[back] Pigs

Neolithic Shamans and Pigs

{Extracts from: Nelson, S. M. (2008), Shamanism and the origin of states. California, West Coast Press.}

 An unusual burial from the Early Neolithic Xinglongwa culture consisted of an adult male buried within a house with two whole, articulated adult pigs beside him. One of the pigs was male, the other female. These full-grown pigs together were nearly as long as the person they accompanied in death. It is possible that the buried person was a shaman accompanied by pigs representing spirit familiars. The pigs were unlikely to have been food for the afterlife in this context. Although they could have been buried as pets, this also seems an unlikely explanation for such a unique burial. The man was buried with 715 other grave offerings made of jade, bone, ceramic and shell.

The Hongshan culture, which succeeded Xinglongwa in the Late Neolithic, also was notable for pig ceremonialism which took several forms. The main burial at the site of Niuheliang had been plundered in antiquity, but it still contained pig and cattle bones. Pigs were sacrificed in Manchu rituals and are still important in Korean shamanism. A pig head or whole pig is often part of the rite. Animal bones were unusual as grave offerings in Hongshan sites. In fact, this is the only burial at Niuheliang from which animal bones are recorded. Sheep bones were found in a pit near the Goddess Temple, along with broken pots, suggesting a sheep feast dedicated to the spirits, making it necessary to dispose of the pots and bones in special pits.

Hongshan jades are the earliest figured jades in China, although jade earrings were found in the preceding Xinglongwa culture. They include many Zhulong, or pig-dragons, which feature a pig’s head attached to a curved body. The body is plain but the head has sculpted ears, large round eyes and tusks indicated by incising. These objects were perforated for suspension from a cord and were often found on the chest of the deceased. Another form also called Zhulong is larger than the typical one, has a thinner “body” and ends in the head of a horse with almond eyes and a long flowing mane. It is possible that both pigs and horses were spirit animals, or animal assistants to shamans. However Zhulong seem to be more generic than personal, since so many have been found. Each shaman has his or her own particular animal helper, while these “dragons” are made to a pattern that must have had a specific meaning. More likely they signalled rank, occupation, or other status – perhaps even different clans of Wu.

The jaw and trotters of a pig from the Goddess Temple at Niuheliang have already been mentioned. Pigs clearly figured in many rituals. Another possible indication of pig symbolism is a mountain visible from the Goddess Temple that has the outline of a pig head with upright pointed ears and a snout and is known locally as Zhushan – Pig Mountain. It seems likely that this was a sacred mountain, since it is also visible from most of the burial areas. The idea that it might be seen as a bear has been floated but that is unlikely because the shape of the ears is porcine rather than ursine, and there is no other indication of bears in the Hongshan iconography. Thus pigs seem to be important in the whole society, not just as a shaman’s familiar.

Pigs are frequently depicted in the Neolithic. At the Peiligang site, small realistic figures are found as far north as Heilongjiang province. Pigs represented wealth in later China and may have acquired that symbolic meaning quite early because they are an excellent source of food, reproduce prolifically, and are able to digest plant parts and waste that humans cannot, and therefore they do not compete with humans for food. Painted jars from Zhaobaogou, Nantaidi and Shaoshan depict “spirit” deer, pigs and dragons.