More than five thousand years ago, southwest of Shanghai, there was a beautiful and thriving city crisscrossed by navigable canals, the Little Venice of the Stone Age. Something made it disappear forever

Known as the “Stone Age Chinese Venice”, the Liangzhu excavation site in eastern China is considered one of the most important testimonies of advanced early Chinese civilization. More than 5,000 years ago, the city already had an elaborate water management system. Until now, its collapse was yet another enigma to add to the demise of ancient civilizations.

In the Yangtze Delta, about 160 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, are the archaeological ruins of the city of Liangzhu. There, a very advanced culture flourished about 5,300 years ago, and it is considered one of the first monumental water cultures.

The oldest evidence of large hydraulic engineering structures in China originates from this site occupied until the late Neolithic. The walled city had a complex system of navigable canals, dams and water reservoirs. This system made it possible to cultivate large agricultural areas throughout the year.

In the history of human civilization, this is one of the first examples of highly developed communities based on a water infrastructure. However, metals were still unknown in this culture. During excavations, thousands of highly elaborate jade burial objects were found.

Long unknown and underappreciated in its historical significance, the archaeological site is now considered a well-preserved record of Chinese civilization dating back over 5,000 years.

Liangzhu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. However, the advanced civilization of this city, which was inhabited for nearly 1,000 years, came to an abrupt end. Until today, there was no scientifically accepted explanation for its end.

The secret hidden in the stones

Interior of Shennong Cave, Venice China.

Caves and their deposits, their stalactites and stalagmites, are the most important climate archives that exist. They allow the reconstruction of climatic conditions in the caves up to 100,000 years in the past. In search of an explanation for the collapse of the Liangzhu culture, a team of geologists from Xiàn Jiaotong University looked for a possible climate-related cause.

Geologist Haiwei Zhang of Xi’an Jiaotong University in Xi’an collected stalagmite samples from both Shennong and Jiulong Caves, located southwest of the excavation site. .

“These caves have been well explored for years. They are located in the same Southeast Asian monsoon-affected area as the Yangtze Delta and its stalagmites provide an accurate idea of ​​the time of the collapse of the Liangzhu culture, which, according to archaeological findings, took place around 4,300 years ago,” he explains.

Stalagmite data show that between 4,345 and 4,324 years ago there was a period of extremely high precipitation. Evidence of this was provided by carbon isotope records, which were measured at the University of Innsbruck. The precise dating was done by uranium-thorium analysis at Xi’an Jiaotong University, whose measurement accuracy is ±30 years.

Massive flooding triggered by unusually strong monsoon rains caused the collapse, as shown by an international team with geologist and climate researcher at University of Innsbruck Christoph Spötl in the journal Science Advances.

“A thin layer of clay was found in the preserved ruins, which points to a possible connection between the demise of advanced civilization and the flooding of the Yangtze River or the East China Sea. No evidence of human causes such as war could be found,” explains Christoph Spötl, head of the Quaternary Research Group at the Department of Geology. “Massive monsoon rains likely led to such severe flooding of the Yangtze and its tributaries that even sophisticated dams and canals could not withstand these bodies of water that destroyed Liangzhu City and forced people to flee.” The very wet weather conditions continued intermittently for another 300 years, as geologists show from the cave data.

Reference: “Collapse of Liangzhu and Other Neolithic Cultures in the Lower Yangtze Region in Response to Climate Change” Nov 24, 2021, advances in science .
DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.abi9275

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