Anhui Province is located in the center, north to south, of eastern China, just west of the easternmost, or coastal, string of provinces. Starting with the coastal province of Shandong to the north of Anhui, and continuing in a clockwise manner, Anhui is bordered by Jiangsu and Zhejiang (both coastal provinces), Jiangxi, Hubei and Henan Provinces. Most of the area of Anhui Province is part of China's "cradle of [Han Chinese] civilization" region, the region of eastern China bordered by the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze River to the south, aka the Yellow River Valley.
The name "Anhui" derives from the names of two of the province's old southern cities located on, or south of, the Yangtze River, and whose culture belongs more to that of Hubei and southern Jiangsu Provinces (Anhui is characterized by three different cultures, as will be seen below): Anqing and Huizhou (note that each of these names is itself a composite word: An-qing and Hui-zhou, where qing means, among other things, the color blue (it also means "clear", or "transparent", which is why the Manchus chose that name for their Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, given the endemic corruption that had come to characterize the Ming (CE 1638-1644) Dynasty that the Qing replaced), while zhou means a political entity such as a prefecture or a state).
Before the province was established in the 17th century, during the Qing Dynasty, its territory belonged to a string of other administrative entities. Anhui also comprised three distinct cultures: the central to northern part belonged to the Yellow River Valley culture, to which Henan Province to the northeast belonged; most of the southern part belonged to the Hubei - southern Jiangsu culture; while the mountainous area to the southeast had its own distinct culture, the Huizhou Culture. Curiously, these three separate cultural influences were so deeply embedded in the three separate geographical localities that the rather recent, culturally speaking, 17th century establishment of Anhui Province as a unified political entity has not weakened them.
The area of present-day Anhui contains some of the oldest anthropological sites where prehistoric Chinese civilization was unearthed. Some 2.5 million years ago, during the Late Pliocene Epoch (the genus Homo arose during the end of the Pliocene), early prehistoric man (genus Homo) lived in the area of Fanchang along the southern banks of the Yangtze River, roughly midway between the present-day cities of Anqing (Anhui Province) and Nanjing (Jiangsu Province), but within present-day Anhui Province. About 75 kilometers, as the crow flies, farther to the north, and on the northern banks of the Yangtze River (and still within Anhui Province), is the Pleistocene Epoch site of Homo erectus pekingensis, or Peking Man, sometimes referred to as Sinanthropus pekingensis. Sinanthropus pekingensis is believed to have originated between 500-780 thousand years ago, during the Calabrian Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch.
There have been numerous finds, stemming from our present epoch, the Holocene Epoch, of Homo sapiens sapiens cultures in the area of present-day Anhui Province. They include the Yangshao (BCE 5000-3000) and the Longshan (BCE 3000-2000) Cultures. The use of pottery was common to these cultures, as the art of making pottery had begun around BCE 10,000. Other archaeological finds in the area include the more recent excavations at the Xuejiagang Site in Qianshan County, which comprises artifacts from China's earliest known (pre-Imperial) dynasties, the Xia (ca. BCE 2000-1500), the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) and the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasties. The Xuejiagang Site, discovered in 1977 and excavated extensively between 1979-2000, is one of the largest of its kind. It has yielded up 153 burial sites, the ashen remains of numerous fire pits, various pits filled with red-burned earth (presumably having to do with pottery-making), several earth mounds - some reddish-colored, and whose function, though not known, is presumed to be related to pottery or brick-making - a well, and over 1600 diverse artifacts. Some of the more primitive artifacts and other finds are believed to pre-date the Xia Dynasty.
The Xia Dynasty was organized as nine states (zhou), each ruled by a lord who was subordinate to the king, King Yu, one of which states occupied part of present-day Anhui Province (the seat of the Xia Dynasty was present-day Shanxi Province, which lies just south of Inner Mongolia, but the core area of the Xia Dynasty included the present-day provinces that surround Henan Province, which lies just south and east of Shanxi Province, and which included present-day Anhui Province).
During the Shang Dynasty, the present-day city of Bozhou, located on the Anhui side of the border between present-day Anhui and Henan Provinces, was at one time the capital city of the city-state of Chengtang. During the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, most of the fiefdoms in Anhui were organized under Wu State, which was conquered by Yue State during the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period, which, in turn, was conquered by Chu State, which thus acquired all of Anhui's territory. Anhui has historically been referred to as "Wu's head and Chu's feet", having begun as part of Wu and ending up as part of Chu. Also during the Warring States Period, the ancient city of Shouchun, located in the central part of the province (corresponding to the present-day Anhui city of Shou), was the capital of the Chu State. The Chu State would itself be conquered by the Qin State, which would go on to establish China's first-ever dynasty, the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty.
During the Qin and Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasties, Anhui was administered under several different commanderies, or military entities. During the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, Anhui was dominated by the Wei (CE 220-265) State and the Wu (CE 229-280) State, often finding itself the scene of a battlefield. During the Sui (CE 581-617) and the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasties, Anhui was partitioned into large prefectures. One of the area's greatest problem was that it was often subject to flooding, given the confluence of the many rivers (mainly the Yangtze and the Huai He), but was also subject to the occasional drought, which kept the area depressed, economically. It was first during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, when the area began to be populated by industrious Hui merchants (not to be confused with the Hui Muslim ethnic group*) that it began to thrive.
The area was under the greater jurisdiction of Henan Province during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty. During the subsequent Ming Dynasty, Anhui came under the direct administration of the then Ming Dynasty capital, Nanjing (now the capital of Jiangsu Province... the Hongwu Emperor, the first Ming Dynasty emperor, later moved his capital to Beijing, which had been the Yuan Dynasty capital, and would thereafter remain the capital of all subsequent Imperial dynasties). During this period, Anhui was divided into several smaller prefectures and lesser administrative entities, a sign that the area was at last achieving a degree of importance. It was in 1667, during the subsequent dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, that Anhui finally achieved the much prized provincial status.
* The Hui merchants created the justly famous Huizhou Culture of southeastern Anhui Province. Historians are not quite sure whether they are ordinary Han Chinese or a subculture within the Han Chinese culture, as they speak a slightly different variant of Chinese than the mainstream Han Chinese. The Huizhou Culture - or subculture, if this is the proper way to view it - remains something of an enigma.