Evidence of a mysterious prehistoric disaster has been uncovered at an amazing archaeological dig in the upper reaches of the Yellow River.
The findings, uncovered at Lajia Village, Minhe County, in Northwest China's Qinghai Province, could date back as far as 2250 BC, and are believed to belong to the Qijia Culture.
The human remains at the site have surprised archaeologists from the Archaeology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the Qinghai Provincial Archaeology Institute.
In the ruins of two of four half-underground cellar-like houses excavated in the 400-home village, human remains dating back 3,500 to 4,000 years have been found. At the site of one house, remains of 14 human beings in groups of three to five shocked every excavator.
"It is the first time in China that the remains of so many ancients have been found in a single house," said Zhao Zhijun, a doctor in archaeology and a research fellow with the CASS Archaeology Institute.
Although Chinese archaeologists have clues to the existence of Qijia Culture ruins in Qinghai Province from as early as the 1950s, they did not actually find the site until 30 years later.
Even after the first excavation was conducted near Lajia Village in 1999, when some large jade articles such as pendants and knives typical of the Qijia Culture were unearthed, archaeologists were not sure what else was awaiting them.
The 14 sets of human bones were found buried irregularly around the house, covering a floor space of roughly 14 square meters. Some lie on one side, others are entwined, as if in an embrace, while still others seem to crawl.
Near the round-shaped cooking stove in the center of the house is a skeleton which appears to be an adult, with hands raised over the head and two legs arched together. It is possible the person was killed before the body hit the ground.
Zhao described the scene. "I have never seen anything like this before," he said.
He thought the ancient victims in this particular house were in three groups, each with two to four children led by an adult.
"Something enormously extraordinary must have happened to these ancients," he said. "The young and strong have run for life, leaving behind children and the elderly who then appeared to have hid in places they thought were safe to shelter in," said Zhao, who returned from the excavation site recently.
A cluster of the remains of five ancients were found in the southwestern section of the house, appearing to be four children under the protection of one senior person.
Near the east wall, one could see the skeleton of an elder sitting against the wall, propped up with the right hand, the left hand holding a baby to its bosom, its face close to the head. The baby's two tiny hands are fastened around the elder at the waist, giving an impression of pain and horror.
"This," said Zhao, "is the most pitiful and horrible scene."
In another house about two meters away, the remains of an elder and a baby in a similar posture were found, assumed to have died at about the same time as the 14 victims in the other house.
The cause of the prehistoric tragedy remained a mystery, the only thing certain that the massive deaths were abnormal and sudden, according to Zhao.
Zhao, who is a specialist in palaeothrobotany (the study of the ancients), is inclined to believe there may have been a disastrous incident such as a big flood, based on the evidence of the group deaths and surrounding geological conditions.
The entire site, with its center several hundred meters away from the Yellow River, covers an area of 200,000 square meters and is surrounded by a large moat dozens of meters wide and five meters deep. The moat is now dry, but archaeologists have found cobbles in it.
Zhao has taken back some tiny spiral shells and snails from the unearthed houses for further examination.
He feels they indicate that the site was soaked in water as it was buried.
"What we have to determine is whether the shells and snails are tiny by nature, or whether there wasn't enough time for them to grow," he said.
Other archaeologists tend to relate the deaths of the ancient villagers to pestilence or plague. Another proposal points to religious action.
Although final conclusions could not be drawn yet, the phenomenon itself was worth studying, said Wang Renxiang, head of the excavation team and research fellow of the CASS Archaeology Institute.
"It is the rare site of a prehistoric disaster," he said.
"Most suggestions about the root cause of the disaster, such as flood or pestilence, suggest a relationship between man and nature at the time of the tragedy," Wang said. "If they are verified, that means the area had already witnessed some environmental and ecological deterioration as much as 4,000 years back."
Whatever the cause of the ancient tragedy, one thing was clear. The findings would provide much evidence of family composition in ancient times, said Zhao Zhijun, adding, "it will help us understand the population increase, the rate of survival and population control in the Neolithic Age."
How the ancient Chinese managed to control their family size is a controversial topic.
There are suggestions of infanticide, but a lack of evidence to support them. Should DNA tests determine that each group of the ancients found at Lajia Village was of one family, Zhao said, the data would be of huge demographic significance.
The children in each group were definitely aged between two and 10, the findings have shown. The two elders found holding children in their arms were both thought to be female and aged between 30 and 35 when they died, according to Wang Renxiang.
Apart from the remains of human beings, archaeologists also unearthed a 4,000-year-old rectangular stone, which scientists say was a type of percussion instrument. The finely cut and well-polished instrument, 96 centimeters long, 66 centimeters wide and about 10 centimeters thick, is dark blue and still produces a loud and clear sound.
Wang Renxiang discovered it at the home of a Lajia villager.
Experts say this is the first such instrument ever found in the history of China's archaeology. They say the discovery may reverse conventional theory that ancient percussion instruments were triangular or square shaped.
A number of delicate jade articles used in primitive religious rituals and some pottery relics were also found at the site. Judging by the jade texture and quality, experts assume they were originally from Hetian in Xinjiang, about 2,000 kilometers to the west, which is well known for its jade deposits.
The findings indicate cultural exchanges in ancient times.
The excavated moat has also drawn attention from archaeologists. At this stage they cannot say whether there was a city around Lajia Village more than 30 centuries ago, but the moat does suggest that possibility, according to Wang.
He believes the discovery may at least have been the center of an administrative region.
First discovered in 1924 at Qijiaping in Guanghe, Gansu Province, the Qijia Culture spread around the upper reaches of the Taohe, Daxia and Weihe rivers in Gansu and the Huangshui basin in the upper reaches of the Yellow River in Qinghai, during the transitional period from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age (2250-1900 BC). The culture was at a same time as the Longshan Culture (2500-2000 BC), which was widespread in the central plains in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, and is characterized by very fine unpainted ceramics and simple tools.
Tools were mainly of stone, although copper articles had made an appearance. Pottery included red fine clay and a grey type of coarse sand.
A cast bronze mirror has also been found, suggesting that some elements of early Chinese bronze casting may have originated in western China - and may even have been linked to the bronze casting of Central Asia and the Iranian area.
The Longshan Culture, discovered largely in East and Central China, represents a critical period for the origin of civilization in China, with the appearance of city sites as its significant symbol. Up to now, dozens of sites confirmed to be ancient cities have been unearthed in the central plains and southern areas of China, whereas sites of Qijia Culture have to date produced no such city.
(China Daily 10/12/2000)