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.”