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A nationwide archeological project is challenging previous notions of Chinese civilization through fresh approaches and technologies to better understand the ruins and the stories they left

By Wang Yan , Ni Wei Updated Nov.1

Pictured is a turquoise-inlaid dragon-shaped artifact and a bronze bell excavated from Erlitou Ruins, Yanshi, Henan Province

On a scorching August afternoon, Gao Jiangtao drove his old SUV into Taosi Village in Xiangfen County, Linfen City, Shanxi Province. He honked a greeting to a shepherd on the road. 

A researcher with the Institute of Archeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Gao has been involved in the Taosi excavations for 15 years. His long hours in the field have left him as tanned as the local farmers. 

The village is home to the ruins of an ancient city dating back 4,300 to 4,000 years. Experts suggest they are the remains of the capital of a prehistoric kingdom ruled by Emperor Yao, one of China’s mytho-historical Five Emperors. 

The site is located on the Loess Plateau between the province’s highest peak, Ta’er Mountain, and a tributary of the Fenhe River. Corn and herb farms dot the area. The site was perfectly suited for a capital according to Guanzi, a political text compiled between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE: “A state capital should not be at the foot of a big mountain, but on open land above a river. It should not be too high in elevation, as it will be prone to drought. It should not be too close to the river to avoid floods.” Ancient texts place Emperor Yao’s capital in today’s Linfen. 

Along with the Taosi site, ruins of cities dating back 4,000 to 5,000 years have been unearthed around China. Experts believe them to have hosted the dawn of Chinese civilization. 

These findings result from the “Origins Project,” a decadeslong, multi-disciplinary research endeavor that aims to trace the origin and development of Chinese civilization. Led by the Institute of Archeology, CASS and the School of Archeology and Museology, Peking University, the project involves some 400 scholars from across China and nearly 70 scientific research institutes, universities and local archeological institutions. The project gives Chinese researchers opportunities to explore alternative approaches not only to decode China’s prehistory, but also to redefine the concept of civilization itself.

Conventional Controversy
From an early age, Chinese people are taught they are the descendants of the Yellow Emperor and Emperor Yan, legendary figures who led two tribes in the Yellow River Basin over 5,000 years ago. Stories about them abound in ancient Chinese texts. The Yellow Emperor is credited with making weapons from jade to conquer rival tribes, while his wife, Leizu, introduced silkworm rearing, which developed into silk production. After the death of the Yellow Emperor, the primitive tribes of the Yellow River Basin were ruled in succession by the legendary figures Yao, Shun and Yu. Following their reigns came China’s three earliest recorded dynasties, the Xia (2070-1600 BCE), Shang (1600-1046 BCE), and Zhou (1026-256 BCE). However, the stories of the Yellow Emperor and his successors were mostly based on local folklore and records written long after those periods, not archeological evidence. 

The definition of civilization is contended among archeologists and historians. Western scholars cite three indispensable elements for a civilization: metallurgy, written characters and urbanization with a sophisticated division of labor and social stratification. But ancient cultures long recognized as civilizations do not always follow this rule. For example, the Mayans did not have metallurgy. The Incas did not have a written language, instead using knots to record information. While the Indus Valley Civilization had hundreds of symbols, it had not codified its language. 

According to these metrics, the earliest Chinese civilization did not appear until around 3,300 years ago with the Shang Dynasty. 

This is backed by the discovery of the oracle bone inscriptions retrieved in the 1920s from the Yinxu Ruins in Central China’s Henan Province, which scholars recognize as the capital city of the late Shang (1300-1046 BCE). 

The discovery earned the Yinxu Ruins a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2006, as the oracle bones “bear invaluable testimony to the development of one of the world’s oldest writing systems, ancient beliefs and social systems,” the organization said. 

However, there is no sufficient information about the periods before, during and after the late Shang. In response, the Chinese government launched the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project in 1996 to gain a more accurate chronology and geographical framework of these three dynasties. 

After its completion in 2000, many scholars involved in the project, including Wang Wei, chairman of the Chinese Archeological Society, called for continued research into Chinese civilization that went beyond a linear timeline of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. 

