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Archaeologists Confirm Largest Ever Prehistoric Ancient City in China

Archaeologists Confirm Largest Ever Prehistoric Ancient City in China


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After nearly two years of large-scale archaeological surveying, exploration, and excavation, archaeologists have recently confirmed that the Shimao Ruins covers an area of over four square kilometres, making it the largest prehistoric city ruins in China. The discovery is of great significance for further investigating the origins of Chinese civilization.

The neolithic Shimao Ruins are located at the northern edge of Loess Plateau, more than twenty kilometres from the Yellow River in Shaanxi Province, and have been dated back to 2000 BC.

The ancient ruins were first discovered in 1976 and declared as a Protected Monument of National Cultural Heritage in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2011 that an systematic survey and excavation started on the site. Since then, the team of archaeologists have discovered fairly well-preserved stone city-walls, fortified gates that can close at their bases, turrets, an outer city wall and an inner bailey. Remains of palaces, houses, tombs, sacrificial altars and handicraft workshops are scattered around the site, and this year, archaeologists found the ruins of an enormous outer gate which was constructed using complex and advanced techniques.

"Defences built alongside the city walls were thought to date back to the Spring and Autumn periods of the eighth to fifth centuries BC. But this discovery has redefined that history," said Sun Zhouyong, a researcher at Shaanxi Archaeology and Research Institute.

The discovery of many important remains like the earliest preserved murals, partial jade ware and large quantities of pottery shards indicated that the Shimao site played an important core position in the Chinese northern cultural sphere.

Seventy to eighty skulls from young women have also been found. It is believed they were killed and subsequently buried in a mass grave here. "The skulls show signs of being hit and burned. This collective burial might also have something to do with the founding ceremony of the city," Sun said.

The Shimao city ruins will go down in history as one of the definitive archaeological finds of the century thus far in China. Its significance cannot be underestimated, as it redefines previous studies on the Chinese civilisation.


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    Gruesome Find: 100 Bodies Stuffed into Ancient House

    The remains of 97 human bodies have been found stuffed into a small 5,000-year-old house in a prehistoric village in northeast China, researchers report in two separate studies.

    The bodies of juveniles, young adults and middle-age adults were packed together in the house — smaller than a modern-day squash court — before it burnt down. Anthropologists who studied the remains say a "prehistoric disaster," possibly an epidemic of some sort, killed these people.

    The site, whose modern-day name is "Hamin Mangha," dates back to a time before writing was used in the area, when people lived in relatively small settlements, growing crops and hunting for food. The village contains the remains of pottery, grinding instruments, arrows and spearheads, providing information on their way of life. [In Photos: Remains of 'End of World' Epidemic Found in Ancient Egypt]

    "Hamin Mangha site is the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement site found to date in northeast China," a team of archaeologists wrote in a translated report published in the most recent edition of the journal Chinese Archaeology (the original report appeared in Chinese in the journal Kaogu). In one field season, between April and November 2011, the researchers found the foundations of 29 houses, most of which are simple one-room structures containing a hearth and doorway.

    The house with the bodies, dubbed "F40," was just 210 square feet (about 20 square meters). "On the floor, numerous human skeletons are disorderly scattered," the archaeologists wrote.

    Photos taken by the archaeologists convey the prehistoric scene better than words do. "The skeletons in the northwest are relatively complete, while those in the east often [have] only skulls, with limb bones scarcely remaining," the archaeologists wrote. "But in the south, limb bones were discovered in a mess, forming two or three layers."

    At some point the structure burnt down. The fire likely caused wooden beams of the roof to collapse, leaving parts of skulls and limb bones not only charred but also deformed in some way, the archaeologists wrote.

    The remains were never buried and were left behind for archaeologists to discover 5,000 years later.

    What happened?

    An anthropological team at Jilin University in China is studying the prehistoric remains, trying to determine what happened to these people. The team has published a second study, in Chinese, in the Jilin University Journal &ndash Social Sciences edition, on their finds. (A brief English-language summary of their results is available on the American Association of Physical Anthropologists website.)

    The Jilin team found that the people in that house died as the result of a "prehistoric disaster" that resulted in dead bodies being stuffed into the house.

    The dead came in faster than they could be buried. "The human bone accumulation in F40 was formed because ancient humans put remains into the house successively and stacked centrally," wrote team leaders Ya Wei Zhou and Hong Zhu in the study.

    The team found that about half of the individuals were between 19 and 35 years of age. No remains of older adults were found.

