News this Week

Science  21 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5943, pp. 924

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  1. Paleontology

    Draft Rule Threatens Fossil Excavations in China

    1. Zheng Yu*
    Halcyon dig.

    Li Chun on a less stressful expedition to Guizhou in 2007, when he discovered Odontochelys semitestacea, a missing link in turtle evolution (inset).


    BEIJING—Li Chun was in high spirits: After 3 months of digging in southwestern China's Guizhou Province, he had unearthed a dozen superb fossil specimens. It was 31 December 2001 and Li, a researcher with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences here, was returning to his hotel in Xingyi to ring in the New Year. But when Li arrived, police were waiting. They accused the 35-year-old paleontologist of illegal fossil collection and detained him.

    Based on Li's notes, which referred to his collaboration with The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, investigators accused him of involvement in an international smuggling ring. The police said that Xingyi authorities did not allow valuable specimens out of their control, and they scoffed at Li's claim that IVPP had a permit to collect in Guizhou. IVPP colleagues worked their guanxi, or connections, and Li was liberated 10 days later; he was never charged with a crime. The confiscated fossils have since vanished.

    Fossil theft and smuggling are rampant in China, and scientists welcome tougher enforcement. But a draft regulation released this summer, intended to crack down on illicit trade, would impede fieldwork and make paleontologists more vulnerable to the whims of local officials, scientists fear, potentially leading to repeats of Li's harrowing experience. “The draft regulation has aroused considerable panic among research professionals,” 12 senior scientists warned in a recent letter to China's State Council. They hope to persuade the council to amend the regulation before it is finalized by the end of this year.

    A large share of paleontology's most scintillating recent finds, including remains of feathered dinosaurs and primitive mammals and angiosperms, have come from China. As a result, paleontology is arguably the country's strongest scientific discipline: Since 1999, 65 of 256 papers in Science and Nature with first authors from mainland China were on paleontology.

    But as the discipline has flourished, so has criminal activity. “We are still faced with serious problems in … fossil destruction, loss, illegal trade, and smuggling,” says Xu Shaoshi, minister of land and resources. The draft regulation declares that the state owns all fossils underground or underwater on Chinese territory and bans commercial fossil transactions; violators could face penalties of up to $73,000 and criminal charges. Individuals and institutions will be allowed to keep fossil collections obtained legally to date. The regulation encourages them to donate their fossils to museums or other public organizations. But no cutoff date is set for such donations—and scientists say that illegal collectors could exploit this loophole to continue their activities.

    The biggest controversy is raging over fossil management. The regulation designates the Ministry of Land and Resources as the lead agency on fossil collection and trade and tasks county-level mineral resource bureaus with responsibility for local management. Lumping together fossil excavation and mineral extraction could spur local governments to develop fossil beds into profitmaking ventures. The “core value” of fossils—to promote research and public awareness—is “obviously different from exploitation of mineral resources,” says IVPP Director Zhou Zhonghe.

    A revised permit system could create new barriers to scientific excavations, says Yin Hongfu, former president of China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. Under the new regulation, the central government's permission would no longer suffice: Researchers would need permits from both the land resources ministry and county-level mineral bureaus. Institutes and universities have petitioned the State Council to grant them blanket permission to discover, collect, and study fossils. Paleontologists have suggested that the central government set up an interagency expert board to oversee major aspects of fossil discovery and site management. Scientists are also calling for an explicit right to lend, borrow, and swap fossils with overseas partners, under board supervision.

    The regulation's fate now rests with the State Council's Legislative Affairs Office. The final regulation, sources say, is expected to designate an expert board to certify qualifications of excavators and approve digs. The council is considering other amendments as well, including a provision to allow researchers to conduct small-scale digs without a permit.

    Such leniency would be a boon for Li and other fieldworkers. Undaunted by his travails, Li has returned to Guizhou several times and uncovered more prize specimens, including a missing link in turtle evolution that he and colleagues published in Nature last year. “I don't object to efforts to overhaul fossil protection,” says Li, brushing dirt off a fossilized aquatic reptile in his Beijing lab. “But any regulation should embody respect for research freedom.”

    • * Zheng Yu is a writer in Beijing.

  2. Plant Genetics

    New Strategy Promises Lasting Resistance to a Rice Plague

    1. Dennis Normile

    Having a blast is no fun for farmers. The rice blast fungus Magnaporthe oryzae can wipe out hectares at a time. It is “a devastating problem,” says Robert Zeigler, a plant pathologist and director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. IRRI estimates that blast outbreaks can cut yields up to 85%. Fungicides are widely used in developed countries, but in the developing world they “are not a viable economic or logistical option for most farmers,” Zeigler says.

