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Ancient ruined city discovered: Between human sacrifice and jade magic
The stones didn't just reveal their secrets. For decades, villagers in the dusty hills of the Chinese Loess Plateau believed that the crumbling cliffs near their homes were part of the Great Wall of China. Actually an obvious assumption: the remains of the old wall zigzag through this dry area on the Yellow River. The monumental structure once marked the limit of Chinese rule over 2,000 years ago.
Only one detail seems strangely out of place: locals and looters began to find pieces of jade in the rubble, some of which had been made into discs, blades and sceptres. Jade does not occur naturally in this northernmost part of Shaanxi Province - the nearest source is nearly 1,600 kilometers away - and was also not a known feature of the Great Wall of China. Why did the mineral appear in abundance in this barren region so close to the Ordos Desert?
Finally, a few years ago, a team of Chinese archaeologists came to investigate the mystery - and they discovered something wonderful and puzzling. The stones were not part of the Great Wall of China, but the ruins of a magnificent fortress city. The ongoing excavations have unearthed more than ten kilometers of protective walls. They surround a 70 meter high pyramid and a sanctuary with painted walls, jade artifacts - and gruesome evidence of human sacrifice.
Before excavations stopped earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, archaeologists discovered 70 breathtaking relief sculptures. They depicted stone snakes, monsters, and half-human beasts that resemble the iconography of the later Bronze Age in China.
Even more amazing, carbon dating revealed that parts of Shimao, as the site is called (its original name is unknown), is 4,300 years old. This makes it almost 2,000 years older than the oldest section of the Great Wall. But not only that: It would have been built 500 years before the establishment of Chinese civilization in the Central China Plain further south.
Shimao hosted a thriving civilization in this seemingly remote region for almost half a millennium, from around 2300 BC. Until 1800 BC Then the city was suddenly abandoned.
None of the ancient texts that have served as a guide for Chinese archeology mention an ancient city so far north of the so-called "cradle of Chinese civilization". Especially not a city of such size and complexity that was in intensive exchange with foreign cultures. With an area of around ten square kilometers, Shimao is now the largest known Neolithic settlement in China. Their art and technology originated in the northern steppes and influenced future Chinese dynasties.
Shimao is just the latest and most impressive in a series of discoveries at prehistoric sites near and along the coast. The new finds are forcing historians to rethink the beginnings of Chinese civilization and broaden their understanding of the geographic location and external influences of its earliest cultures.
"Shimao is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of this century"
"Shimao is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of this century," said Sun Zhouyong, director of the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeological Institute and head of the excavations in Shimao. "It opened up a new way for us to see the development of China's early civilization."
Bulwark for the elites
The first impression of Shimao - even as a partially excavated site in the barren hills above the Tuwei River - is that of a city built to withstand ongoing danger. It was built in a zone of conflict, in a borderland that for millennia was marked by wars between shepherds from the northern steppe and farmers from the central plains.
Recently uncovered stone carvings "may have given the step pyramid special religious powers," reported the archaeologists.
To protect themselves from violent rivals, the Shimao elites had their elongated, 20-tier pyramid built on the highest of these hills. The structure, which can be seen from any point in the city, is about half the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was built around the same time (2250 BC). However, their base is four times larger. The Shimao elites protected themselves by inhabiting the top level of the platform, which included a five-acre palatial complex with its own water reservoir, handicraft workshops and, most likely, ritual temples.
From the central pyramid of Shimao radiated kilometers of inner and outer perimeter walls. This early urban design has reappeared in Chinese cities over the centuries. For the walls alone, 125,000 cubic meters of stone were used, which corresponds to the volume of 50 Olympic swimming pools. It was a daunting undertaking for a Neolithic society, whose population was likely to be between 10,000 and 20,000 people. The sheer size of the project leads archaeologists to believe that Shimao had the loyalty - and labor - of smaller satellite towns recently discovered in the surrounding areas.
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More than 70 stone cities from the same Neolithic culture, called the Longshan culture, have been excavated in northern Shaanxi Province. Ten of them are in the Tuwei river basin where Shimao is located. "These satellite villages or cities are like moons orbiting Shimao," says Sun. "Together they formed a solid social basis for the early establishment of the state in Shimao."
Shimao's fortifications are astonishing not only for their size, but also for the ingenuity of their builders. The defensive system included barbican (gates flanked by towers), gates that are only accessible from one direction, and bastions (a protruding part of the wall that allows defensive fire in multiple directions). In addition, a narrowing design was used, the angles of which pulled the attackers into an area in which the defenders could attack them from three sides. This design later became a cornerstone of Chinese defense architecture.
Fortress walls two and a half meters thick and almost ten kilometers long surrounded the city. The ruins were discovered decades ago, but for a long time they were thought to be part of the Great Wall of China. Only recent discoveries have shown that they are much older.