Wang told NewsChina in August that scholars approached the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2001 to continue the multidisciplinary research of the Chronology Project to explore the origin, formation and development of Chinese civilization. The ministry approved, creating the “Trace the Origins of Chinese Civilization Project” (Origins Project). Beginning in 2004, the ongoing project focuses on the developmental trajectory of ancient societies in both North and South China. Wang now co-leads the Origins Project’s expert group. 

Research and findings over the years have called the conventional criteria of civilization into question and proposed new ones. Previous criteria came during excavations in Egypt and the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin, known as Mesopotamia or the fertile crescent. Now in modern Iraq and Kuwait, it is where Western archeology practice first developed. 

“To measure ancient China with metrics from Mesopotamia and Egypt was improper,” Wang told NewsChina. “So Chinese archeologists tried to redefine a more universal standard for civilization.” 

“I don’t think there was controversy about the age of China’s civilization and there is none today,” Jessica Rawson, professor of Chinese art and archeology at the University of Oxford, told NewsChina in early September. “Something historians seem to ignore is that China’s civilization is independent of the ancient civilizations of Western Asia and Egypt. Agriculture, cities, states and crafts such as silk weaving were created independently and therefore are very different from the similar phenomena in Western Asia and Egypt.” 

At a press conference in 2018, Zhao Hui, professor with the School of Archeology and Museology, Peking University and co-leader of the Origins Project’s expert group, laid out the project’s stance on what makes up a civilization: It features highly developed agriculture and handicrafts, a pyramidal social structure with highly defined classes, cities with labor division and social stratification and even regional states with sovereign power. 

These indicators largely coincide with the urbanization that Western scholars propose, but do not include a written system or metallurgy. “They show both the commonality and uniqueness in the development of human civilization,” Zhao said.

Plate with dragon pattern unearthed from the Taosi Ruins, Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province

Remains of the East Gate of the outer city, Shimao Ruins, Shenmu, Shaanxi Province

A stone column carved with a god-mask motif excavated at Shimao Ruins, Shenmu, Shaanxi Province

‘Stars in the Sky’
Archeology developed rapidly in China in the 1980s when a series of Neolithic sites were discovered during the country’s first construction boom. Among them are landmark sites dating back about 5,000 years that reveal evidence of imperial power and social classes 1,000 years earlier than the Xia and Shang dynasties. 

Professor Zhao Hui told NewsChina the 1980s discoveries prompted academia to shift focus to the study of ancient societies. Previously, archeological research was relic and site specific, from pottery and jade to tombs and city ruins. 

“It doesn’t mean that we didn’t pay attention to ancient societies, but were unprepared to conduct research due to lack of a timeline. How could historical research be conducted effectively when the emergence of basic culture was yet to be clarified, relative and absolute dating were unclear, and the chronology was still vague?” Zhao said. 

But discoveries across China brought conventional theories on Chinese civilization into question, such as the Niuheliang Ruins (3,500 -3000 BCE) in Liaoning Province, the Liangzhu Ruins (5,300 - 4,300 years) in Zhejiang Province, the Lingjiatan Ruins (5,800 - 5,300 years) in Anhui Province and the Dadiwan Ruins (5,800-2,800 BCE) in Gansu Province. None is in the Central Plains, which served as a major political center for over 3,000 years and was long regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. 

New ideas were first explored in the late 1990s with the release of A New Exploration into the Origin of Chinese Civilization, based on the oral narratives of archeologist Su Bingqi. He proposed a multi-regional model of cultural development, identifying six major cultural areas, each with separate origins and developmental paths. Calling the areas “stars in the sky,” he highlighted the diversity of cultural origins inside ancient China. Building on Su’s work, notable archeologist Yan Wenming proposed the idea of “overall unity,” saying the advantageous location of the Central Plains facilitated better exchange with surrounding cultures. 

Chinese archeologists gradually broadened their view, arguing that while these cultural areas were independent, they shared long histories of interaction. Multiple integration theory has since become the core approach to Chinese civilization studies. 

