Mysterious carvings and evidence of human sacrifice uncovered in ancient city
The stones didn’t give up their secrets easily. For decades, villagers in the dust-blown hills of China’s Loess Plateau believed that the crumbling rock walls near their homes were part of the Great Wall. It made sense. Remnants of the ancient barrier zigzag through this arid region inside the northern loop of the Yellow River, marking the frontier of Chinese rule stretching back more than 2,000 years.
But one detail was curiously out of place: Locals, and then looters, began finding in the rubble pieces of jade, some fashioned into discs and blades and scepters. Jade is not indigenous to this northernmost part of Shaanxi Province—the nearest source is almost a thousand miles away—and it was not a known feature of the Great Wall. Why was it showing up in abundance in this barren region so close to the Ordos Desert?
When a team of Chinese archaeologists came to investigate the conundrum several years ago, they began to unearth something wondrous and puzzling. The stones were not part of the Great Wall but the ruins of a magnificent fortress city. The ongoing dig has revealed more than six miles of protective walls surrounding a 230-foot-high pyramid and an inner sanctum with painted murals, jade artifacts—and gruesome evidence of human sacrifice.
Carbon-dating determined that parts of Shimao, as the site is called (its original name is unknown), date back 4,300 years, nearly 2,000 years before the oldest section of the Great Wall—and 500 years before Chinese civilization took root on the Central Plains, several hundred miles to the south.
None of the ancient texts that have helped guide Chinese archaeology mention an ancient city so far north of the so-called “cradle of Chinese civilization,” much less one of such size, complexity, and intense interaction with outside cultures. Shimao is now the largest known Neolithic settlement in China—its 1,000-acre expanse is about 25 percent bigger than New York City’s Central Park—with art and technology that came from the northern steppe and would influence future Chinese dynasties.
Together with recent discoveries at other prehistoric sites nearby and along the coast, Shimao is forcing historians to rethink the beginnings of Chinese civilization—expanding their understanding of the geographical locations and outside influences of its earliest cultures.
To protect themselves from violent rivals, the Shimao elites molded their oblong 20-tiered pyramid on the highest of those hills. The structure, visible from every point of the city, is about half the height of Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built around the same time (2250 B.C.). But its base is four times larger, and the Shimao elites protected themselves further by inhabiting the top tier of the platform, which included a 20-acre palatial complex with its own water reservoir, craft workshops, and, most likely, ritual temples.
Radiating out from Shimao’s central pyramid were miles of inner and outer perimeter walls, an embryonic urban design that has been echoed in Chinese cities through the ages. The walls alone required 125,000 cubic meters of stone, equal in volume to 50 Olympic swimming pools—a huge undertaking in a Neolithic society whose population likely ranged between 10,000 and 20,000. The sheer size of the project leads archaeologists to believe that Shimao commanded the loyalty—and labor—of smaller satellite towns that have recently been discovered in its orbit.
Shimao’s fortifications are astonishing not just for their size but also for their ingenuity. The defensive system included barbicans (gates flanked by towers), baffle gates (allowing only one-way entry), and bastions (a projecting part of the wall allowing defensive fire in multiple directions). It also employed a “mamian” (“horse-face”) structure whose angles drew attackers into an area where defenders could pummel them from three sides—a design that would become a staple of Chinese defensive architecture.
The most grisly discovery came underneath the city’s eastern wall: 80 human skulls clustered in six pits—with no skeletons attached. (The two pits closest to the East Gate, the city’s principal entrance, contained exactly 24 skulls each.) The skulls’ number and placement suggest a ritual beheading during the laying of the wall’s foundation—the earliest known example of human sacrifice in Chinese history. Forensic scientists determined that almost all of the victims were young girls, most likely prisoners who belonged to a rival group.
Another discovery flummoxed Sun and his team: 20 identical pieces of bone, thin, smooth, and curved. The archaeologists guessed that these were combs or hairpins, until a musical scholar deduced that the bones were the earliest examples of a primitive reed instrument known in Chinese as the mouth reed and more colloquially as the Jew’s harp.
“Shimao is the birthplace of the mouth reed,” says Sun, noting that the instrument spread to more than 100 ethnic groups across the world. “It is an important discovery that provides valuable clues to explore the early flows of population and culture.”
There are some clues, however, to why Shimao was abandoned after 500 years. It wasn’t earthquake, flood, or plague. A war might have helped drive them out, but scientists see more evidence that climate change played a pivotal role.
In the third millennium B.C., when Shimao was founded, a relatively warm and wet climate drew an expanding population into the Loess Plateau. Historical records show a rapid shift from 2000 to 1700 B.C. to a drier and cooler climate. Lakes dried up, forests disappeared, deserts encroached, and the people of Shimao migrated to parts unknown.
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