Treasures from mystery civilisation could rewrite history of China

  • The sophisticated artefacts unearthed in Sichuan point to the existence of an advanced culture that challenges the traditional narrative
  • The existence of this unknown civilisation outside the traditional heartland suggests Chinese culture may have its roots in a fusion of different peoples

Artefacts discovered in southwestern China suggest that the area was once home to an unknown civilisation whose existence may rewrite the history of China.

The treasures unearthed at the Sanxingdui site in Guangyuan, Sichuan, belonged to a highly-developed civilisation that may have lasted for thousands of years but never appeared in any historical records, said government researchers and officials in a press conference on Saturday.

A massive dig starting from 2019 unearthed more than 500 artefacts that were made from gold, bronze, jade and ivory more than 3,000 years ago, including a gold mask that may have been worn by a priest.

Their quality and craftsmanship far exceeds that of artefacts made at the same time in other parts of China, including the heartland of the Shang dynasty around the Yellow River plain.

A gold mask that may have been used in religious rituals at the site. Photo: Xinhua

Shi Jinsong, deputy director of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Chinese civilisation was traditionally thought to originate from that area, which was known as the Zhong Yuan, or central land.null

The Zhong Yuan was long believed to be the centre of the world with the most advanced civilisation, and “people living outside were regarded as barbarians,” he said.

But the new discoveries at Sanxingdui suggest the story of Chinese civilisation may be more complex than previously thought.

Part of an elaborate bronze ware unearthed at Sanxingdui in southwestern China. Photo: Xinhua
Part of an elaborate bronze ware unearthed at Sanxingdui in southwestern China. Photo: Xinhua

“We are more likely a fusion” of different ancient cultures or civilisations, said Shi.

Zhao Congcang, an archaeologist with Northwest University in Xian, said he was stunned when seeing the artefacts.

Some of the artworks resemble items found in sites along the Yangtze River and in Southeast Asia, suggesting the unknown civilisation was not isolated at all, but engaging in “broad exchanges with many areas,” he said.

The Sanxingdui site was discovered in the 1930s, and it has remained one of the biggest puzzles in Chinese archaeology.

Some of the largest and oldest bronze wares in the world have been found at the site, including a four-metre tall “tree of life”.

Because these artefacts had no apparent connection to later Chinese culture and no one can decipher the symbols on them, there has been a lot of debate about the purpose of these artefacts.

Some experts believed they were burial items, while some argued they had a religious function.

The latest discoveries suggested that these artefacts were most likely used for religious or magical ceremonies.

The golden mask, for instance, may have been worn by a priest and buried along with other valuable objects after a ceremony.

The large number of objects found suggests that the unknown civilisation had a prosperous economy and was technologically advanced.

Sichuan sits in a fertile basin separated from the rest of China by high mountains.

It was conquered by the state of Qin, which invaded with a 600,000-strong army in 316BC. The area became a food production base that helped the state’s ruler Qin Shi Huang create the first centralised Chinese empire a few decades later.

Sichuan has been an official part of the Chinese civilisation since then, but its earlier history remains shrouded in legend due to the lack of written records.

The view that Chinese civilisation originated along the Yellow River has been challenged in recent years, with some discoveries suggesting that rice growers from the Yangtze area invaded the region before recorded history begins.

These southern immigrants were believed to have better food production technology, and faster growing population.

An earlier study by researchers in Fudan University suggests that most people in China were descendants of a small tribe from Africa that travelled via Southeast Asia 60,000 years ago.

An archaeologist at work on the site. Photo: Xinhua
An archaeologist at work on the site. Photo: Xinhua

Song Xinchao, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, said the discovery at Sanxingdui was part of a national programme launched by the central government to solve some “big issues” in Chinese history.

The purpose of the programme is to better understand the formation of the Chinese civilisation by “connecting the missing link between different regions”, according to Song.

By : Stephen Chen – SCMP

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