Digging for Clues of Nation's Origin

Covering no less than 300 square kilometers, a patch of Loess Plateau called Zhudingyuan (Tripod-Molding Terrace) at Yangping in central China's Henan Province is attracting an increasing number of researchers devoted to the study of the country's origins.

Through years of hard work on the terrace, archaeologists have found more than 30 prehistoric cultural sites, according to Ren Minglu, director of the local cultural heritage bureau. "Its large scale and bountiful contents are almost unprecedented," he said.

The terrace is surrounded by the Shahe River and Hushe River, which run over 20 kilometers to the Yellow River.

"Of the sites discovered on the banks of the rivers, 70 percent are Neolithic Yangbao Culture and 30 percent Longshan Culture," the director said. The cultures are characterized by colored and black pottery that can be dated back to BC3,500-BC2,000, almost the same time as the legendary ruling period of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor - the legendary ruler and ancestor of the Chinese people).

Although significant excavations have been carried out in recent years, there is still much more work to be done, Ren told a symposium on the origins of Chinese civilization held last December in Lingbao.

A field trip was joined by the attending experts.

At Xipo site, experts had a closer look at an ash ditch with a perimeter of 500 meters. They speculated that the ash ditch might have been the location of a large altar built for offering sacrifices to gods or ancestors.

What surprised them most were two lumps that contained a high percentage of bronze ores. The materials might have been used by Chinese ancestors to mold bronze tripods.

"It was rare to find a great number of prehistoric cultural sites in one given area," said Li Rengqian, a professor of anthropology from Harvard University.

Director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics Zhang Wenbin also has an interest in the area, saying that the sites in Lingbao and adjacent areas may be of great importance to the origin of the Chinese nation. Much work was needed to protect the area for scientific excavations in the future.

For four years between 1996 and 2000, more than 200 Chinese scientists worked on the terrace to fill in the blanks in the chronology of the Xia (BC2070-BC1600), Shang (BC1600-BC1046) and Western Zhou dynasties (BC1046-BC771).

Last November, scientists announced the initial research results of the Xia-Shang-Zhou chronology project that helped push back the earliest known dates in Chinese history at least 1,200 years. Zhang noted that there are still 1,000 years of gaps left in the 5,000-year-long history of Chinese civilization. The "Five Dynasties" recorded in the "Historical Records" and the corresponding Yangshao Cultural sites still need more scientific investigation.

Some leading archaeologists believe there may be a cultural, political and economic center of all ancient cultural sites around the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic Age.

However, they have yet to find the main seat of the primitive people's activities.

The Yangshao Culture, which exerted its influence across the country, has its representative sites spread along the Yellow River Valley, from Qinghai and Gansu provinces in the west to Liaoning, Hebei and Shandong provinces in the east, to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Shanxi Province in the north, and to the Yangtze River Valley in the south. However, none of them could claim themselves the center because of their limited areas.

One of the neolithic sites of the Yangshao culture, for example, the Banpo village site, is located at Banpo village on the outskirts of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. The other sites such as Dawenkou Culture in Shandong Province, Majiayao Culture in Gansu Province and Xiying Culture in Shanxi Province are all dotted along the Yellow River.

Zhudingyuan, however, has more promise as an ancient center of the Yangshao Culture. Besides the already discovered sites on Zhudingyuan, it is promising that many discoveries on the plateau are thought to have been mentioned in ancient books and legends about Huangdi.

The same geographical names mentioned in the Historical Records by Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty (BC206-AD25) such as Mount Chiyou, Mount Kuafu, Xuanyuan Platform, Shangyuan (mulberry park) village, Mount Jing and Mount Shou, lie in the Zhudingyuan area.

According to "the Historical Records" and "Bamboo Annals," Huangdi once mined bronze in Mount Shou and then molded tripods after unifying China about 5,000 years ago.

The tripods, inscribed with Huangdi's virtues, were used to offer sacrifices to Heaven.

Legend has it that Huangdi and his tribe went north of what is today's Shaanxi Province and expanded to the east where they defeated both Chiyou and Kuafu tribes, gradually forming the Chinese nation in the middle reaches of the Yellow River Valley.

According to the Book of Mountains and Seas, a work of folk geography in ancient China, Mount Shou, one of the eight sacred mountains covered by Huangdi, was in the Qinling Mountains, close to the Tripod Molding Plateau.

"Virtually everything that people know about Huangdi is based on legends, we cannot go on claiming ourselves the descendants of Huangdi without trace of the tribes' activities," said Zhou Kunshu, an expert specializing in environmental archaeology.

A researcher with the archaeological institute of China's Academy of Sciences, Zhou has traveled to the terrace three times and studied Yangping's topography for the past two years.

"We still don't know exactly where the Huangdi tribe labored, lived and multiplied, and even the place where wars between Huangdi's people and other tribes occurred.

(China Daily 01/15/2001)

In This Series

Neolithic Ruins Found in Central China

Discovery Pushes History Back

Largest Ancient Ruins Discovered in Xi'an



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