exist.

For that we refer to https://www.youtube.com/user/STRATFORvideo

Korea is a peninsula that juts out from the southeast of China. Now if you’re an American like me, your sense of geography is pretty awful compared to the rest of the world. So bear with me as I put it in terms understandable to us isolated Americans: think of the map of the US. Korea is shaped very much like Florida. The continental US is China, and Canada is Russia. Now directly to the west of Florida is the gulf of mexico. This is the Yellow Sea. Louisiana is what is now the Liaoning Peninsula, a very strategically important peninsula in east China. And the Yucatan Peninsula, which is southwest of Florida, is what we can call the Shandong peninsula. And to the east of Florida is a string of islands called Cuba. in this example, Japan is cuba.




north korea



south korea











Present day north and south Korea is 46,540 sq miles (120,538 sq km) and 38,502 sq miles (99,720 sq km), respectively; together they are about the size of Utah.

To an American, that may seem small. But it’s actually quite large. Because believe it or not, Utah’s about half the size of California. The Korean peninsula is about the size of Great Britain (234,402 km), and a little smaller than Italy. The two countries together would rank 48th out of 196 countries, or top 20% in land mass. It’s bigger than Spain, Thailand and Vietnam. Today’s combined population is around 75 million, which would rank it 20th out of 233 countries, or top 8.5%. So this is a pretty big country. In any other region in the world, it might be a large power.

Combined Korea would almost equal the population of Germany.

But alas, Korea is in a neighborhood of giants. To the east is the largest and oldest surviving civilization in the world, China. To the north is Russia, the largest country by area. To the west is Japan, the 2nd largest economy and 11th most populous country in the world with 126 million people. Koreans like to say they are a shrimp among whales, a self deprecation that has served strategic purposes throughout history. But it’s not a shrimp.

In terms of latitude, you may be aware of the infamous 38th parallel, which provides the demarcation between south and north korea after the Korean War. But united Korea lies between the latitudes of 33 degrees north and 43 degrees north. If you superimpose Korea on a map of California, Seoul, which is roughly the middle of the peninsula, would line up roughly with San Jose. So the whole of Korea would span from around Los Angeles northward beyond the border into Oregon. So, as I said, it’s not as small as you think it is. 

For you east coasters, if you lined up Korea along the same latitude on the east coast, first you’d line up Seoul to around Virginia Beach, and the peninsula would span from New York all the way down to South Carolina. So again, not so small.

For you Europeans, if you superimposed the peninsula at the same latitude, Seoul would line up roughly with Seville in southern Spain, and united Korea would span from the top of Morocco near Casablanca and reach almost to the northern border of Spain.

One thing you might realize from these comparisons of latitude is how different the climate is between Seoul, southern Spain and San Jose,  California. The latter two are Mediterranean, and balmy most of the year. Whereas Seoul, even at the same approximate latitude, has four seasons and in particular is absolutely frigid during the winter. There are many reasons for this, but one of them being that Korea is attached to one of the coldest regions in the world, northeastern Eurasia which includes such tropical places such as Siberia, Yakutsk, the steppes of Mongolia and northeast China. Not only do bitter arctic winds make their way south to the peninsula, but so do the fierce people that live there.

All these maps are courtesy of http://thetruesize.com. I highly recommend this site for geography.

“No part of Korea is far from the seas. The seas, however, while filled with abundant fish and seafood, important components in the Korean diet, are not friendly to navigation. The east coast on the “East Sea” has few good harbors and is cut off from the major population centers by rugged mountains. Navigation on the western Yellow Sea coast is made difficult by shifting sandbars and some of the world’s highest tides. Confined to a geographically well-defined peninsula with ample resources to support a fairly populous agricultural society Korea developed its own distinctive society and identity while borrowing heavily from China.



Ok, so let’s talk now about the prehistoric land, and how that effected the people that eventually came to live on it. I’ll be drawing from both Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel (1997) and Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind, written by Yuvah Noah Harari in 2015.