    Breeders have found genes that provide resistance against rice blast. But plants equipped with these genes produce lower-quality rice, and the fungus has quickly evolved to overcome resistance in as little as 2 years. At last, however, scientists appear to have found a winner. In this issue of Science (p. 998), a team led by plant molecular biologist Shuichi Fukuoka of Japan's National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba describes a novel type of gene that promises lasting resistance without degrading grain taste. “More effective and durable genetic control of rice blast is of major importance,” says Jeffrey Ellis, a plant molecular biologist at CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra, Australia.


    A newly identified gene variant protects rice (healthy plants in background) from the devastating rice blast fungus (brownish plants in foreground and inset).


    Fukuoka's group zeroed in on a blast-resistant cultivar that has been grown in Japan for a century but remains unpopular. The resistance was traced to a quantitative trait locus (QTL), a DNA stretch containing one or more genes encoding particular characteristics. Unfortunately, QTL Pi21 was also associated with poor taste.

    Fukuoka and colleagues set out to identify the source of resistance in QTL Pi21, determine how it works, and see if it could be separated from the DNA sequence affecting taste. Using map-based cloning in which ever-smaller DNA stretches are examined, they discovered a gene they dubbed pi21. By comparing rice varieties, they found that the resistant pi21 allele, or variant, has two deletions that cause at least partial loss of gene function. The loss curiously enables the plant to defend itself against fungus. In blast-susceptible strains, the pi21 variant found in most cultivars hinders the rice plant's resistance. The pi21 gene is unlike previously identified resistance genes, which are thought to work by interacting with a single gene in a specific fungal strain, a concept called gene-for-gene response that appears to allow the pathogen to quickly evolve resistance. The pi21 gene “has a different structure and a different mechanism, so we think it will be more durable,” says Fukuoka.

    To look at grain quality, the group made numerous crosses of a cultivar carrying QTL Pi21 and high-quality commercial cultivars. The team found a gene close to pi21 in the strains with undesirable taste that was missing in tastier crosses. The team has now established the pi21 gene sans bad-taste gene in commercial cultivars. “The study puts to rest the notion that such resistance comes at a cost to eating quality,” Zeigler says.

    There are still questions about the gene's effectiveness. The authors note the resistance is “incomplete” compared with previously known resistance genes: Rather than preventing infection, it limits the disease's spread. Fukuoka's team is working to add additional resistance genes to the mix. Such gene “stacking” is increasingly common in wheat breeding, Ellis says.

    The gene's long-term promise could start to become clear as early as next year, when cultivars carrying it enter commercial cultivation in Japan. Zeigler says IRRI plans to soon start testing the gene in tropical rice varieties. The finding, he says, “will certainly help reinvigorate resistance breeding efforts.”

  3. ARPA-E Funding

    U.S. Energy Agency Stumbles Out of the Blocks

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The new U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) is supposed to “disrupt the status quo” by funding “transformational” ideas that will help end the country's dependence on foreign oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and move the economy toward sustainable energy sources. So far, however, the agency has caused more disruption among scientists than transformation of the U.S. energy sector.

    Researchers are grumbling about the way ARPA-E, which is part of the Department of Energy (DOE), is handling its first round of grant proposals. On 27 April, the agency asked for preliminary ideas for spending the first $150 million of some $400 million it was given in the president's stimulus package. The solicitation was a big hit: Researchers submitted 3500 concept papers describing myriad ways to revolutionize every conceivable type of energy technology.

    Seeking the best minds.

    ARPA-E sought out scientists in many sectors to review the 3500 proposals it received.


    The outpouring overwhelmed the agency, which until February had no budget and is still operating without a permanent director and with only a skeletal staff. The initial template for submitting the eight-page papers—the first of a two-step process for obtaining funding—proved so cumbersome that it was scrapped, and the deadline was extended by nearly a month. The change ate into a mandate for agencies to spend their stimulus money as quickly as possible.

    Last month, all but 200 or so of the applicants received a form letter telling them not to bother submitting a full proposal. “Your concept is unlikely to receive funding,” wrote Acting Deputy Director Shane Kosinski. It wasn't just the rejection that stung, but also the lack of any feedback. Kosinski noted that “the large number of submissions prevents me from sending you specific comments on the rationale for the decision.” ARPA-E expects to fund fewer than 2% of the 3500 proposals, he added.

    “I don't know whether they think [my proposal] is trash or if I just need to make a better argument,” says Ning Zeng, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who sought funding to test his idea of burying and storing wood as part of an ongoing forest management system to sequester large amounts of carbon. “Maybe they thought it was just too simple an idea.”

