At the Nihewan Basin in Yangyuan County, Hebei Province, 21 Paleolithic sites dating back more than 1 million years are scattered along both sides of the Sanggan River. The Nihewan Ruins, now under state protection, are listed among China's top 100 archeological discoveries in the 20th century.
Wei Qi, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), has devoted himself to Paleolithic research at the Nihewan Basin for more than 30 years. Most scientists believe that human life originated in Africa 2.4 to 2.5 million years ago; findings from Nihewan indicate that our ancestors inhabited this area 2 million years ago, making Nihewan the likely "cradle of humanity" in East Asia, according to Wei.
In spite of their value, Chinese archeologists are confronted with a seemingly insurmountable challenge in preserving the Nihewan Ruins.
"There is no way to implement the protection plan made a couple of years ago. This is our biggest headache," complains Xie Fei, vice director of Hebei Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau and head of the Research Institute of Nihewan Culture.
Xie says that at a working conference held on February 4, 2002, a task force was established and put in charge of Nihewan's preservation. Twelve protection and excavation projects were proposed at the meeting, including road construction, tree planting and landscape engineering. The provincial Construction Department, along with the Land and Resources Department, Water Conservancy Department, Cultural Relics Bureau, Forestry Bureau and Tourism Bureau, helped to map out a comprehensive protection program.
Unfortunately, as grand as the plans sounded, they all turned out to be castles in the air.
Blueprints for the Nihewan Museum have been drafted and redrafted, but it is taking an unconscionably long time to complete the building that, according to the original plan, would cover an area of 4,500 square meters with an investment of 15 million yuan (US$1.8 million).
With more than 10,000 unearthed objects that have no place else to go, some are on display in a room borrowed from the Yangyuan County's People's Armed Forces Department while most of the others are kept in a storage area that offers poor conditions for preservation. Worse, the place is a fire hazard, and if something untoward happened the losses would be irrecoverable.
"In the 2002–2003 period, the provincial government reportedly allocated 5 million yuan (about US$604,000) for the construction of the museum. But nobody knows where the money is," said Xie.
The IVPP's Zhang Senshui, a leading paleoarcheologist, has on several occasions demanded that the authorities take steps to protect the prehistoric sites at Nihewan, especially the elephant footprints found at Majuangou. In a letter to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, Zhang also pleaded that the Houjiayao site, which is endangered by severe riverbank erosion, be put on the agenda.
"The provincial Construction Department's original proposal included very detailed descriptions," says Xie. "Since nobody wanted to take on that work, a very important plan was simply pigeonholed in a shameful way."
Wei Qi points out that the Nihewan Ruins are exposed to all kinds of weather and could be destroyed by flash flooding at any time. Earlier this year, a heavy downpour caused portions of a cliff at the Donggutuo site to collapse.
Building dams and digging culverts are good ways to conserve water and reduce erosion. But even these basic measures have not been taken at most sites in the basin.
Adding insult to the high risk of injury, despite the protection plan that strictly forbids the construction of any plants that may cause pollution in the basin, not long ago a safety lamp manufacturer opened shop in Datianwa village, near the Donggutuo site.
"They said that the owner had been forced to move his factory, a serious polluter, from Shanxi Province to this area," says Wei indignantly. "Opening a factory can make some immediate profits; but leaving the pollution unchecked -- there will be the devil to pay."
"We need to draw on the experience of the United States in protecting its Native American ruins," advises Yuan Jiarong of the Hunan Culture and Archeology Institute. "In their view, protection is of utmost importance for historical relics. However, in China local governments often put economic development before preservation. The government should play a bigger role in this regard."
Lack of funding is the main reason the Nihewan ruins are at risk, according to Cheng Shengquan, head of the Yangyuan County Historical Relics Preservation Station. "The Xiaochangliang site is under state protection, but the state has never invested a penny in protecting it. Even the erection of the site's monument was sponsored by the provincial Cultural Relics Bureau."
"Since the 1920s Chinese and foreign archeologists have conducted in-depth studies of the Nihewan Ruins, with abundant results," Xie said. "We still have a lot to do in Nihewan, such as searching for early hominid fossils, which I believe is only a matter of time. Obviously, if we do a poor protection job here, all the archeologists' efforts would turn out to be meaningless."
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, December 19, 2004)