    The ages of the victims at Hamin Mangha are similar to those found in another prehistoric mass burial, which was previously unearthed in modern-day Miaozigou in northeast China, the researchers noted.

    "This similarity may indicate that the cause of the Hamin Mangha site was similar to that of the Miaozigou sites. That is, they both possibly relate to an outbreak of an acute infectious disease," wrote Zhou and Zhu.

    If it was a disease, it killed off people from all age groups quickly, leaving no time for survivors to properly bury the deceased. The scientists did not speculate as to what disease it may have been.

    The excavation was carried out by researchers from the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology of Jilin University.


    Here Are 11 Of The Oldest Cities Ever Built On Earth

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    When you think about the oldest settlements and cities on Earth, a few of us are aware of the fact that some of these cities date back to times before history was even written.

    Depending on the definition of a city, we can discuss a number of ancient settlements that could rightfully compete for the title of the oldest city on Earth.

    If we take a look what textbooks have to say, a city is usually defined as being a large populated urban center of commerce and administration, ruled by a system of laws, while regulated with means of sanitation.

    And while this may be a really basic definition of a city, other factors such as population, number of buildings, level of government, the presence of walls and fortification, and the density of buildings/population.

    In ancient times, a city was mostly described as an urban center of dense population, featuring a specific pattern of buildings.

    Professor M. E. Smith of Arizona State University writes in The Sage Encyclopedia of Urban Studies: The demographic definition, based on the concepts of Louis Wirth, identifies cities as large, dense settlements with social heterogeneity”.

    Based on the above definitions, I’ve gathered a list of 11 of the oldest cities erected on Earth.

    Damascus is arguably the oldest of them all

    Damascus is now the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic and is considered the countries largest city. Damascus has an extensive history and according to scholars, the early stages of the city date back to around 10,000 BC.

    The ancient city of Damascus was recognized as a significant cultural, commercial and administrative center for thousands of years.

    Jericho, nearly as old as Damascus

    The ruins of the city of Jericho

    According to reports, archaeologists have successfully excavated the ruins of as many as twenty successive settlements in Jericho, dating back more than 11,000 years. The city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth, and the first people settled there as early as 9,000 BC.

    Eridu—the oldest city on Earth, according to the Sumerian King List?

    We start off with Eridu, located in modern-day Iraq. This city was long considered the earliest city in southern Mesopotamia and is still today argued as being the oldest city in the world. Experts argue that Eridu could mean either mighty place of guidance place.

    It is mentioned in the Sumerian King List: “In Eridu, Alulim became king he ruled for 28800 years. Alalngar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridu fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira.”

    The ancient city of Eridu was considered the birthplace of humanity.

    According to the Sumerian King List Eridu was the first city in the World. The opening line reads,

    When kingship from heaven was lowered,
    the kingship was in Eridu.

    In Sumerian mythology, Eridu was said to be one of the five cities built before the Deluge occurred. The city is believed to have been founded in 5400 BC.

    Varanasi India—an ancient city founded by a God

    India is the birthplace of many incredible things. Rightfully, India holds one of the most incredible histories in the world. According to Hindu Legend, the ancient city of Varanasi is at least 5,000 years old and is considered one of the first cities to appear on Earth. Despite legends suggesting the city dates back more than 5,000 years, evidence of habitation goes back around 3,000 years.

    According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi was founded by the god Shiva.

    Byblos—From where the English word ‘Bible’ is derived from

    Byblos is considered by many authors cradle of many civilizations. This ancient city is considered the oldest of Phoenicia and is believed to have been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years, although signs of occupation date back even longer.

    The English word Bible is derived from Byblos, as the city was an important port where papyrus was exported from.

    The city was founded as Gebal by the Phoenicians, and its current name was given to the city by the Greeks.

    Uruk—the Legendary City of Gilgamesh

    Gilgamesh statue at Sydney University (Samantha/Flickr/Creative Commons)

    Uruk rightfully competes in the list as one of the oldest cities on Earth. Founded by the king Enmerkar, the Sumerian King List mentions a king of Eanna before him, the epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta relates that Enmerkar constructed the House of Heaven for the goddess Inanna in the Eanna District of Uruk.

    In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh builds the city wall around Uruk and is king of the city.

    Archeologists have discovered multiple cities of Uruk built atop each other in chronological order.