    Martin Hoffert, a physicist at New York University in New York City who had proposed testing a system of space-based lasers that would beam solar energy to Earth, says he lobbied for the creation of ARPA-E and still believes it can play an important role in helping the country move to a low-carbon economy. But he doesn't like the secrecy surrounding the review process. “This is the type of command-and-control system that is better suited to a classified program,” he says.

    The fallout prompted New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin to ask in his widely read blog, Dot Earth: “Does this look like an energy quest to you?” He's also invited scientists to post their rejected concept papers in hopes of stimulating further discussion of their self-identified transformative ideas. (Hoffert and Zeng, among others, accepted the offer.)

    A DOE spokesperson said Kosinski declined to discuss how the competition has been managed. But Science has obtained a copy of the agency's guidelines to reviewers, which lays out the procedures. The reviewers were asked to rate each proposal on its scientific merit and relevance to ARPA-E's mission using a five-point scale from excellent to poor for each category. Reviewers were also asked for a “narrative on the strengths and weaknesses of the application.”

    Energy Secretary Steven Chu, an early and vocal advocate of ARPA-E, says he beat the bushes to expand the pool of top-quality reviewers. But with less than a month to vet the proposals, ARPA-E officials were forced to streamline the process. The vast majority of proposals received only two reviews, although Chu says “if one reviewer said [a proposal] was great and another said it was a dog, we had a third reviewer look at it.” Chu told Science he believes the process “was as transparent as we could make it.” The deadline for those invited to submit a full research proposal is 28 August, and the winners will be announced in the fall.

    Some scientists are worried that ARPA-E's shaky start may point to bigger problems down the road. “Some people say ARPA-E should be a very nimble organization, with a focus on short-term technologies that can be scaled up quickly, while others say it's supposed to support long-term research. We're all waiting for them to spell it out,” says Michael Lubell, head of public affairs for the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. “Everybody wants it to be like DARPA [the Defense Department's innovative research shop launched after Sputnik that is credited with inventing the Internet and promoting high-performance computing]. But DARPA funds research based on what DOD needs. DOE doesn't know what is needed—that's up to the market. You can guess, but you may be wrong.”

    Hoffert has a more immediate metric. “I still think ARPA-E is a great idea,” he says. “So let's see what they fund. If it's mostly pedestrian ideas, things that DOE already wanted to do, then we'll know the answer. And a lot of people are worried that's exactly what will happen.”

  4. Biomedical Research

    Rejecting ‘Big Science’ Tag, Collins Sets Five Themes for NIH

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The new director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) laid out his priorities this week, spending his 1st day on the job speaking to his staff and reporters. Physician-geneticist Francis Collins said he plans to emphasize five “themes,” including health care reform and translating research into medicine. Collins also sought to allay perhaps the biggest concerns about his nomination last month by President Barack Obama, saying that he will protect investigator-initiated science and that his religious interests will not influence how he runs the agency.

    Collins, who in 2008 stepped down after 15 years as director of NIH's genome institute, spoke publicly about his ideas for the first time since his name surfaced as the leading candidate to head the agency. In a town hall meeting with NIH staff, he said he now has an “exciting, daunting, and perhaps the most amazing job that anybody could ever ask for.” He assured a large crowd that “the mainstay” of NIH will be the individual investigator; anybody who thinks otherwise “need look no further” than the genome institute's intramural program, where research is “driven by ideas” and where he will keep his lab.

    At the same time, large biology projects are one of Collins's five priorities. He will promote high-throughput technologies in areas that are “poised for this kind of approach,” such as gene transcription and autism studies. He expects to emphasize translational research, such as a new NIH program to develop drugs for rare diseases. The three other themes are health care reform, including research comparing treatments, which he said NIH “should embrace”; global health; and “empower[ing] the biomedical research community,” which he said includes sustained funding, encouraging young investigators, and funding innovative research.

    Quick study.

    NIH Director Francis Collins spent his first day on the job explaining his vision for NIH.


    Collins said that “job one” is dealing with what happens when the $10.4 billion that NIH received as part of this year's stimulus package runs out in 2011. NIH faces “a perfect storm,” he said, partly driven by a flood of more than 20,000 applications for stimulus-funded grants, that could bring record-low success rates if the agency's budget doesn't rise above the current $30.6 billion. He will argue for more funding by telling Congress that NIH funding stimulates local economies and by emphasizing “themes that clearly resonate.” He noted that $40 billion, which some groups are pushing for, is “within [the] envelope” of what NIH would need to restore losses to inflation since 2003.