“Research [during the Origins Project] has greatly contributed to our understanding of Chinese civilization’s characteristics,” Wang Wei told newspaper China Daily in late May. “Its development has been continuous, and various roots of our civilization were linked with and frequently exchanged with one another. They gradually formed a shared community.” 

Professor Rawson from the University of Oxford shared similar views with NewsChina: “There is no single origin for China’s civilization. China is an enormous country, and many factors such as landfall, climate and demography contributed to it.” 

Wang Wei said that because of its strong focus on ancient societies, the Origins Project prioritized research of cities, city walls, palaces and other major archeological sites. 

Cities and Capitals
Instead of indulging in research of mysterious relics excavated from the Taosi site, archeologists focused on something less eye-catching: the foundations of the city wall made from earth not found in the immediate area and lime discovered in the palace’s foundation. Gao Jiangtao said that experts from the Origins Project came to the site in the 2010s and suggested he focus on the palace, as it represents sovereign power and will likely reveal the political and social landscape. 

“According to the latest archeological findings, all these cultural regions had ushered in the dawn of civilization around 5,500-5,300 years ago. There were exchanges between the upper tiers of society of each one, forming the earliest Chinese cultural circle,” Lü Weitao, a researcher with the National Museum of China, told NewsChina. 

At Shijiahe, a walled Neolithic complex in Hubei Province that covers 120 hectares, researchers identified a sacrificial area, palace and handicraft workshop. They unearthed tens of thousands of red clay vessels and many small clay figurines. As the largest and most important site in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, Shijiahe may have been a political and cultural center, experts said. 

At Taosi, archeologists unearthed hundreds of large tombs with exquisite burial objects and many small tombs without them, showing that class division in the middle reaches of the Yellow River was already established. “All these facts are basically uncontroversial,” Lü told NewsChina.  

Taosi is one of the four major capital cities the project is investigating. “We have searched for the earliest state in China since the Origins Project launched,” Zhao said. 

“Of all the contributing cumulative factors, kingship and the state are the key elements that [brought culture] across the threshold to civilization,” Wang said. Four capitals of prehistoric states stand out, including Liangzhu in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, Taosi in Shanxi Province, Shimao in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, and Erlitou in Luoyang, Henan Province. 

Among the Origins Project’s achievements was the discovery of the 5,300-year-old Liangzhu site. On July 6, 2019, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site, recognizing its status as an early “regional state with a unified belief system based on rice cultivation in late Neolithic China.” In the 1980s, two Liangzhu cemeteries were uncovered. Thousands of exquisite burial artifacts suggested that a developed society had prospered there. In the 1990s, a 30-hectare palace complex was unearthed. Since the Liangzhu site was identified as a capital of an ancient State, excavations in the following 10 years revealed 300 hectares of the inner city, 630 hectares of the outer city and the remains of large hydro projects. For archeologists, it was not until the discoveries of city walls, hydro projects, a palace complex and large granaries that Liangzhu could be considered a civilization. 

At Taosi, unearthed artifacts reveal advanced religious beliefs, culture and technologies. Four plates painted with serpentine animals recovered from tombs called “dragon plates” suggest dragon worship. Researchers found that some vessels were painted with red characters dating back 800 years before the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty, which are believed to be the earliest evidence of writing found in China. One character resembles the modern Chinese character of wen (文), which means “writing” and “language.” 

The Shimao Site, which dates back more than 4,000 years, is the largest walled prehistoric site discovered in China so far. Many jade objects and altars have been unearthed from the 400-hectare site. Some researchers suggest there is evidence the Shimao people defeated and occupied Taosi. 

While Erlitou is younger than Taosi, it still precedes the Shang Dynasty. Some archaeologists believe it was likely the capital of the oldest recorded dynasty, the Xia. The Xia governed a much larger area than other possible political entities in Taosi, Shimao and Liangzhu. The Erlitou culture is credited with making the Central Plains the center of Chinese civilization. 