    • Uruk XVIII Eridu period (c 5000BC) the founding of Uruk
    • Uruk XVIII-XVI Late Ubaid period (4800–4200 BC)
    • Uruk XVI-X Early Uruk period (4000–3800 BC)
    • Uruk IX-VI Middle Uruk period (3800–3400 BC)
    • Uruk V-IV Late Uruk period (3400–3100 BC) The earliest monumental temples of Eanna District are built
    • Uruk III Jemdet Nasr period (3100–2900 BC) The 9 km city wall is built
    • Uruk II
    • Uruk I

    Aleppo—currently the second largest city in Syria

    The ancient City of Aleppo is a treasure-trove of history. The city has barely been excavated by experts since the modern city occupies its ancient city. According to reports, the ancient city of Aleppo was inhabited since around 5,000 BC, as excavations in Tallet Alsauda have shown.

    The ancient city was of great importance and evidence of that is that fact that Aleppo appears in historical records much earlier than Damascus.

    The first record of Aleppo comes from the third millennium BC, in the Ebla tablets when Aleppo was referred to as Ha-lam. Alexander the Great took over the city in 333 BC.

    Arbil—an ancient city a few have heard of

    Locally called Hawler by the Kurdish people, the ancient city of Arbil is the modern-day capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and is one of the largest cities in modern-day Iraq. According to archaeological evidence, human settlement at Arbil (aka Erbil) can be traced back to around 5,000 BC, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of the world. Erbil was an integral part of Assyria from around 2050 BC, becoming a relatively important city during the Old Assyrian Empire.

    Athens—the birthplace of Western civilization

    The ancient city of Athens is considered as being not only the birthplace of western civilization but the homeplace of philosophy and critical thinking.

    The city of Athens has been continuously inhabited for around 7,000 years while the oldest human occupation in the surrounding area dates back between the 11 th and 7 th millennium BC.

    Argos—home of the Pheidonian measures

    According to experts, the ancient city of Argos was inhabited continuously since at least 5,000 BC. In Greek Mythology, Argos was the son of Zeus. The city is famous for the introduction of measures that set the standards for an accepted system.

    The city has been cycling between village and city status for 7,000 years. According to scholars, the recorded history of the city begins in the latter 1st millennium BC.

    Interestingly, Argos is considered to be the origins of the ancient Macedonian royal Greek house of the Argead dynasty, whose most celebrated members were Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

    Crocodilopolis—yeah that’s a name and it is most likely the oldest city in ancient Egypt

    Crocodilopolis or if you wish Shedet, or more commonly Faiyum was founded around 4,000 BC.

    The ancient city was homeplace of the worship of the Crocodile God Sobek. The ancient city was established on the Nile river, located southwest of Memphis.


    Archaeologists To Study Shackled Skeletons From Ancient Greece To Understand Rise Of Athens

    Not even four miles south of Athens lies Phaleron -- a site unknown to most tourists. A port of Athens in classical times, Phaleron also boasts one of the largest cemeteries ever excavated in Greece, containing more than 1,500 skeletons. Dating to the 8th-5th centuries BC, Phaleron is significant for our understanding of the rise of the Greek city-state. And, in particular, for understanding the violence and subjugation that went with it. Two mass burials at Phaleron include people who were tossed face-down into a pit, their hands shackled behind their backs. To learn more about these deviant burials and their relationship to Greek state formation, an international team of archaeologists is cleaning, recording, and analyzing the Phaleron skeletons.

    Burial in an 8th-5th century BC cemetery at Phaleron, Greece. The burial preserves metal shackles at . [+] the wrists, a deviant form of burial. (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    Mass burial of 12 individuals with their hands tied at their backs, from 8th-5th c BC Phaleron, . [+] Greece. (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    Excavation at the site began nearly a century ago, with a mass grave – often referred to as containing the “captives of Phaleron” because of the presence of metal handcuffs – excavated by the Greek Archaeological Service. But large-scale excavation of almost an acre of Phaleron was carried out between 2012-2016 by the Department of Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, led by archaeologist Stella Chrysoulaki. The modern excavation garnered massive publicity in Greece because of its scale and funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, but little news has trickled out in the English-language media.

    Archaeological excavation was careful and detailed, with conservators on site and with several skeletons removed in blocks for future micro-excavation. Digitization of the archaeological field records, photographs, and maps is done, but this is just the beginning for the skeletons themselves, whose preservation and analysis has to be done by specialists in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology.