    Collins also addressed concerns that he said have “graced many pages of the blogosphere,” as well as the op-ed page of The New York Times, that his evangelical Christian beliefs could influence how he runs NIH. He has resigned from BioLogos, the foundation exploring science and faith that he started. He told reporters that those “personal interests … will not interfere with the judgments that I will need to make as the director of the NIH.”

    As for management issues, Collins has chosen to retain Raynard Kington as his principal deputy director. Kington served in that position until becoming acting NIH director after Elias Zerhouni resigned last fall. Collins expects to hold off on finding a permanent director for the alcoholism institute because of an ongoing discussion about whether it should merge with NIH's drug addiction institute. Asked about NIH's intramural program, he said he is “resistant to the idea that [the program] is in need of some sort of dramatic redo” but is pondering whether to create a pool of intramural money that, like NIH's Common Fund, could be used to fund crosscutting research quickly.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site


    Dogs Are No Mind Readers Despite thousands of years of domestication, dogs have a hard time figuring out what humans are thinking. That's the conclusion of a new study, which shows that dogs continue to trust unreliable people and therefore lack a so-called theory of mind.

    The Social Life of Your Cell Phone Your cell phone may know more about your private life than you do, according to a new study of mobile phone calls. This insight opens the door to mining massive data sets from mobile phone call logs, which should allow researchers to test theories on how relationship networks make or break businesses, shape the flow of information, and even affect the course of epidemics.

    Weight Loss for Batteries With $27 billion a year in sales, lithium-ion batteries already dominate the market for rechargeables. But there's always pressure to do better. Now researchers report that they've come up with a way to use nanotechnology to either significantly increase the energy-storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries or reduce their weight while maintaining their current energy content. The new work could lead to everything from lighter laptops to electric cars with a considerably longer range.

    Neandertals Led Bitter Lives Humans vary genetically in their ability to taste a bitter chemical known as phenylthiocarbamide, which elicits the same response as bitter flavors in Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli. A new study finds that our close relatives, Neandertals, also had varied tastes for bitter food, suggesting that differences in the ability to detect bitterness stretch back at least half a million years.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  6. Genetic Engineering

    Two Steps Forward for Synthetic Biology

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    For more than 3 decades, researchers have been engineering microbes with the aim of harnessing these simple creatures to clean up pollution, make drugs, and produce biofuels. They have largely been limited to tinkering with individual genes, however. Now, two new developments have brought genetic engineers closer to a major goal: routinely manipulating sets of genes and even whole genomes.

    J. Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and his colleagues have transferred a bacterial genome into yeast, modified that genome, and then put it into a different bacterium within which it drives the microbe's biochemistry and reproduction. They describe this technology in a paper published online this week by Science ( Independently, George Church of Harvard University and his team have come up with a way to quickly improve entire chemical pathways in bacteria and in a matter of days generate new strains capable of producing useful chemicals. That work was published in the 13 August issue of Nature.

    “The tools developed by Venter and Church are both major advances in synthetic biology,” says Hal Alper, a cellular and metabolic engineer at the University of Texas, Austin.

    In 2002, Venter created a stir by announcing that he intended to create life by making a synthetic chromosome and, eventually, a self-replicating organism controlled by this artificial genome. His goal was to determine the minimal genome needed for life and use that as a starting point to create designer organisms that synthesize specific compounds. In early 2007, he and his colleagues showed they could replace one bacterium's genome with the genome from another species (Science, 3 August 2007, p. 632) and assumed that they could do the same with a humanmade genome once they had it in hand.

    By early 2008, they had built from scratch the 580,000-base genome of Mycoplasma genitalium, a parasitic bacterium that has the smallest known genome of any free-living organism, using yeast to assemble chemically synthesized pieces of DNA into the complete genome. But when they tried to put the synthetic genome into a bacterium whose own genome had been removed, they were stumped. “When we tried to transplant [the genome], it wouldn't [work],” Venter recalls.

    Transplant blues.

    A marker gene causes bacteria containing working genomes transplanted from another species to form blue colonies. The diagram above shows the steps involved in moving that genome into yeast, modifying it, and then transplanting it into a recipient cell.


    To begin to figure out what went wrong, they decided to put the natural bacterial chromosome into yeast. They also switched to a different mycoplasma that grows faster than M. genitalium. They modified the mycoplasma genome by adding yeast DNA, including a centromere, to turn that DNA into a yeast artificial chromosome. The yeast took up the genome and maintained it intact, providing a system they could use to test different ways to make transplantation work, Venter's team reports.

