The dawn of civilisation

Local archaeologists claim China dates back 5,800 years


The Chinese often claim to be home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world, if not the oldest continuous one. Now, they say they have the evidence to back that up. In May the State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced the results of a 15-year investigation into the origins of Chinese history.

“Signs of civilisation emerged around 5,800 years ago in areas of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the West Liao River in northeast China,” said Wang Wei, one of the archaeologists leading the project.

But the findings are contentious because the study’s authors have had to tinker with widely-accepted definitions to reach their findings.

Based on studies of Egypt and Mesopotamia three archeological criteria were established for the birth of a ‘civilisation’: the emergence of cities, the ability to work metal, and crucially, the existence of a writing system.

China fails on the last. The earliest known examples of writing are the so-called Oracle Bones – some 200,000 bones and shells carved with an early form of Chinese pictograms. They date back to the Shang Dynasty from 1600 to 1050 BC, which would make Chinese civilisation about 3,600 years old.

But the Chinese academics – not without international precedent, to be fair – decided to ignore the “cities-metal-writing” methodology and come up with their own. They argue that sites in Zhejiang and Shanxi demonstrate the existence of large cities with sophisticated features that would have taken thousands of people decades to build.

The Liangzhu and Taosi sites also yielded evidence of social stratification, division of labour and centralised power – indicators commonly interpreted as evidence of a developed or civilised society.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Daily, Zhao Hui, one of the academics involved in the research argued that the standard definition of civilisation was unduly shaped by by Western archaeologists working on studies in the Middle East.

“What we should do is to work out characteristics of Chinese civilisation… and then participate more in the international study and debate on ancient civilisations,” he said.

As regular readers of WiC will know, Chinese archaeology is going through a boom as the authorities become more aware of the value of historical study and preservation.

In the past China was either too poor to investigate its many ancient sites or, latterly, too focused on economic development to bother about preserving them.

In the recent obituaries for Zhao Kangmin, the archaeologist who uncovered the Terracotta Warriors, it was noted that when farmers first made the discovery in 1977, he urged them to keep it quiet because the country was at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, and he feared they might be damaged or destroyed by Maoist ideologues.

More recently, archaeologists have lamented that some sites are only being discovered as developers break ground on new projects. If they disclose the finds the real estate firms risk losing the rights to build, so they often send in the bulldozers and destroy the evidence.

Much has changed in the past couple of years. The laws are getting stricter and companies can now win kudos with the government if they are seen to be protecting China’s cultural heritage. After all, Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, likes to refer to the country’s long and unique history in his speeches and his call for a “great rejuvenation” is based on the idea that China has traditionally been a strong, rich and centralised state. Walking around the Forbidden city with Donald Trump in November last year he stressed that only China has an unbroken history stretching back several millennia.

“People like us with dark hair and yellow skin can trace our roots back 5,000 years. We call ourselves the people of the Dragon,” he told the American president.

Only time will tell whether the study’s latest claim will gain more widespread academic support. It might: for instance it wasn’t that long ago that the Shang Dynasty was regarded as mythical, but the discovery of Oracle Bones proved its existence. As part of the 15-year project, archaeologists also claim to have found evidence of Yu the Great – the founder of the earlier Xia Dynasty. He was said to have introduced flood control to the nation.

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