There were four glacial stages in China, the Poyang (800,000 years ago), Taku, Lushan, and Tali. The English language coverage of these are quite scant, but suffice it to say that during the ice age, much of the water that separates eastern china, korea and japan was gone; in other words, during the pleistocene ice age, which lasted from 1.8M years to 11,700 years ago, which by the way, neatly coincides with Homo erectus’ migration out of Africa to Eurasia, the oceans dipped by hundreds of feet from their current level, exposing the land beneath them.

So continuing with our southeastern US example, in which Florida is Korea, Cuba is Japan, and Louisiana and the southern tip of texas are the Liaoning and Shandong peninsulas, respectively, all of that would have been land.

So prehistoric man had the ability to travel freely across these political divisions.


And so we finally come to talk about the people.

As with anything, there are differing opinions of even pre-historic Korea. Here’s a brief timeline of that debate: in ancient times, of course it was the Koreans and Chinese that debated the origins of Korea, starting probably as far back as the beginning of the 1st millennia. Later it was the Mongolians, in the 13th century. Starting in the 16th century, when japan entered the picture, it became a topic of debate and instrument of politics for both the japanese and the koreans. This continued into the 19th century, when japan, the first country to introduce industrialization to korea, undertook its own historical survey of Korea. Then, in the 20th century, it was the americans who undertook this analysis.

I want to tell you about the sensitivity when it comes to prehistoric Korea, with respect to Koreans. Koreans are extra sensitive to these issues, and I’ll tell you why. So during the Japanese occupation, Japan sent scientists including archeologists, linguists, etc. to Korea. Part of their mission was to modernize Korea. The other was to craft a historical narrative of the Japanese people and the Korean people that would accomplish political goals. There are overt shades of racism, etc. that I’m hoping to cover when we get to that period.

We don’t need to get into the details right now but it’s enough to say that there was a lot of political subterfuge that colored all the research and analysis that the Japanese conducted in Korea. This includes accusations from the Korean side of misplacing, hiding or outright destroying archeological evidence. 

It’s easy to say this is water under the bridge, but much of the historical research that the US, and later the world community continues to rely on is still based on some of this original work done under the Japanese. I won’t get into who’s right or who’s not, but I just want to give you, the listener, a sense of what Koreans endured just a few generations ago. This was essentially the 20th century, and as recent as the 1940s. So it is a very recent event and the people who experienced these events are still alive.

So just be forewarned that when you discuss these events with Koreans, be aware that there is an extra layer of empathy and sensitivity that needs to be practiced, if you want to have a productive conversation. If your goal is to provoke then certainly you do not have to go far to do so. Just know that the Korean people have repeatedly pounded the table, often to a fairly indifferent global audience, of the injustices that they feel occurred during this era. 


Ok, before we begin, i’ll give a really brief summary of the current prevailing theory of the evolution of man. The surprising thing is that this story is changing constantly based on new evidence, and really new evidence. For example, we didn’t know about this early precursor to man called the denisovan, which was a contemporary of the neanderthal, until 2010, when some remains were found in Siberia. That’s barely 9 years ago.



homo erectus in eurasia


denisovan evolves from common ancestor


humans first use fire;

neanderthal diverges from erectus;

Peking man


Homo sapiens is “born”

humans use fire regularly


denisovan in tibetan plateau lived;

1M humans in eurasia


denisovan start living in siberia cave


Homo sapien forms culture;

sapiens go to arabia from africa


Great Leap Forward (Diamond)


Cognitive Revolution (Harari)


Siberia occupied


latest evidence that denisovans bred with homo sapiens in indonesia


Agricultural Revolution;

end of last ice age


We are also really changing our understanding of evolution in Eurasia, as Asia finally catches up to the Western world in terms of archeology and other research. The term euro-centric is a politically charged word, but in this case it is exactly fitting: all our understanding about human evolution is very euro-centric right now. This isn’t necessarily on purpose, it’s just the natural result of when most research is being conducted in the western world. If you have more people digging up human remains in Europe, you’re just going to get a more complete picture of that geography. 