    Once the bacterial genome was in the yeast, the researchers deleted a gene that they lacked the technology to delete from the genome when it was still in the bacterium, demonstrating that they could use the genetic tools available for modifying yeast DNA to manipulate the bacterial DNA. That feat is an important step forward, says Alper. “It will now be possible to create de novo function from the ground up, especially in organisms lacking comprehensive genetic tools,” he notes. “This approach certainly opens the door for importing and synthesizing functions from novel and natively isolated organisms.”

    When they tried to transfer the modified genome from yeast into bacterial cells, however, Venter's team hit the same roadblock they encountered when they tried to implant the synthetic mycoplasma genome into bacteria: It didn't work. Venter surmised that proteins called restriction enzymes were short-circuiting the transfer. Bacteria carry these enzymes to defend against foreign DNA; they cut DNA in specific places, effectively destroying it. A bacterium protects its own DNA sequence from enzyme attack by adding methyl side groups to it.

    In one experiment, the researchers knocked out the recipient cell's gene for its restriction enzyme. In another experiment, they isolated the bacterial genome from yeast and chemically treated it to methylate its DNA before putting it into the recipient cell.

    Seeing red.

    An automated process for adding DNA to bacteria and culturing them sped the evolution of strains that produce high concentrations of a red compound, lycopene, useful as an antioxidant dietary supplement.


    Their hunch was right. The genome transferred just fine into recipient cells lacking restriction enzymes. And the methylated genome was successfully incorporated even into recipient cells that still had their restriction enzyme gene intact. “This team has shown that they can go from yeast to mycoplasma,” says Church. “The next step is going from synthetic DNA in yeast to mycoplasma. The key advance seems to be methylation.” Venter's group has yet to try methylating a synthetic genome to see if it can be transplanted effectively.

    For Venter, this work clears the way for making a functioning genome from scratch, which he intends to do “as a proof of principle,” he says. But for designing new microbes, his group may not need to create a synthetic genome: By deleting genes from the natural chromosome using the yeast system, they can determine the minimal genome, and they can then add genes at will, he points out.

    Church and his colleagues are taking a different route. Rather than focusing on minimal genomes and working up from there to designer microbes, they have come up with a way to fine-tune the workhorse of synthetic biology, Escherichia coli. Genetic engineers have long used this bacterium to make insulin and about 100 other human proteins by adding human genes to its genetic repertoire. But making improvements in the production of useful drugs and other substances can be slow and inefficient, says Church.

    To remedy that, his team has developed an automated system to add batches of new DNA to bacteria, generate multiple new strains, and select the ones that work best in producing a particular compound—a type of genome editing. Bearing the complicated name of multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE), the technology quickly increased the efficiency with which E. coli produced lycopene, a useful antioxidant found in tomatoes, carrots, and watermelons, Church and his colleagues reported last week.

    First, Church used a computer to design variations of 20 genes that are involved in lycopene synthesis. His team made thousands of 90-base pieces of DNA, changing just a few bases in each piece. These bases are the part of the DNA that is involved in binding to the ribosome, where genetic information is put to use making proteins. The stronger the binding, the more efficient the production of the enzyme coded for that particular gene, and greater efficiency translates into higher production of lycopene. He also silenced four other genes that produce enzymes that siphon off intermediates from the lycopene-production pathway, making production less efficient.

    Church added these pieces of DNA to his MAGE system, which uses electrical current to force the DNA pieces into the cells and grows, chills, washes, and resuspends cells in media. The cells keep cycling through growth and DNA-addition steps, resulting in 4 billion genetic variants per day. After 24 hours, the team screened the variants for the reddest colonies—signaling the ones producing the most lycopene—measured the amount of lycopene, and analyzed the variants' genetic makeup. In 3 days, the experiment yielded strains in which lycopene production increased fivefold, with a better yield than ever before achieved industrially, says Church.

    Alper thinks Venter's and Church's approaches are complementary, with the latter potentially helping to make newly created genomes better. “This combination would provide a powerful, selective way to edit and improve genomes prior to transplanting [them] back into a host cell,” he notes.

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Restoring national forests to prepare them for climate change and to protect water resources will be the overarching goal of U.S. forest policy, Tom Vilsack, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced 14 August.

    The chair of a blue-ribbon panel reviewing the U.S. human space program briefed senior Obama Administration science officials on what's expected to be a frank assessment of NASA's choices. The panel held its final public hearing on 12 August and has promised to finish its report by the end of this month.

    Lower-than-expected inflation rates have U.K. research councils considering whether they can legally demand that grantees return some grant moneys.

    The Smithsonian Institution has tapped an academic administrator to take over as Under Secretary for Science. Eva Pell, senior vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, will start in January.