These sites offer possible evidence to unlocking the mysteries of ancient Chinese civilization. For example, since Liangzhu has a large-scale hydro project, Gao Jiangtao hypothesized that Taosi, which is also located between a mountain and a river, should have a similar project. However, he has not had the time to investigate. But Taosi hosts the world’s earliest observatory, demonstrating an astonishing level of astronomical understanding over 4,000 years ago. Inspired by this finding, researchers discovered astronomical sites in other Neolithic sites across China. 

Other Neolithic sites from 3500 to 1500 BCE were also included into the Origins Project to provide greater context. 

In 2021, researchers at Gangshang in Tengzhou, Shandong Province discovered jade and stone yue (a kind of crescent-shaped weapon) in some tombs, suggesting social strata in early states. Soon afterward, the Origins Project included the site, as well as the Jiaojia site in Shandong Province. These two sites may provide new insight into Chinese civilization in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. According to Wang Wei, there are some 20 additional sites in the Yellow River, Yangtze River and Liao River basins that have yet to be included in the Origins Project.

SANXINGDUI (4,800 - 3,100 years) Bronze of a human head, Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) excavated from Sanxingdui Ruins, Guanghan, Sichuan Province, June 22, 2021

BAODUN (4,550 - 4,300 years) Pottery remains dating back 4,500 years excavated from Baodun Ancient City Ruins, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, January 21, 2022

SHUANGHUAISHU (5,300 years) Remains of an elk in a sacrificial pit, Shuanghuaishu site, Gongyi, Henan Province, August 27, 2019

TAOSI (4,300 - 4,000 years) Painted vase from Taosi Ruins in Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province, February 7, 2009

ERLITOU (3,800 - 3,500 years) Turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque with stylized animalface pattern,1900-1350 BCE, Erlitou Ruins, Yanshi, Henan Province

SHIJIAHE (5,000 - 3,900 years) Jade figurine excavated from Shijiahe site, Tianmen, Hubei Province, exhibited in Shanghai Museum, October 20, 2021

SHIMAO (4,000+ years) Jade objects excavated from the Shimao Ruins, Shenmu, Shaanxi Province

NIUHELIANG (5,500 - 5,000 years) Jade zhulong (“pig dragon”), Neolithic Hongshan culture, excavated at Niuheliang site, Chaoyang, Liaoning Province, exhibited at the National Museum of China, Beijing, October 27, 2020

JIAOJIA (5,000 years) Ceramic tripod vessels (gui) unearthed at the 5,000-year-old Jiaojia site, Jinan, Shandong Province, exhibited at the National Museum of China, Beijing, July 10, 2018

DAWENKOU (6,100 - 4,600 years) Ceramic tripod vessel (gui) unearthed at Dawenkou site, Tai’an, Shandong Province

GANGSHANG (6,000 - 4,000 years) Triple jade bi (collared ring) unearthed at Gangshang Ruins, Tengzhou, Shandong Province, exhibited at the Shandong Museum, August 27, 2022

LINGJIATAN (5,800 - 5,300 years) Jade dragon unearthed at Lingjiatan Ruins, Ma’anshan, Anhui Province, exhibited at the Anhui Museum, December 3, 2021

A replica of the observatory that once stood at Taosi Ruins, Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province

Scientific Evidence
As Gao walked the Taosi site that August afternoon, he spotted a stone fragment the size of a schoolbag under some soil. He unearthed the stone and noticed a well-polished and smooth groove on one side. Gao immediately recognized it as a stone mill used to grind paint pigments. He loaded the stone in his SUV to bring it to the laboratory, where they can extract organic residues from its surface to identify the plants ancient people ground on it. 

The method, phytolith analysis, is a micro-botanical technique that archeologists use to study ancient plant remains. Found in some plants, phytolith is silica-based, making it highly resistant to decomposition. It can remain in nature for millions of years. 

