It is generally surmised that Paleolithic man began to inhabit the Korean Peninsula about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, although it has yet to be confirmed if they were the ethnic ancestors of present-day Koreans.
Some Paleolithic men lived in caves, while others built structures on level ground. They lived on fruit and edible roots and by hunting and fishing.
Neolithic man appeared in Korea around 4000 B.C., with signs of their active presence around 3000 B.C. being found across the peninsula. It is believed that the Neolithic people formed the ethnic stock of the Korean people. Neolithic people dwelled near the seashore and riverbanks before advancing into inland areas. The sea was their main source of food. They used nets, hooks and fishing lines to catch fish and gather shellfish. Hunting was another way to procure food. Arrowheads and spear points have been found at Neolithic sites. Later, they began to engage in farming using stone hoes, sickles and millstones.
Rice cultivation started during the Bronze Age, generally thought to have lasted in Korea until around 400 B.C. People also lived in pits, while dolmen and stone cist tombs were used predominantly for burials during the period.
As agriculture became a principal activity, villages were formed and a ruling leader emerged along with supreme authority. Law became necessary to govern the communities. In Gojoseon (2333 B.C.-194 B.C.), a law code consisting of eight articles came into practice, but only three of the articles are known today. They are as follows: First, anybody who kills another shall immediately be killed. Second, those who injures another's body shall compensate in grain. Third, those who steals other's possessions shall become a slave of his victim.
Traditional Korean houses remained relatively unchanged from the Three Kingdoms period through the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Ondol, a unique Korean under-floor heating system, was first used in the north. Smoke and heat were channeled through flues built under the floor. In the warmer south, ondol was used together with wooden floors. The major materials of traditional houses were clay and wood. Giwa, or black-grooved tiles for roof, were made of earth, usually red clay. Today, the presidential mansion is called Cheong Wa Dae, or Blue House, after the blue tiles used for its roof.
In traditional Korea, the typical family was large with three or four generations usually living together. Because infant mortality was high and a big family was thought of as a blessing, having many children was desired.
However, the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the country in the 1960s and 1970s were accompanied by an effective birth control drive, and the average number of children in a family has been dramatically decreased to two or less in the 1980s.
Having a long Confucian tradition under which the eldest son takes over as head of the family, a preference for sons was prevalent in Korea. To tackle the problem of male preference, the government has completely rewritten family-related laws in a way that ensures equality for sons and daughters in terms of inheritance.
Industrialization of the country has made life more hectic and complicated. Young married couples have begun to separate from their extended families and start their own homes. Now almost all families are couple-centered nuclear families.
Korean names have almost invariably consisted of three Chinese characters that are pronounced with three Korean syllables. The family name comes first, while the remaining two characters form the given name.
However, this old tradition no longer remains intact. Of course, the majority still follow this tradition, but more and more people make their children's names in pure Korean words that cannot be written in Chinese characters.
But the family names remain unchanged in most cases. Changes are more varied for given names.
There are about 300 family names in Korea, but only a handful make up the vast majority of the population. Among the most common names are Kim, Lee, Pak or Park, An, Jang, Jo or Cho, Choe or Choi, Jong or Cheong, Han, Gang or Kang, Yu or Yoo and Yun or Yoon.
Korean women do not change their family name upon marriage. When Americans call a woman Mrs. Smith that means she is the wife of a man named Smith. In Korea, when a married woman says she is Mrs. Kim, it usually means that her surname at birth was Kim.
Some women call themselves by their husbands' family names but this is very rare. Koreans do not refer to others by their given names except among very close friends. Even among siblings, the younger ones are not supposed to address their elders by given names but rather eonni, meaning elder sister, or oppa, meaning elder brother.
In bygone days, festivals were lavish religious observances. It was during the Confederated Kingdoms period that harvest thanksgiving festivals began to be observed officially.
They included the yeonggo (spirit-invoking drums) of Buyeo, dongmaeng (worship of the founder) of Goguryeo, and mucheon (dance to Heaven) of Dongye. Usually, festivals were conducted in the tenth month, according to the lunar calendar, after harvests were over, with the exception of yeonggo on the 12th month.
The tradition of enjoying the autumnal harvest and greeting the new year in merriment continued through the later kingdoms and dynasties, although each kingdom had its addition and deletion of holidays. Due to the hectic pace of life today, modern Korea has lost many of its traditional holidays.
But a few holidays are still celebrated fervently. One such day is Seol, the first day of a year by the lunar calendar, which falls sometime in late January to late February by the Western calendar. The entire family gathers on that day.
Dressed mostly in hanbok or their best outfits, the family observes ancestral rites. After the ceremonies, the younger members make a traditional deep bow to their elders.
Other major holidays include Daeboreum, the first full moon of the year after Seol. During this holiday, farmers and fishermen pray for a bountiful harvest and catch, and ordinary households express yearning for a fortuitous year and the prevention of bad luck by preparing special dishes of seasonal vegetables.
On Dano, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, farmers took a day off from the field for joint festivities marking the completion of sowing, while women washed their hair in special water prepared by boiling iris with the hope of preventing misfortune. Dano was a major holiday in the old days, but interest has decreased except in a few provinces.
Chuseok, the autumnal full moon day that falls on the 15th day of the eighth month by the lunar calendar, is probably the most anticipated festive day for modern Koreans.