    Graves from the cemetery at Phaleron, Greece. Inhumations in large jars and skeletons buried in the . [+] sand. (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    Individual buried in a wooden boat, from the ancient Phaleron cemetery. (Image used with kind . [+] permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    There is significant variation in how people were buried at Phaleron. Most were interred in simple pit graves, but nearly one-third are infants and children in large jars, about 5% are cremations complete with funeral pyres, and there are a few stone-lined cist graves. One individual was even buried in a wooden boat used as a coffin – the fact that this lasted nearly three millennia shows that preservation at the site is remarkably good. The shackled skeletons, easily the most compelling remains from Phaleron, have received researchers’ attention for decades, as they are among the very few instances of shackled deaths in the ancient world and could indicate punishment, slavery, or a death sentence. But study of these “captives” has to take place within the context of the entire cemetery, and analyzing 1,500 skeletons is a massive task.

    Taking the lead on the Phaleron Bioarchaeological Project are bioarchaeologist Jane Buikstra, founding director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research at Arizona State University, and geoarchaeologist Panagiotis Karkanas, director of the Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Their immediate goal for the skeletons showcases the crucial link between excavation of human skeletons and analysis: curation.

    Dr. Jane Buikstra and Dr. Panagiotis Karkanas examine a burial removed using a block technique. The . [+] burial is stored inside a climate-controlled facility. (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    Before the 1,500 skeletons can be made available for researchers to study, each set of remains needs to be cleaned, the bones inventoried, their age-at-death and sex estimated, and basic pathologies recorded. Setting up a database of this magnitude takes time and effort, as does correlating the skeletons with their archaeological context, and it takes significant funding too. That’s where the bottleneck is at the moment. Buikstra has a grant for approximately half the funds for curation of the skeletons but needs a match for the project to move forward.

    In the long-term, though, Buikstra is sure that the Phaleron skeletons will give us a window into a critical time in ancient Greek history, just before the rise of the city-state. The research team has four main objectives following conservation of the skeletons:

    Cranium from the 8th-5th c BC cemetery at Phaleron, ready for micro-excavation and conservation. . [+] (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    1) To thoroughly investigate the shackled and other deviant burials, including the individuals tossed into mass graves. Are they a casualty of the political upheaval that preceded the rise of Athenian democracy?

    2) To study the burials of children, made primarily in pots, to learn more about infancy and childhood in the ancient world. Since children don’t often make it into the historical record, studying their skeletons helps reveal their brief lives.

    3) To learn more about people’s diet at this ancient port city, and to find out if its inhabitants succumbed to diseases easily passed through sailors and other travelers from distant lands.

    4) To go beyond the analysis of elite individuals buried with elaborate grave goods by focusing on the more simple burials, to shed light on all social classes of ancient Athens.

    Example of a prone burial from 8th-5th c BC Phaleron. The prone position and limb disorder indicate . [+] some sort of deviant burial. (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    Overview of part of the Phaleron cemetery, showing the diversity of burial practices in the 8th-5th . [+] c BC. (Image used with kind permission of the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece.)

    Buikstra and her team plan to make the project accessible through a website sponsored by the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece, and the ASCSA. This website will also include summary blog posts, photos, and preliminary results. Public talks around the U.S. are planned, as well as Wiener Laboratory open-house, school, and museum events in Athens.

    Making the database available to researchers around the world is also part of Buikstra's plan. This will allow bioarchaeologists to use cutting-edge analytical methods, such as ancient DNA and isotope chemistry, in order to tell the important stories of the people of ancient Phaleron.


    This Giant Ancient Underground City may be the largest in the world

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    Dating back at least 5,000 years and located in the area beneath Fort Nevşehir, a Byzantine-era hilltop castle in Nevşehir, the mysterious underground city has proven to be one of the most shocking discoveries in recent years in the Cappadocia region where this, and other underground cities are located.

    Near the region commonly referred to as “The Cradle of Civilization” we find ancient cities and structures that defy everything we know about human history and chronology since some of these structures should not exist according to mainstream scholars.

    We aren’t talking about the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu which is located in the same region, this gigantic underground city could prove to be one of the largest (if not the largest) ancient underground cities ever discovered on our planet. Some researchers refer to it as the greatest archaeological finding in the century.

    This underground city was found by chance during a dig performed by construction workers who were preparing a new section of the city. Since the discovery, archaeologists have found over 50 historical artifacts in the underground city and most of them have already been persevered. This huge city remains largely unexplored but according to early studies, the size and features could very well rival those of the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu, which is one of the largest excavated underground cities in the region.

