Shake-up for Ancient Chinese History

This bronze mask inlaid with gold from the Sanxingdui culture is on display in the Hall of Masks at the Sanxingdui Archaeological Museum in Guanghan, China.

Among the world’s first great river valley civilizations is the culture that developed along China’s Huang He (Yellow) River. To the southwest, in what is now Sichuan Province, another, lesser-known advanced civilization grew up—one that produced sculptures that look like bug-eyed space aliens. Now scientists are focusing on that culture, called Sanxingdui after its main archaeological site, to examine how a natural disaster changed Chinese history.

The main city of the Sanxingdui culture was founded about 1,600 B.C., during the Bronze Age. It seems to bear an association with the kingdom of Shu, which is credited with helping defeat the Shang, China’s first historical dynasty. According to an ancient chronicle, the Shu kingdom’s founder, Cancong, had protruding eyes, which may provide a reason for the huge, bulging eyes common to the culture’s bronze sculptures. Those works of art were unknown to Western archaeologists until 1986, when the city was discovered by accident. Since then, bizarre artifacts made of bronze, gold, jade, ivory, and clamshell have astounded art historians, because their designs have no resemblance to contemporary works from other Chinese sites. Moreover, for reasons unknown, many of the artifacts had been ritually broken or burned before being buried.

Sanxingdui culture thrived until about 1100 or 1200 B.C., when it mysteriously disappeared. Evidence at Jinsha, about 30 miles away, indicates that its people had come from Sanxingdui’s main city. What had happened? Chinese scientist Niannian Fan noticed that the area’s ravines had once carried much more water than they do now. That observation led Fan to propose that a disastrous earthquake caused a landslide that cut off access to the Minjiang River, rerouting the water to near Jinsha. The people had to abandon their city and follow the river to its new course.

Earthquakes have taken a toll on China over the centuries—at least 2 million lives lost. No doubt many perished when an earthquake shook the Sanxingdui culture more than 3,000 years ago, throwing it into chaos.

Image credit: © Nik Wheeler/Corbis

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  1. Adrianna says:

    This is horrible and contains no information about the history book that I’m learning so thanks for awful info

  2. my name is jeff says:

    greatb article

  3. my name is jeff says:

    great article