    President Barack Obama has awarded the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 people, including two scientists: geneticist Janet Davison Rowley of the University of Chicago, who identified a chromosomal translocation as a cause of leukemia, and Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University for his work in theoretical physics.

    Astronomers are making good progress discovering and tracking large asteroids that could hit Earth, but they won't meet the goal set by Congress without dedicated funding, according to a report released 12 August by the National Academies' National Research Council.

    A decision to fold a long-running center supporting underrepresented minorities and women in engineering into a larger student services office has upset many students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.

    For more science policy news, visit

  8. Archaeology in China

    Beyond the Yellow River: How China Became China

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The cradle of Chinese civilization was long considered to be the region around the middle Yellow River. But older and complex cultures from far-flung corners of the modern nation are now telling a different story about the origin of Chinese culture.


    LIANGZHU, CHINA—Three years ago, a farmer who works the lush fields along the meandering Tiaoxi river, 200 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, decided to build a new house. This area around the town of Liangzhu has long been known as a center of Neolithic settlements, so Liu Bin of Zhejiang Province's archaeological institute assembled a team to conduct routine salvage work. But rather than the postholes or earthen floors typically found at such settlements, the team instead encountered a carefully prepared foundation of stone blocks.

    The blocks were part of a wall, now dated to 4300 years ago—and it was no simple enclosure. Further excavation revealed a massive perimeter of earth built on stone, with an average width of 50 meters, running in a rough circle for 7 kilometers and surrounded by a wide moat. The farmer lost his house site, but archaeologists gained a new appreciation for the complexity of this ancient culture. The enormous wall enclosed previously discovered earthen platforms, which extend over 30 hectares and are raised 10 meters above the low-lying plain. Although modest in comparison with the pyramids and ziggurats of this era in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the structures required an enormous amount of labor and skill. “To construct these large platforms and walls with simple tools, you would need 10,000 people over 2 years,” Liu estimates.

    Even more astonishing than the engineering are the site's location and age. Archaeologists long thought that Chinese civilization was born half a millennium later and 800 kilometers to the northwest along the central plains of the Yellow River. Wikipedia summarizes the classic view: “Chinese civilization originated in various city-states along the Yellow River in the Neolithic era.” Yet centuries earlier, Liangzhu was at the center of a sophisticated culture that included hundreds of settlements discovered in recent decades, stretching across the flat and fertile expanses as far as Shanghai. With finely worked jade ornaments, elaborate tombs, high platforms, and objects carved in an artistic and distinctive style, the Liangzhu culture appears separate from that of the Yellow River. In fact, goods and styles from this region, such as the fine jades, have been found as far west as the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, 3000 kilometers upstream, and were imitated across China for thousands of years.


    Dramatic discoveries like those at Liangzhu have been repeated across China in the past 2 decades, challenging long-held views. From Manchuria in the north, to the Chengdu plain to the west, and to the coastal cities of the south (see map, p. 933), excavations are revealing a host of complex and distinct ancient cultures, each with its own artifacts and traditions. Liangzhu's striking carved faces are one example; other cultures developed enormous bronze statues, large stone ceremonial complexes, and a golden, whirling sun motif.

    Yellow River sites like Erlitou remain key to understanding the first true urban centers in China. But other, far-flung cultures also contain the seeds of Chinese traditions. “Before these astonishing finds, we were focused on the central plains,” says Wang Wei, director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Most of us accepted that the Yellow River was the origin of Chinese civilization. But as we've done more research, we have found other cultural areas as numerous as the stars in the sky. … Now it is clear that the development and expansion of regional centers contributed to the formation of Chinese civilization.” And, he adds, communication and competition among those centers may hold the key to understanding how a common culture emerged.

    Saving face.

    These 3000-year-old bronzes of a previously unknown style were recovered from Sanxingdui near Chengdu.


    In 2004, Wang's institute began coordinating an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to chart this in detail, by providing a more accurate chronology for sites and bringing to bear the latest methods for analyzing the past 25 years of finds. By drawing on researchers across China and collaborating with foreign scientists, Wang hopes to paint a more nuanced and data-driven view of the country's ancient past while pushing China's archaeological community toward the forefront of the field. But it is a formidable challenge, says archaeologist Lothar von Falkenhausen of the University of California, Los Angeles, who has long experience in China. “We don't really know how the interactions took place, and they changed over millennia.”

    Want a revolution

    How China became China is no mere academic topic; it goes to the very heart of how the world's most populous and economically vibrant nation sees itself and its role in the world. During much of the 20th century, archaeology was often used as a political tool, first as a boost to national pride in a country that felt dominated by Western powers and Japan. After the 1949 Communist revolution, suggestions that China's evolution was strongly influenced by Western trade and technology became politically taboo. “Archaeology played a critical role in defining Chinese nationalism,” says Gary Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, in Canada. “But there's been a real revolution in the profession in the past 20 years.”