But thankfully, that’s changing. China, of course, is leading the way; there is now tons of research being conducted in the far corners of China that are challenging a lot of the prevailing theory first formed in Europe and America. For example the Dali Man, which has been highly politicized. Basically there’s a fossil at 

So here’s–wwhat I can tell–is the most accepted theory so far, starting from as far back as the first members of the Homo genus. Genus is right above species in taxonomy. Now just to let you know how really new all this data is, when you look up the genus Homo in wikipedia, the table shows all the usual suspects, including homo sapiens, which we are, plus neanderthals and erectus. If you were educated in America in the 20th century like I was, then these are all familiar to you and were in your textbooks.

But denisovan is not in wikipedia entry for the genus homo yet! So i checked the wikipedia entry for denisovan, and it’s so new that scientists have yet to properly categorize it as either a species or subspecies. And it references ongoing research as scientists continue to parse the mitochondrial DNA of the remains they found in Siberia.

So this is a lot of science for a history podcast, but it’s very relevant to what we’re discussing. 

OK, so here’s my take on human evolution, as it relates to Koreans, in a nutshell, with apologies to all the real biologists out there: about 2 million years ago, Homo erectus appeared in East Africa, and migrated into Eurasia. It was probably the first hominin to live in a hunter-gatherer society and to control fire (wikipedia). So they spread out across Asia.

Here’s as far as what I can tell happened next: around 1 million years later, two subspecies evolved from the erectus (either directly or we may find more intermediate species later). The first species is very well documented, the Neanderthals. That species was discovered in the 19th century by a Belgian scientist, and has since entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for “caveman”. I believe neanderthal first appeared in Africa and then migrated to Europe, and then on to central asia and then all across Asia.





The second one subspecies is the denisovan, discovered in 2010. I don’t know where the denisovan first appeared. But scientists say they evolved maybe 200,000 years after neanderthals did, from erectus. Denisovan fossils have been found all across Asia.

Both the denisovan and the neanderthal are extinct, but before they died out, they both interbred with Homo sapiens. And this is where things get really interesting. Europeans and Asians have 1-4% of their genome from neanderthals. But in addition, east asians, including presumably Koreans, have around 0.2% from their DNA from denisovans. Melanesians, these are the indigenous people that inhabit southeast asia, particularly papua new guinea, and aborigines in australia, have up to 5% of the DNA from denisovans. Scientists say denisovans might have been interbreeding with melanesians as recently as 15,000 years ago! That’s just 500 generations.

And this just in: latest research from this year, 2018, suggests that the denisovans that passed on their dna to east asians are a different group than the ones that passed on their dna to melanesians. Research suggests that the denisovans that passed through Asia also passed through Papua; but that there was a second group of denisovans that passed through Asia and left their DNA, and that this group did NOT pass through Papua.

And now, through DNA analysis, we’re finding that the denisovans of asia were not part of the earlier migration of erectus out of africa that turned into neanderthals. In fact, there might have been another migration out of africa, by erectus, that turned into the denisovans. See? We see how very limited a euro-centric view of history can be, and thank god asia (and that includes russia) finally has the wherewithal to join the international scientific community in this regard.

And scientists have discovered traces of other prehistoric species in our DNA. So we’re still finding more and more about ancient man, especially asian people, which of course includes korean people. So probably 5 years from now, this podcast will have to be significantly modified. This is why history is so exciting!


So the question is this: is there denisovan blood in modern day Koreans? The answer is, it appears so. I found a peer-reviewed study by the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany (which is kind of the gold standard for this kind of work) that did not find evidence of denisovans in the sample of Koreans they took. They didn’t find it in Japanese either. But I’ve definitely seen mention that denisovan blood has been found in Japanese and Han Chinese. I would guess that yes, we will eventually find denisovan heritage in Koreans. But that’s speculation on my part.

