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China Invented the Totem Pole

Besting the Native Americans by millennia, people in China were using totem poles nearly 4,000 years ago

12·14·2010

China Invented the Totem Pole

Besting the Native Americans by millennia, people in China were using totem poles nearly 4,000 years ago

12·14·2010

The Chinook American Indians may be famous for their totem poles, but they’ve got nothing on a mysterious ancient culture from western China.

These totem poles are quite different from any you’ve seen before. Rather than using wood, an ancient Chinese culture discovered at the Sichuan Province Sanxingdui archaeological site—which dates back to 2050 B.C.—carved startling bronze totem heads that scientists think were placed on wooden poles, making them easily the world’s oldest recorded totem poles.

Archaeologists believe that these totems, which often had carved gold masks placed on them, played an important ceremonial role in Sanxingdui culture. No one knows exactly what they were used for, but it seems likely that they represented the dead, perhaps even specific ancestors, and that the Sanxingdui people believed they could help and protect the living. The totems received ritualistic offerings, and their masks may also have been worn by human participants impersonating dead spirits and other supernatural beings during important rituals.

And that’s not all that was amazing about the Sanxingdui site.

Located along the banks of the JianRiver, the Sanxingdui civilization appeared sometime around 2050 B.C. This is contemporaneous with the Shang Dynasty, but there are no historical records of this civilization or its culture in the annals of Chinese history. Even more mysterious is that the Sanxingdui relics exhibit an artistic style that isn’t found anywhere else in China. Moreover, their creators were using a startlingly advanced method of bronze casting that made their bronze stronger than that of any other society in the same time period. The Sanxingdui people left us not only totemic bronze heads, but also the world’s oldest life-sized standing human statue.

Some researchers have theorized that totemic culture may have originated in Asia, perhaps with the Sanxingdui people or their ancestors, and spread from there to other parts of the world. Evidence of ancient totem poles can also be found in Korean and Himalayan cultures, as well as Eastern Europe, but none of these totems predate those of Sanxingdui.

Oddly, this amazing culture was very nearly completely lost. As it’s not recorded in written history, no one knew anything about it until a Sichuanfarmer accidentally unearthed a pile of jade relics while he was digging a well. For decades, archaeologists searched the area but were unable to find anything else, until 1986 when a group of workers stumbled upon sacrificial pits containing thousands of artifacts. Subsequent research and excavation revealed that there was a small city at Sanxingdui, complete with canals, timber-framed adobe structures, and earthen city walls that were nearly 10 meters high. And, of course, the totem poles.

So, did the Native Americans get their idea for totem poles from the ancient Chinese? Probably not. True totems, like those found at Sanxingdui, are ritualized protectors of a group of people. But North American “totem” poles were built to communicate information: stories, the lineage of the tribe’s chieftain, etc. Technically speaking, they aren’t really totemic!