    That revolution has opened up previously off-limits topics, from the impact of the West (see p. 940) to regional diversity. After decades of isolation, Chinese archaeologists are increasingly setting aside formerly obligatory Marxist theory and drawing on modern techniques in gathering and interpreting data. Regional discoveries and institutes find a warm welcome—and funding—within provincial governments flush with tax revenues and eager to emphasize their unique contributions (see p. 936).

    No one doubts that the plains around the middle Yellow River are where Chinese civilization coalesced around the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., during what historians call the Shang dynasty (see timeline, p. 930). Legend speaks of an earlier dynasty called the Xia, but its existence remains controversial (see p. 934). The vast archaeological and textual remains from the Shang reveal an elite with a rich court culture ruling over masses of millet and wheat farmers—the grains of choice in the cooler and drier north. Embroiled in frequent conquests, the Shang people used advanced weaponry such as horse-drawn chariots and took many prisoners from conquered regions. They also practiced human and animal sacrifice, worshipped a supreme god who dominated the forces of nature, and paid homage to their ancestors, who were seen as active participants in family life.

    Heaven and Earth.

    The round bi and square cong used in Liangzhu became enduring Chinese symbols.


    Many of these traditions and technologies echo through the next 3 millennia. The Shang set the stage for the expansion and collapse of central authority that repeatedly characterizes Chinese history. But there have been hints that this single region did not hold the whole story. More than 30 years ago, Su Bingqi of Peking University and K. C. Chang of Harvard University independently suggested that China's civilization grew out of a complex interweaving of many regional cultures. Recent excavations back up these ideas. Indeed, prehistoric Chinese societies stretched across time and space, from the millet-farming-and-pig-raising Peiligang people in the north starting in 7000 B.C.E., to the 5000 B.C.E. Yangshao people near the Yellow River, who may have first experimented with silk. Many of the symbols of classic Chinese civilization, such as dragon motifs and the use of jade as a magical stone, appear to originate far from the central plains. Two cultures in particular—the Hongshan in the northeast, which flourished from 4500 B.C.E. to 2250 B.C.E., and the Liangzhu, which lasted from 3500 B.C.E. until 2250 B.C.E.—were setting the pace many centuries before the Shang. Indeed, the peoples of the mid–Yellow River area began to construct their first major settlement, called Taosi, at about the time the older cultures collapsed.

    Finely carved jade, for example, first appears about 3500 B.C.E. during the Hongshan culture in today's Liaoning and Inner Mongolia. There, researchers have found elaborate stone tombs containing numerous jade objects shaped like a phoenix and dragon—animals that later become central symbols in Chinese mythology.

    “Jade is like gold in the West,” says archaeologist Elizabeth Childs-Johnson of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, who frequently works in China. “It is a major symbol of power” in China from the Neolithic to the modern era. The stone is also hard to work and therefore labor intensive. Whereas copper, bronze, and gold take center stage in the early civilizations of the West, these metals come relatively late to the East. Childs-Johnson argues that like precious metals in the West, jade production in China acted as a major stimulus for social evolution by defining an elite.

    Recent excavations at Hongshan sites such as Niuheliang in the Liao River valley northeast of Beijing have focused mainly on remarkable burial structures and goods, including the jades. Eighteen elite graves dating to the centuries before 3000 B.C.E. have so far been unearthed, one with 20 pieces of carefully carved jade beads, disks, bracelets, hair tubes, and a plaque with fangs. The sacred and burial areas demonstrate “a level of cultural sophistication that is not duplicated elsewhere at this time in early China,” says Childs-Johnson. One partially excavated site near Niuheliang called Chengzishan includes a massive temple on a platform 165 meters wide and 900 meters long—nearly half the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Researchers have so far found subterranean rooms, a life-size ceramic head of a female with inlaid nephrite-jade eyes, and sculptures of ox heads and birds.

    Archaeologists have also increasingly found the material of daily life among the Hongshan people, including stone tools such as plow tips in standardized shapes; sophisticated kilns that fired black, gray, and red vessels; and unusual red-painted ceramic cylinders that served as building supports. And they say there are undoubtedly large numbers of undiscovered sites in this little-explored region, which Childs-Johnson thinks was “a prominent cultural center and player in the evolution of Chinese civilization.”