OK, back to our story. A brief recap: erectus leaves africa, evolves into neanderthal somewhere between africa and europe. Another migration of erectus leaves africa, then evolves into denisovan, somewhere between africa and asia. Both interbreed with our precursors, the Homo sapiens, who definitely evolved while in Africa, and leave traces of their DNA, that to this day, still affect us. For example, some scientists speculate that the Tibetan’s ability to acclimate so well to high altitude is attributable to their Denisovan dna.


To be clear, erectus did not die out until much later. In other words, for tens of thousands of years, erectus, denisovans and neanderthals lived at the same time in Eurasia, and in some cases interbreeding.

We’ve found evidence of homo erectus in asia; called the peking man, he lived around 780,000 years ago. Scientists found him near Beijing in 1923. He was not a denisovan, because he was too early for that.


Let’s jump ahead to 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolves in africa, emerges out of africa, goes first to the middle east, where two groups split: one group going to europe, the other going to Asia. once in asia, and who knows how it happened, they start mating with the neanderthals and denisovans already there. 

For example, In 2015, scientists in Diaoxian, China found human teeth that places sapiens in China as far back as 120,000 years ago. This is in contrast to the first uncontested remains of sapiens in America, which is 12,000 BCE in Alaska.

As for korea, the first remains of hominids on the peninsula date back to 400,000 years ago. I don’t know what species this was, but it was erectus based on the timeline. North Koreans state they Have found remains 600,000 years old, but I don’t think that evidence has been evaluated. 

Re- mains of Paleolithic hominids have been found at Kulp’ori in Unggi-gun  웅기군 (雄基郡) 굴포리(屈浦里) in the extreme northeast of Korea that have been tentatively dated back 400,000 years

전곡리 – fossil site https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/swICUqGwlsp4Iw

But what happened in Asia more recently, like 40,000 years ago, concurrent with the denisovan living in siberia? Probably we’re still figuring that out. Further research in Denisovans is occurring as we speak; there is evidence that Han Chinese and Japanese can trace some of their lineage to them; therefore it’s possible that denisovans made it into the Korean peninsula as well. Stay tuned.


So let’s jump ahead again to around 10,000 years ago. This is when the first evidence of human civilization is found on the Korean peninsula. From here until recorded history, which is around 2,000 BCE, we have three ways of piecing together what happened: the first two are time-worn traditions, the other is new. The first two are archeology and language; the other is DNA. Let’s first discuss DNA.


We didn’t really start to study DNA until very recently, basically the 21st century. For example, much of the text that I read from the 20th century emphasizes that the Koreans must have come northeast Asia, based on our language and archeology.

But recent DNA evidence adds a new level of complexity to the story of prehistoric Koreans descending from northeast Asia. Based on our DNA, it seems we have just as much lineage from southern China. Whether this DNA pre-dates that of our northeast DNA is unclear. We will definitely know more in the future.

Is this important? I think so. For example, the ability for Tibetans to breathe more easily in high altitude, scientists say, come from those very denisovan genes that we’re talking about. Wow! Science is amazing.


One way to piece together prehistory is to study language. Before the advent of DNA sequencing, language was a really important tool for studying prehistory. One important reason is that language pre-dates writing. Even though these ancient people probably didn’t have a written language, they surely had a verbal one, as we surmise that prehistoric humans had language as early as 70,000 years ago. These verbal languages could be found in writings after the fact, and even in the modern day language of the people. 

In the 20th century, researchers believed the following (i quote from Sohn, History of Korea):

Linguistically Korean is an agglutinative, Polysyllabic language of complete and symmetrical development. It is attributed to the Altaic language family. 

The “Altaic” umbrella has been discredited; this was apparently a thesis to unite Tungusic (siberian and manchurian), Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Turkik languages.

If you read enough historical texts you’ll see that word a lot: Altaic, which refers to the Altai Mountain Range dead center of Asia, which spans Xinjiang, China; Mongolia and Kazakhstan. There’s generally consensus that Japan and Korean should not be included in this language group, and furthermore, there’s research that the other languages in this group don’t really belong with each other, either.