    Just like Derinkuyu, this giant underground metropolis is believed to have been a large, self-sustaining complex with many air shafts and water channels that allowed this giant underground complex to be fully autonomous. While no one knows why ancient Cappadocians built these underground cities, many scholars believe that these could have been used as safe-spots when danger loomed on the surface. The Cappadocians would retreat underground and seal themselves off with huge circular stones.

    According to reports from National Geographic, this ancient multilevel settlement is likely to include living spaces, kitchens, wineries, chapels, and staircases.

    A group of Geophysicists from the Nevşehir University conducted a systematic survey of a 4-kilometer area using geophysical resistivity and seismic tomography which showed incredible results. Out of the 33 independent measurements they took, they estimate that this ancient underground city is nearly five million square feet (460,000 square meters) plunging as deep as 113 meters, which would make it the largest underground city ever discovered, larger than Derinkuyu by a third. The exact size of the ancient city remains a mystery and some researchers estimate that this ancient city could go even deeper than previous estimates. The original builders of this and other ancient cities of the region remains a mystery.

    One of the greatest mysteries regarding this ancient underground city is how ancient people managed to build such a vast underground city 5,000 years ago. Cappadocia or ‘Kapadokya’ means the land of the beautiful horses in Turkish.

    Featured image: Derinkuyu underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey. Source: BigStockPhoto


    Does Chinese Civilization Come From Ancient Egypt?

    On a cool Sunday evening in March, a geochemist named Sun Weidong gave a public lecture to an audience of laymen, students, and professors at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, the capital city of the landlocked province of Anhui in eastern China. But the professor didn’t just talk about geochemistry. He also cited several ancient Chinese classics, at one point quoting historian Sima Qian’s description of the topography of the Xia empire — traditionally regarded as China’s founding dynasty, dating from 2070 to 1600 B.C. “Northwards the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers,” wrote Sima Qian in his first century historiography, the Records of the Grand Historian . “Reunited, it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea.”

    In other words, “the stream” in question wasn’t China’s famed Yellow River, which flows from west to east. “There is only one major river in the world which flows northwards. Which one is it?” the professor asked. “The Nile,” someone replied. Sun then showed a map of the famed Egyptian river and its delta — with nine of its distributaries flowing into the Mediterranean. This author, a researcher at the same institute, watched as audience members broke into smiles and murmurs, intrigued that these ancient Chinese texts seemed to better agree with the geography of Egypt than that of China.

    In the past year, Sun, a highly decorated scientist, has ignited a passionate online debate with claims that the founders of Chinese civilization were not in any sense Chinese but actually migrants from Egypt. He conceived of this connection in the 1990s while performing radiometric dating of ancient Chinese bronzes to his surprise, their chemical composition more closely resembled those of ancient Egyptian bronzes than native Chinese ores. Both Sun’s ideas and the controversy surrounding them flow out of a much older tradition of nationalist archaeology in China, which for more than a century has sought to answer a basic scientific question that has always been heavily politicized: Where do the Chinese people come from?

    Sun argues that China’s Bronze Age technology, widely thought by scholars to have first entered the northwest of the country through the prehistoric Silk Road, actually came by sea. According to him, its bearers were the Hyksos, the Western Asian people who ruled parts of northern Egypt as foreigners between the 17th and 16th centuries B.C., until their eventual expulsion. He notes that the Hyksos possessed at an earlier date almost all the same remarkable technology — bronze metallurgy, chariots, literacy, domesticated plants and animals — that archaeologists discovered at the ancient city of Yin, the capital of China’s second dynasty, the Shang, between 1300 and 1046 B.C. Since the Hyksos are known to have developed ships for war and trade that enabled them to sail the Red and Mediterranean seas, Sun speculates that a small population escaped their collapsing dynasty using seafaring technology that eventually brought them and their Bronze Age culture to the coast of China.

