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The ancestors of the Yi ethnic group can be traced back to the Qiang people living in northwest China. They later migrated south and joined the local southwest aboriginal and created a new group, the Yi ethnic group. The Yi people have their own language, which belongs to the Yi branch of the Zang-Mian Austronesian of Han-Zang Phylum. Yi characters, as the earliest syllabic script in China, were formed in the 13th century and are still used today. A number of works of history, literature and medicine as well as genealogies of the ruling families written in the old Yi script are still seen in most Yi areas.
Due to cultural and economic exchanges with the Han, more and more Yi people learn to use the Han language and characters in daily life. Most Yi people engage in agriculture and a small percentage of them raise livestock. People living in the plains take rice, maize, wheat and yams as their staple food while those in the frigid mountainous areas mostly depend on maize, buckwheat and yams. Complements to their main food source include vegetable, legume, fruits, pork, mutton and beef. Fierce warriors, the Yi evolved an aristocratic society. Even their slaves had slaves. They based their religion on the reading of sacred writings. The Yi are found mainly in the Yunnan Province and also in Sichuan, Guizhou Provinces and the Guangxi Autonomous Region. The Yi people in southern Yunnan live in two-story adobe houses. The kitchen and cattle shed are usually on the first floor, and the living room is on the second. The flat roof is used as a veranda. They are part of the Sino-Tibetan Tibeto-Burman ethno linguistic group.