A mountain of knowledge

Source:  China Daily 

Recent archaeological discoveries in Yingde city are shedding light on the hitherto unknown Neolithic history of Guangdong province, Wang Kaihao reports.

Guangdong province is indisputably one of the most important economic hubs of modern China. However, when speaking of its ancient history, a stereotypical idea often prevails.

Compared with the rich documentation we have that tells us of life in Central China more than 2,000 years ago, there is a dearth of information and stories about Guangdong around this time. People used to believe that the massive development of this "marginal area" only began during the reign of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of China in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).

After uniting the country in the 3rd century BC, the emperor soon assigned his grand army into the new territory of Lingnan, which roughly corresponds with today's Guangdong and Hainan provinces, and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

However, archaeological findings unveil a much older cultural brilliance outside the prevailing historical records, and the area's connection with other regions in present-day China is also greater than people's general impression.

Yanshanzhai site, the Lingnan region's largest known human settlement from the Neolithic period-defined in China as between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago-was found on a mountain in Yingde, a city in the north of Guangdong province.

Since 2019, a joint archaeological team drawn from Guangdong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Peking University and several museums has excavated a residential area and 66 tombs at the site, spreading across an area of 80,000 square meters, as announced during an online conference organized by the National Cultural Heritage Administration earlier this month.

The bountiful discovery of burial objects amazed the archaeologists, not only because of the exquisite jade artifacts, but also their reflection of the division among social strata, a key indicator of an infant civilization.

"They offer crucial clues in studying how an early society gets complicated," says Liu Suoqiang, a researcher with the Guangdong institute who is leading the ongoing excavation. "In high-level tombs, jade items were widely buried, and many other varieties of burial objects were found."

For example, from one of the tombs, archaeologists recovered as many as 140 jade articles.

"But in the lower-level ones, only scattered stones and pottery items were found," Liu explains. "It clearly shows stratification of a society."

Nearly 1,000 cultural relics including jade items, bronze and pottery, and stone artifacts were unearthed from the graveyard, estimated to be more than 4,000 square meters in size. About 30 holes used to erect columns in construction were also found in the settlement area.

The places where people lived and got buried were not strictly separated, as Liu explains.

For some people there was evidence of more than one funeral ceremony, while other tombs were found to have had been moved altogether. The findings can largely expand the understanding of scholars about funeral customs in the area during the Neolithic period. Other key discoveries include grains of rice, which Liu says are precious material for studying the spread of rice cultivation in Chinese agriculture.

Specific dating of the Yanshanzhai site has not been released, but current findings lead archaeologists to believe it belongs to Shixia Culture, dating back roughly around 4,000 to 5,000 years.

While the culture, centering around present-day northern Guangdong, was first identified in the 1970s, until this recent discovery, no high-level Neolithic sites had been found in the area.

According to Li Xinwei, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the influence of the culture once reached today's Pearl River Delta region and Hong Kong.

"The Lingnan region has its unique process of cultural development," Li says. "Thanks to the new findings of Yanshanzhai, we can better understand its lineage."

Liu adds that the complexity of the Yanshanzhai site has been hitherto unseen at other contemporaneous sites.

"It reflects frequent communication among different communities within the Lingnan region and its neighboring area to the north," Liu says.

But some highlighted artifacts excavated from the Yanshanzhai site show that such communication probably spanned a much greater distance.

A number of cong, a typical ceremonial jade artifact of Liangzhu Culture, were found in tombs at the Yanshanzhai site.

The Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which dates back 4,300 to 5,300 years, is the hub for the jade-worshipping Liangzhu Culture. However, it is in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, about 1,200 kilometers away from the Yanshanzhai site.

"Liangzhu Culture was a monumental symbol of Chinese civilization at the time," says Li from CASS. "It had wide influence to the south. The ritual system, represented by its jades, also helped to usher those regions into the process of forming early Chinese civilization. Through the Yanshanzhai site, we can see the Lingnan region is also involved in this process."

Liu also expects follow-up research at the Yanshanzhai site to further reveal how the two distant cultures interacted with each other.

"And we also hope to find a social network of people from prehistoric South China through this site," Liu says.

Zhang Chi, a professor at Peking University, expects the Yanshanzhai site to further contribute to a bigger picture with a global perspective.

He says studies of the site, and other prehistoric sites along the coast of Southeast China, will help unravel the origin of Austronesian peoples, which predominates the population in Polynesia and other Pacific islands.

One theory posits that the group originated from the agrarian cultures in Southeast China, and later migrated to a wide geographic area across the Pacific Ocean via the Taiwan Straits.

"The site is a key to decode the infancy and spread of agrarian cultures in the coastal area," Zhang says.