    Pit of oracle bones in Anyang, China. Photo credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

    Sun’s thesis proved controversial when the Chinese travel site Kooniao first posted it online in the form of a 93,000-character essay in September 2015. As the liberal magazine Caixin commented, “His courageous title and plain language attracted the interest of more than a few readers.” That title was Explosive Archaeological Discovery: The Ancestors of the Chinese People Came from Egypt, and the essay was reproduced and discussed online, on internet portals such as Sohu and popular message boards such as Zhihu and Tiexue. Kooniao also set up a widely read page dedicated to the subject on the microblogging platform Weibo — hashtagged “Chinese People Come From Egypt” — which contains a useful sample of responses from the public. Some of these simply express outrage, often to the point of incoherence: “That expert’s absurd theory randomly accepts anyone as his forebears,” fumed one. “This is people’s deep inferiority complex at work!” Another asked, “How can the children of the Yellow Emperor have run over to Egypt? This topic is really too pathetic. The important thing is to live in the moment!”

    Other commentators have been more thoughtful. If they are not fully convinced, they are at least willing to entertain Sun’s ideas. In fact, a rough count of comments from the intellectually curious outnumbers those of the purely reactionary by about 3-to-2. As one user wrote, “I approve. One has to look intelligently at this theory. Whether it turns to be true or false, it is worth investigating.” Another wrote, “The world is such a big place that one finds many strange things in it. One can’t say it is impossible.” One more wrote, “One can’t just sweepingly dismiss it as wrong or curse out the evidence as false. Exchanges between cultures can be very deep and distant.”

    Anticipating his critics, Sun wrote online that to examine anew the origins of Chinese civilization “may appear ridiculous in the eyes of some, because historians long ago stated clearly: We are the children of the Yan and Yellow Emperor.” Historian Sima Qian took these legendary figures as the progenitor of the Han Chinese and the Yellow Emperor’s great-grandson, Yu the Great, as the founder of the semimythical Xia dynasty. These served as the origin stories for imperial China and continued to be credited for decades after the Republic replaced it in 1912, so that even the nation’s most iconoclastic and rebellious sons — Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek, and People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong among them — have at some time or other felt the need to pay their respects at the Yellow Emperor’s tomb. Even now, the oft-repeated claim that Chinese civilization is approximately 5,000 years old takes as its starting point the supposed reign of this legendary emperor.

    Unbeknownst to many, an anti-Qing Dynasty agitator was the first to publish (under a pseudonym) this claim for the nation’s antiquity in 1903. As his nationalist ideology had it, “If we desire to preserve the survival of the Han Nation, then it is imperative that we venerate the Yellow Emperor.” At that time, the Qing dynasty was in serious decline, its obvious backwardness compared with Western powers the cause of much soul-searching. Anti-Qing intellectuals began to examine critically the roots of Chinese civilization and, for the first time, seized on the idea that they lay in the West. The work that most captured their imagination was that of the French philologist, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, who in 1892 published the Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilization from 2300 B.C. to 200 A.D. Translated into Chinese in 1903, it compared the hexagrams of the Book of Changes with the cuneiform of Mesopotamia and proposed that Chinese civilization originated in Babylon. The Yellow Emperor was identified with a King Nakhunte, who supposedly led his people out of the Middle East and into the Central Plain of the Yellow River Valley around 2300 B.C.

    Sun Yat-Sen in Guangzhou, 1924. Photo credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

    Liu Shipei, the Peking University history professor and true author behind the pseudonymous chronology of the Yellow Emperor, was among the first to promote Sino-Babylonianism in books such as his 1903 History of the Chinese Nation. By 1915, the theory was widespread enough that the national anthem of the republic, commissioned by President Yuan Shikai referred to it obliquely, calling China “the famous descendant from Kunlun Peak,” which Chinese mythology locates in the far, far West. Another endorsement came from Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China, who stated in his 1924 Three Principles of the People lectures that the “growth of Chinese civilization may … be explained by the fact that the settlers who migrated from another place to this valley already possessed a very high civilization.”

    To these and other revolutionaries, Sino-babylonianism was not only the latest European scientific opinion. It was the hope that since China shared the same ancestry as other great civilizations, there was no ultimate reason why it should not catch up with more advanced nations in Europe and America.

    Sino-Babylonianism fell out of favor in China during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Japanese aggression escalated and a different nationalist politics took hold. Chinese historians, seeking to distance China from imperialist powers, cast a critical eye on Western origin theories and their earlier supporters. At around the same time, modern scientific archaeology was debuting in China. The discovery of Neolithic pottery in Longshan, Shandong, in 1928 showed that eastern China had been inhabited by indigenous groups before the Bronze Age migration Lacouperie had posited. In the same year, excavation of the city of Yin began. On account of the excellence of the Yin-Shang’s material culture — its famous oracle bones, for example, whose writing is the ancestor of the modern Chinese script used today — that polity is often considered the “root of Chinese civilization,” situated well within China’s borders, in present-day Anyang, Henan.