Inside the stone walls, the Sun team found another unexpected innovation: wooden beams as reinforcement. The on 2300 BC Cypress beams dated to BC and still intact are part of a construction method previously believed by scholars to have begun in the Han Dynasty - more than 2,000 years later.
Laying of the foundation stone with human sacrifices
The most gruesome discovery made by the archaeologists under the city's east wall: 80 human skulls in six pits (the two pits closest to the east gate of the city's main entrance each contained exactly 24 skulls). The number and placement of the skulls suggest a ritual decapitation during the laying of the foundation stone for the wall. It would be the earliest known example of human sacrifice in Chinese history. Forensic scientists found that almost all of the victims were young girls - most likely prisoners belonging to a rival group.
"The level of ritual violence in Shimao was unprecedented in early China," said Li Min, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who visited Shimao and wrote about it extensively. The Shimao skulls were a foretaste of the excessive human sacrifice that would become "a defining feature of the Shang culture," as Li says, many centuries later (from about 1600 to 1046 BC). Only the following dynasties put an end to this practice.
The skulls are just an indication that the east gate represented the entrance to another world. Anyone who would have walked the threshold above the buried sacrificial pits would have looked in awe at immediately visible signs of transition. Several blocks of stone in the high terrace walls have been decorated with diamond patterns so that they appear like giant eyes looking down on the east gate. Thousands of black and dark green pieces of jade were set into the stone walls at regular intervals - shimmering ornaments that served both to ward off evil and to illustrate the power and wealth of the Shimao elites. The abundance of jade artefacts suggests that Shimao imported large quantities from distant trading partners for lack of a domestic source of supply.
Archaeologists have discovered 80 severed heads in pits under the city walls. All of the victims were female youths who may have been sacrificed during the city's founding ceremony.
In spite of its seemingly isolated appearance today, Shimao was not isolated from the outside world. It exchanged ideas, technology, and goods with a variety of other cultures, from the Altai steppe in the north to the coastal regions near the Yellow Sea.
"Like many other areas, Shimano shows something very important: that China's civilization has many roots and did not just emerge from the central Chinese plain on the middle Yellow River," says Jessica Rawson, a professor of Chinese art and archeology at the University of Oxford. “Some features come from the world beyond what is now northern China, for example stone buildings that have more to do with the steppe than with the central Chinese plains. Other distinctive features are herds of livestock, ox and sheep, and metallurgy. These are actually very important technologies that China has adopted and seamlessly integrated into its culture. "
Many of the artifacts found in Shimao can only come from distant lands. In addition to the jade, the archaeologists also found the remains of alligator skins, which must have come from a swamp region much further south. Alligator skin drums were likely used in ritual ceremonies - a sign of the important role music played in Shimao's palace life.
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Another discovery baffled Sun and his team: 20 identical pieces of bone, thin, smooth, and curved. The archaeologists initially suspected that these were combs or hairpins. But then a musicologist came to the conclusion that the bones were the earliest examples of a primitive instrument that can be translated from Chinese as "mouthpipe" and is known in this country as the jaw harp.
"Shimao is the birthplace of the jaw harp," says Sun. He points out that the instrument has spread to more than 100 ethnic groups around the world. "It is an important discovery that provides valuable clues for studying early population and cultural flows."
Climate change brought Shimao's downfall
So far, only a small fraction of Shimao has been excavated, which is why new discoveries are constantly being made. Along with stone carvings that were uncovered in 2019, archaeologists found evidence of human busts and statues that were once set into the walls around the east gate. We're just beginning to understand what the carvings might mean, says UCLA's Li Min, but the anthropomorphic representations are "a very innovative and rare approach."
Shimao is the largest known Stone Age settlement in China. So far only a small part of the site has been excavated. Archaeologists are hoping for many more discoveries.
So much about Shimao remains shrouded in mystery, just like its original name. Archaeologists are still trying to understand how the city's economy worked, how it interacted with other prehistoric cultures, and whether its elites had a writing system. "That would solve a very old puzzle," says Sun.
However, there is some evidence as to why Shimao was abandoned after 500 years. There was no earthquake, no flood, and no epidemic. A war might have been enough to displace the residents - but the scientists see more evidence that climate change played a decisive role.
In the third millennium BC When Shimao was founded, a relatively warm and humid climate drew a growing population to the loess plateau. Historical records show a rapid change from 2000 to 1700 BC. To a drier and cooler climate. Lakes dried up, forests disappeared, deserts invaded the area and the people of Shimao migrated to unknown regions.
The once distant foothills of the Ordos Desert now border the banks of the Tuwei, directly below the entrance to Shimao. The ancient site is shrouded in dust, rocks and silence. But after 4,300 years one of the oldest cities in the world is no longer lost to history and no longer abandoned. Their stones have revealed precious secrets that challenge our notion of the earliest period of Chinese civilization. There is no doubt that many more discoveries await in the ruins of Shimano.
The article was originally published in English on NationalGeographic.com.
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