Episode 23: Korea – Mysterious Beginnings
Foundations of Eastern CIvilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
In this lecture, Benjamin explores the effect of Korea’s geography and climate on its early development.
He credits Korea’s failure to be subsumed by its neighbor China to its rugged mountainous landscape. Seventy percent of Korea is covered in steep mountains, making navigation between the East and West coast extremely difficult. Moreover unlike the majority of modern nations, it remains heavily forested.
Located in the same temperate latitude as Denver, it’s the same size as Britain and Utah. Surrounded on three sides by water, it shares a border with both China and Russia. Although separated from Japan by the sea of Japan, the archipelago is visible from the east coast of Korea.
Blessed with rich mineral resources (mainly gold, copper, tin and iron), Korea was the world’s largest gold producer during the first half of the 20th century.
It has only one (extinct) volcano Baikdu, also it’s highest mountain, with a volcanic lake associated with early Korean deities.
Owing to the steep drop of its mountains along its coasts, it has no significant bays or harbors suitable to facilitate urban development. Its three main river systems (which gave rise to its major cities) are Taedong in the North (location of North Korea’s capitol Pyongyang) and the Han (location of South Korea’s capitol Seoul) and Kum in the South.
As in China, there is archeological evidence that pre-human hominids (Homo erectus) using hand axes, flake tools and fire also migrated from Africa to Korea 500,000 to 600,000 years ago. Owing to the wide land bridge connecting China, Korea and Japan before the last Ice Age ended (and sea levels rose), similar remains and tools are found in Japan.
Paleolithic* remains show early humans lived in extended families in small caves or small dwellings in simple villages. They foraged, fished and hunted deer, wild board and macaques.
The Neolithic period saw waves saw waves of migrants who crossed the Yellow Sea land bridge. They lived in small dwellings heated by a central hearth, used distinctive pots used to store food from domesticated plants and supplemented their diet by hunting (of dogs, cats, water buffalo, boor, deer, dolphins and whales).
Neolithic** Koreans were ritually buried with jewelry and masks suggesting they believed in an afterlife.
*The Paleolithic, aka the Old Stone Age, is a period in prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids 3.3 million years ago to around 10,000 BC.
**The Neolithic, aka the New Stone Age, refers to a period characterized by agriculture and fixed human settlement between 10,000 BC and around 3,300 BC when bronze tools were developed.
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