    In the end, Western origin theories were replaced by what sounds like a compromise: a dual-origin theory of Chinese civilization. The view proposed that Eastern Neolithic culture moving West encountered Western Neolithic culture moving East, fusing to form the progenitors of the Shang. It held steady until the 1950s.

    But Chinese archeology took a radical swing toward more extreme nationalism after the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, when, in the words of the historian James Leibold, “China’s scientific community closed inward on itself.” Nationalism and authoritarianism required the interpretation of archaeological evidence as proof that Chinese civilization had arisen natively, without outside influences. As the Sichuan University archaeologist — and eventual dissident — Tong Enzheng wrote in his fascinating account of the politicization of scholarship between 1949 and 1979: “Mao Zedong implemented a comprehensive anti-Western policy after 1949,” which expanded “already extant anti-imperialism … ultimately becoming total anti-foreignism. Unavoidably, Chinese archaeology was affected.”

    Maoism also required a belief that Chinese civilization had developed in accordance with “objective” Marxist historical laws, from a primitive band to a socialist society. Mao-era archaeologists thus strove to use their findings to prove these laws, legitimizing the status quo. As Xia Nai, the director of the Institute of Archaeology himself, wrote in a 1972 paper, “We archaeologists must follow the guide of Marxism, Leninism, and the thought of Mao Zedong, conscientiously fulfilling the great guiding principle of Chairman Mao, to ‘make the past serve the present.’” It’s no surprise then that during the Cultural Revolution meetings were convened under such absurd headings as “Using the Antiquities Stored in the Temple of Confucius in Qufu County to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius.” Meanwhile, revolutionary sloganeering found its way into scientific publications alongside the data.

    Left: Oracle shell with inscriptions. Photo credit: Chabot Space and Science Center/Wikimedia Commons. Right: The Yellow Emperor. Photo credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

    Blatant ideological bias faded from scientific endeavors in the post-1978 reform era, but the ultimate goal of Chinese archaeology — to piece out the nation’s history — remained. The best-known example from that era is the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, directly inspired by the achievements of Egyptian archaeology. State Councilor Song Jian toured Egypt in 1995 and was particularly impressed by a genealogy of the pharaohs that went back to the third millennium B.C. This prompted him to campaign for a project — included in the government’s ninth five-year plan — that would give Chinese dynasties a comparable record. Mobilizing over 200 experts on a budget of around $1.5 million over five years, the Chronology Project has been considered the largest state-sponsored project in the humanities since 1773, when the Qianlong emperor commissioned the Siku quanshu, an encyclopedia roughly 20 times the length of the Britannica.

    Some questioned the Chronology Project’s motives. One of the most prominent detractors was University of Chicago historian Edward L. Shaughnessy, who complained, “There’s a chauvinistic desire to push the historical record back into the third millennium B.C., putting China on a par with Egypt. It’s much more a political and a nationalistic urge than a scholarly one.” Others criticized the project’s methods and results. The Stanford archaeologist Li Liu, for instance, took issue with the fact that it regarded the Xia as historical and fixed dates for it, when there is still no conclusive archaeological evidence for its existence.

    But the project also had defenders, including Harvard anthropologist Yun Kuen Lee, who pointed out that “the intrinsic relationship between the study of the past and nationalism does not necessarily imply that the study of the past is inherently corrupted.” The usefulness of archaeology in bolstering a nation’s pride and legitimacy — explaining and, to some extent, justifying its language, culture, and territorial claims — means that most archaeological traditions have a nationalistic impulse behind them. Thus, in Israel, archaeology focuses on the period of the Old Testament in the Scandinavian countries, it focuses on that of the Vikings. “The important question that we should ask,” Yun went on to say, “is if the scientists of the project were able to maintain scientific rigor.”

    In some ways, Sun’s current theory is an unintended result of the Chronology Project’s scientific rigor. At the project’s launch in 1996, he was a Ph.D. student in the radiation laboratory of the University of Science and Technology. Of the 200 or so items of bronze ware he was responsible for analyzing, some came from the city of Yin. He found that the radioactivity of these Yin-Shang bronzes had almost exactly the same characteristics as that of ancient Egyptian bronzes, suggesting that their ores all came from the same source: African mines.