“When cognates proved not to be valid, Altaic was abandoned, and the received view now is that Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic are unrelated.” Johanna Nichols, Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time (1992, Chicago), pg. 4.]

So cognates are words that share a common etymology, and may span languages.

There’s another term that you’ll see a lot, “Tungusic”, and here’s the wikipedia entry on it:

The term “Tungusic” is from an exonym for the Evenk people used by the Yakuts (“tongus”) and the Siberian Tatars in the 17th century meaning “pig”. It was borrowed into Russian as “тунгус”, and ultimately into English as “Tungus”. It became a broad term for speakers of the whole family, “Tungusic”. Use of “Tungus” is now discouraged; the Russian government now uses the endonym “Evenks” officially.

Yikes! So it may have quite a derogatory origin, at least in this context.

From seth:

Korean shares a grammatical structure with Japanese and the Altaic languages. All are agglutinative, that is, one adds components to a root to form words that are often long. This linguistic relationship, if accurate, is often interpreted as meaning that the ancient ancestors of modern Koreans came from Central Asia and entered the peninsula through Manchuria, with some of them going on to occupy the Japanese archipelago. According to one current theory, the ancestral Koreans spoke Proto-Altaic, one branch of which evolved into the Tungusic languages and another into Proto-Korean-Japanese, which eventually became the modern Korean and Japanese languages.1

  1. Gari Ledyard, “How the Linguist’s Tail Wags the Historian’s Dog: Prob- lems on the Study of Korean Origin,” Korean Studies Forum 5 (Winter–Spring 1978–1979): 80–88; for an example of linguistic evidence used to explain the origin of the Korean peoples, see Roy Andrew Miller, “Linguistic Evidence and Japanese Prehistory,” in Windows on Prehistoric Japan, ed. Richard J. Pearson et al. (Ann Ar- bor: University of Michigan Press, 1986), 101–20.

Let’s just unpack that for a bit. 

Let’s talk about the term “agglutinative”. Basically that means a language that takes a root form and adds a bunch of affixes (prefixes and suffixes) in order to convey all types of different meanings. Here’s an easy example: so in Korean, if I say you speak English well, you say  영어 잘 하십니다. The root word here is 하다, or “to do”. If I say, 영어 너무 잘 하시네요!, the 네요 is an agglutination in which I’ve added the suffix to the verb 하다 to have a whole new connotation, in this case, you’re relating, in an intimate way, that you are surprised that they speak well, that you were not expecting them to speak well. In English, we convey this by adding an adjective or adverb, as in:, “You speak English surprisingly well!”

Because these kinds of language characteristics are shared with languages from Siberia, manchuria and northeast china, we surmised that these early pottery makers came from that region, because there seems to be more rich findings of evidence in that region, and the general finding is that early sapiens in Asia seems  to have come from that region. 


We talked about DNA and Language as a way of piecing together prehistory; the third way is archeology, and in the case of Korea, it relates strongly to pottery. So let’s end there. We’ve gotten right to the beginning of our discussion of human civilization on the Korean peninsula. Because when we start to study the bits of pottery evidence in Korea, we finally get a picture of the people who lived there so long ago.



Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Book by Jared Diamond

The Peopling of Korea Revealed by Analyses of Mitochondrial DNA and Y-Chromosomal Markers




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! https://www.sciencetimes.co.kr/?news=%EC%9A%B0%EB%A6%AC-%EC%A1%B0%EC%83%81%EB%93%A4-%EA%B2%8C%EB%86%88%EC%97%90-%EB%8D%B0%EB%8B%88%EC%86%8C%EB%B0%94%EC%9D%B8-%ED%94%BC-%EB%91%90-%EC%B0%A8%EB%A1%80-%EC%84%9E%EC%98%80%EB%8B%A4


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

The Paleolithic Periods in Korea


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





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