Lü Houyuan, a researcher at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, specializes in agricultural archeology and is a key member of the Origins Project. He told NewsChina the research team used phytolith analysis to identify rice fossils at many sites, including the Shangshan Ruins in Zhejiang Province that date back 10,000 years, the 7,000-year-old Peiligang Ruins in Henan Province and a 6,000-year-old site in Shaanxi Province that was part of the Yangshao Culture in the middle reaches of the Yellow River. These discoveries upended previous theories on the development of rice farming in China. 

Initially, grain farming and rice farming developed separately in ancient China. Over the past decade, Lü Houyuan’s team focused on when and where these crops appeared for evidence of exchanges between cultures. They analyzed the phytolith of thousands of modern plants to form a sample library to compare with phytolith from the remains of ancient grain and rice farming to map out patterns of exchange. 

As the Origins Project continued, more scientists from the natural sciences joined. According to Gao, each year natural science experts come to Taosi for over 10 days or even a few months. They worked with Gao to extract samples for research and observe the archeologists’ work on site. DNA experts tested animal bones unearthed from the Taosi site to find they were from cattle, sheep and other animals from West Asia. This revealed a chain of transmission: about 5,000 years ago, cattle and sheep, wheat and metallurgy originated in West Asia, arrived first in northwest China about 4,500 to 4,300 years ago and then spread to the Central Plains. 

“Almost at the same time, China introduced key cultural elements, such as the cultivation of millet, to Central Asia, West Asia and finally to Europe,” Wang Wei said. “This finding resulted from a combination of multiple disciplines. You can’t just study wheat or animals.” 

DNA testing of the sheep bones from Taosi revealed another phenomenon: the sheep were all very old when they died. This may suggest that sheep were not used to provide meat, but raised for their wool and milk. 

Yuan Jing, a researcher at the Institute of Archeology, CASS and an expert on archeological technology, told NewsChina that among all the ongoing excavations, researchers at Erlitou are using the most up-to-date tech, particularly in the analysis of human remains. 

Yuan said this tech provided experts with concrete evidence to understand the city in more detail. For example, strontium isotopic analysis of 18 human bone specimens excavated from Erlitou revealed that seven of them were not native to the area. This suggests Erlitou, as a capital city, attracted people from different places. “It was a metropolitan city 3,800 years ago like today’s Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou,” Yuan added. 

“About 80 to 90 percent of the Origins Project’s funding goes to technology,” Wang Wei said. 

For example, the project purchased carbon-14 dating equipment from overseas with a margin of error of 50 years as opposed to the 200-300 years of older equipment, a significant improvement in accuracy. 

Environmental studies provide a macro perspective. Mo Dowen, a professor at the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, adopts environmental archeology to explore the decline of Liangzhu. Large amounts of marine life remains, such as single-cell algae, were discovered in the sediment dating to before and after Liangzhu’s demise, an indication of devastating floods. Mo found that sea levels of the East China Sea rose at the time, causing the Qiantang River to flood the Hangzhou Bay area. As a result, Liangzhu was abandoned, and southeastern China lost its dominant position. 

Internationally, doubts linger over the scientific merit of the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project and the Origins Project. 

In a 2016 article titled “The Problem of Typology in Chinese Archeology” in journal Early China, author Anke Hein, an associate professor of archeology at the University of Oxford, cautioned the national-level project may induce scholars to “restrict themselves to typological and classificatory issues instead of conducting open-ended research into various parts of prehistory.” 

“When addressing archeological results, people may still hold different views. Maybe they always will. At best, there is more consensus on certain issues. But even the previous consensus could collapse someday,” Professor Zhao told the reporter: “For example, even today, many scholars still have reserved opinions on whether Liangzhu is a State.” 

Back at Taosi, Gao and the reporter escaped the scorching sun in the shade of a tall earthen mound near the palace area. He stacked four bricks and sat to take a rest. Conditions at Taosi remain primitive. There is not even a temporary shelter for workers on site. 

However, the local government has plans to develop Taosi for tourism. “Apart from expanding a narrow single lane road to four lanes to connect the site with a nearby highway, a Taosi Museum is also in the works,” Gao said. “They already poured the foundation.”

Some of the ceramic vessels unearthed from Gangshang Ruins, Tengzhou, Shandong Province