    Perhaps anticipating serious controversy, Sun’s doctoral supervisor did not allow Sun to report his findings at the time. Sun was asked to hand over his data and switched to another project. Twenty years after the start of his research and now a professor in his own right, Sun is finally ready to say all he knows about the Yin-Shang and China’s Bronze Age culture.

    Although the public has mostly received Sun’s theory with an open mind, it still lies outside the academic mainstream. Since the 1990s, most Chinese archaeologists have accepted that much of the nation’s Bronze Age technology came from regions outside of China. But it is not thought to have arrived directly from the Middle East in the course of an epic migration. The more prosaic consensus is that it was transmitted into China from Central Asia by a slow process of cultural exchange (trade, tribute, dowry) across the northern frontier, mediated by Eurasian steppe pastoralists who had contacts with indigenous groups in both regions.

    Despite this, the fascination with ancient Egypt appears unlikely to go away soon. As the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology project demonstrated, the sentiment has deep, politically tinged roots. These were on display again during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Egypt in January to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. On arrival, Xi greeted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with an Egyptian proverb: “Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return.” They celebrated the antiquity of their two civilizations with a joint visit to the Luxor temple.

    It remains to be seen whether Sun’s evidence will be incorporated into mainstream politics to prove a long-standing Sino-Egyptian cultural relationship. But if it is, the proverb Xi uttered after he set foot in Egypt will have been strangely prophetic.

    Top image: Xuan Yuan Inquires of the Dao, scroll, color on silk. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum in Taibei/Wikimedia Commons.


    300-Foot-Wide Ancient Altar Excavated in China

    Found in China's far northwest, the ruins suggest the cultural link between region's east and west was strong even before the Silk Road.

    Sun-Worshippers Built This Massive Altar 3,000 Years Ago

    In a remote corner of northwest China, a recently excavated 3,000-year-old sun altar offers clues to how the region's tribal cultures practiced religion thousands of years ago.

    The ruins were discovered in 1993, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, but were not excavated until last year. Archaeologists can now confirm their initial suspicions that the site was used as a sun altar during the Bronze Age.

    Nomads once dominated this grassland region, which sits in between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. While similar sun altars had been previously found in the east, the complex in Xinjiang is unique to the region.

    The altar itself is comprised of three layered circles of stone. The outer diameter of the largest circle is just over 328 feet long, and archaeologists believe this suggests people and horses would have been used to haul the stones from miles away.

    Archaeologists believe the find is significant because it suggests a strong cultural link between nomadic regions and ancient Chinese ruling dynasties.

    "This proves that central plain culture had already long reached the foot of Mount Tianshan, in the Bayanbulak Grassland, the choke point of the Silk Road," said Liu Chuanming, one of the archaeologists studying the ruins, in CCTV video.

    The Silk Road rose to prominence roughly 100 years before the first century during China's Han Dynasty, when it was established by Chinese diplomat Zhang Quian. The road, which lasted until the 15th century, famously spread trade, economy, and culture.

    Sun worship was a common practice among many cultures that existed during this period.

    "Since ancient times all civilizations on the continent of Eurasia used circle shapes to represent the sun. Mongolian yurts have the same structure as the altar," archaeologist Wu Xinhua commented in the video.

    The video shows the inside of a traditional Mongolian yurt. Wu explained that the ceiling's three tresses represent sky, light, and sun worship.

    He also noted the similarities to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, which is characterized by layered, circular floors. The Beijing temple is now regarded as belonging to the Taoist religion, however the time in which it was constructed suggests it was originally used for pre-Taoist heaven and sun worship.

    Heaven worship is considered one of China's oldest forms of religion, and mounds were frequently used for elaborate ceremonies and non-human sacrifices. The exact purpose of the sun altar in Xinjiang, however, has yet to be identified. Sun worship was also common among civilizations in Africa and Indo-European regions.

    Archaeologists will continue excavating the sun altar in Xinjiang in an effort to uncover more history of the ancient Silk Road.


    Tokyo: The world's largest city in 1968 AD

    Population: 20,500,000

    Present-day population: 32,450,000

    The economic toll of World War II continued to threaten Japan's economic future into the 1950s.

    But by 1968, Japan had reached an economic and population growth curve that has carried it into the 21st century.

    The years from 1950 through 1990 in Japan are referred to as the post-war economic miracle, the most prosperous time in Japan's history.

    The economic success was based on many factors, but perhaps most important was heavy US investment and a large measure of government intervention by the Japanese.

    This is an update of a post originally written by Robert Johnson and Gus Lubin.