Archaeological evidence indicates that the Korean Peninsula
was inhabited by lower Paleolithic people at least as early as 500,000 B.C.
Many archaeological sites, mostly located along rivers, have been excavated. The
most famous are Sokchang-ri in Ch'ung-ch'ongnam-do
province and Chon-gok-ri in Kyonggi-do
province. Various stone tools, including hand-axes and chopper-scrapers, have
been found at these sites, leading archaeologists to believe that their
inhabitants engaged in hunting and fishing. These people are thought to have
dwelt in caves, as the bones of many extinct animals and relics of their daily
life have been unearthed in such places. The supposed connection between these
Paleolithic peoples and today's Koreans is blurred at present by the lack of
sufficient archaeological excavations and anthropological evidence.
Scholars generally agree that the ancestors of today's Koreans
were late-comers of the Neolithic Period. According to anthropological and
linguistic studies, as well as legendary sources, Koreans trace their ethnic
origins to those who lived in and around the Altaic mountains in Central Asia.
Several thousand years ago, these people began to migrate eastward until they
finally settled in an area that included Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula.
When these migrants entered the Korean Peninsula around the
third millennium B.C., they were confronted by natives called Paleoasians, who
were eventually driven into various areas outside the Korean Peninsula. The Ainu
of the northern tip of Japan, the natives of Sakhalin and the Eskimos of the
eastern coast of Siberia are all descendants of these Paleoasian tribes.
Archaeological studies have uncovered two different types of
pottery of this period, which raises the possibility that the inhabitants of the
Korean Peninsula belonged to two very different cultural eras. For example, two
distinctly different kinds of pottery have been discovered: the comb pattern
pottery of a Neolithic Age people and the plain pottery of a Bronze Age people.
The patterned pottery, believed to be the product of a food-gathering, hunting
and fishing people, has been discovered near riverbanks and along the seashore,
while the plain pottery, believed to have come from a food-producing people, has
been unearthed mostly in the hilly regions of the country. Although these two
peoples appear to have possessed different technologies, they shared the same
culture, distinct from the Han Chinese.
As noted, most of the natives were subsequently driven north
to Sakhalin, Kamchatka, and to the Arctic region by these newcomers, while a few
were assimilated. Some of the migrants continued to move and eventually reached
the southwestern shores of Japan. As a result, cultural similarities, such as
belief systems (for example, shamanism, myths and customs) as well as shared
physical traits among the ancient Koreans, Japanese and Siberian Eskimos still
Agriculture was introduced during the Bronze Age, which began
around the 15th century B.C. Increased food production and population growth led
to social differentiation based on an unequal access to economic resources on
one hand, and clan or kin group formations on the other. Tribal societies of
various sizes were established on the basis of clan relations, with some
established chiefdoms and mini-states competing with each other. At the same
time, people continued to migrate to Japan. Possessing more advanced
civilization and culture, these migrants enjoyed a ruling class status and even
established their own small mini-states. The southwestern part of Japan, in
particular, offered easy access to culture from the Korean Peninsula. This
region provides ample archaeological evidence of significant cultural and ethnic
relations with Korea. More archaeological study is required to draw an exact map
showing how widely Koreans were dispersed during this period. Based on Chinese
records and archaeological reports, however, it is assumed that they were living
not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in the vast areas of Manchuria and the
region along the lower Yellow River basin of the Shandong Peninsula in China.
Cultural contact with the Chinese also was significant. Around
the fourth century B.C., iron making was introduced through contacts with the
Chinese. Intertribal competition as well as interethnic contact with the Chinese
became more frequent. The numerous Korean mini-states and tribal groups banded
together into several leading states, to resist Chinese military expansion. A
strong sense of ethnic identity and cultural distinctiveness enabled them to
remain ethnically and culturally different from China.
As the ancient history of Korea shows, various small states
were composed of dialectal groups within the Altaic language family. During the
latter half of the 7th century, these early states were unified into the Shilla
Kingdom, a significant event because this political unity was to consolidate the
homogeneity of the Korean people who now began to speak one language and share
the same culture.
However, the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and the
whole of Manchuria, which had been the territory of another state called Koguryo,
came under the reign of a new state called Parhae, established by a refugee
group from the defeated Koguryo. This state was
highly heterogeneous both ethnically and culturally. The ruling class was
composed exclusively of Koreans, while the general public was made up of various
non-Korean local ethnic groups including the Manchurian Tungus. The ruling
Koreans failed to incorporate the non-Koreans, and as a result, their state was
challenged and gave way to the largest of the native ethnic groups. From that
time onward, Manchuria was inhabited by various groups of Tungusic people.
While there was a considerable mixing of races among the
various peoples in Manchuria, the inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula maintained
their ethnic identity with only minimal mixing with external groups. Although
cultural contacts were extensive between Korea and China from the early stages
of their history, ethnic assimilation did not occur. Koreans were (and still
are) highly conscious of ethnic differences and cultural distinctions, which
meant safeguarding their ethnic identity despite relations with China and Japan.
Koreans exported their own culture and transmitted Chinese culture to Japan from
ancient times, but they did not attempt to engage in any ethnic mixing with the
Japanese. Many ethnic groups in Manchuria lost most of their ethnic identity and
were even completely assimilated with dominant groups; Koreans, however, have
kept their ethnic identity and culture intact.
There are, at present, over 1 million Koreans residing in the
United States; over 600,000 currently reside in Japan. Approximately half a
million ethnic Koreans now live in Central Asia, while more than 2 million
Koreans reside in the vast areas of Manchuria. Despite their minority status in
their respective communities, however, Koreans abroad have maintained their
ethnic and cultural identity, using their own language as well as maintaining
their own traditional social institutions and lifestyles.
According to a 1995 Sports Indicators of Korea published by
Korea Sport Science Institute, the average height of a modern Korean, ages
25-29, is 172.5 centimeters for men and 158.8 centimeters for women. In terms of
height, this means that Korean males belong to the upper middle scale and Korean
females to the medium scale, compared to other Asian people. Their most
distinctive physical features are almond-shaped eyes, black hair and relatively
high cheek bones. It may also be noted that all Korean babies are born with blue
spots on the lower part of the back, which is also typical of Mongolians.
The population of the Republic of Korea as of 1997 was 45.9
million. The registered density of the country is 463 persons per square
kilometer. As of 1996 the population of North Korea was 22.4 million. Fast
population growth was once a serious social problem in the Republic, as in most
other developing nations. Due to successful family planning campaigns and
changing attitudes, however, population growth has been curbed remarkably in
recent years. The annual growth rate was 0.98 percent in 1997.
A notable trend in the population structure is that it is
getting increasingly older. The 1997 census revealed that 6.3 percent of the
total population was 65 years old or over. The number of people of productive
age, 15 or above, rose from 24.7 million in 1980 to 34.7 million in 1997.
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