    Researchers say they are just beginning to piece together the interactions among the Hongshan and other highly complex cultures that developed before the Yellow River culture or were largely independent of it. Was there trade, migration, diffusion, or warfare? Did the later cultures build on the earlier ones, or were they completely independent? New excavations may yield answers soon. “Northeast China is currently a hotbed of active field research that will illuminate both the nature of local cultural developments and long-distance relationships,” says Harvard archaeologist Rowan Flad.

    Long-distance contacts among cultures seem likely, but their complexity and extent remain elusive. For example, the Liangzhu culture, which emerged 1000 years later and 2000 kilometers southeast of the Hongshan heartland, may have drawn on the older society's expertise in jade, but direct evidence is lacking. As early as the 1930s, Liangzhu archaeologists began to uncover numerous and varied jade objects of an even higher quality than those in the northeast.


    The Liangzhu people seem to have had military and political concerns with their neighbors, as hinted at by the walls, moats, and stone weapons found more recently. And some 30 excavated large-scale mounds, often with elaborate burials that include jade, ivory, and lacquer, show that there was widespread regional trade, primarily up the Yangtze River. To date, archaeologists have identified nearly 300 settlements in an area of 18,000 square kilometers, says Liu.

    The age of many of these early sites, particularly Liangzhu itself, is controversial. New radiocarbon evidence shows that the massive stone and earth wall uncovered by Liu was constructed in the later period, just before Liangzhu's collapse around 2250 B.C.E., says Wu Xiaohong of Peking University. Whether that huge effort was for defensive purposes or to hold back floods—there is some evidence of climate change—remains uncertain.

    Whatever the wall's purpose and age, Liangzhu itself had a broad influence that touched much of the territory of present-day China. Its products—from jade to pottery—are scattered throughout the north and the east and are found in the western province of Gansu as well as the southwestern province of Sichuan. And the society appears to have imparted religious ideas that remain quintessentially Chinese. The Liangzhu people created circular disks called bi—symbolizing heaven—as well as squarish cylindrical congs—symbolizing earth—at a time when the Yellow River was still relatively sparsely settled. The bi and cong are widely found in the Yellow River region later and came to be seen as shapes that express the Chinese culture's mythological understanding of the cosmos.

    Origin seekers.

    Beijing's Wang Wei (above) and Liangzhu's Liu Bin (below) see a more complex story of China's emergence.


    Mistaken identity

    Although Hongshan and Liangzhu were among the first complex cultures in East Asia, others also clearly contributed elements now considered part of Chinese culture. The first lacquerware and protoporcelain, for example, appear to have emerged in the late Liangzhu period from the middle Yangtze River area, far upstream from Liangzhu itself. And rice, that staple and symbol of Chinese society, was domesticated over a long period of time in the lower reaches of the Yangtze, starting by 7000 B.C.E. or even earlier.

    Other regions evolved their own unique cultures, styles, and traditions that did not obviously transfer to what later came to be called Chinese civilization. In 1987, archaeologists working on a 12-kilometer-square site called Sanxingdui, north of the modern city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province in the country's rugged southwest, unearthed a spectacular array of finds. They found eerie bronze and gold masks, a gold scepter, jade ornaments, and massive bronze statues—including a 4-meter-high representation of a tree—from the period around 1200 B.C.E. Sanxingdui is unmentioned in any texts or myths, has no writing of its own, and lies in a remote area; a Tang dynasty poem warns that it is harder to get into Sichuan than heaven. So the evidence of a wealthy and complex culture here stunned both researchers and the Chinese public. Some of the artifacts hinted at connections to Central Asia and far southern China. “The discoveries in the province have forced Chinese archaeologists to completely rethink [Sichuan's] importance in narratives of prehistoric and early historic China,” says Flad.

    Stone Age.

    The Hongshan people of northeast China created fine jade works like these 5500 years ago.


    A decade later, archaeologists working elsewhere in Sichuan's Chengdu Plain revealed a culture that appears to have been the predecessor of the Sanxingdui culture, dating to as early as 2500 B.C.E. The largest of these sites, called Baodun, had been mistaken for years for a later Han dynasty settlement. “Nobody believed a city could be from that early period,” recalls Wang Yi, who directs the Chengdu City Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics. After confirming the dates, “we realized it was a discovery to rewrite the history of Sichuan and even China.”

    The settlements are on a smaller and less complex scale than the cities that emerged 1000 years later on the central plain. But since 1996, a total of eight early walled sites in Sichuan have been pinpointed, ranging in size from 10 to 66 hectares. Wang says the largest contained a population in the thousands, although he declines to be more specific pending further excavations. Many have small houses ringed around larger structures that sit on earthen platforms paved with pebbles. Construction of the walls resembles that downstream along the middle Yangtze, where other cultures are known to have flourished, but specific trade links remain unclear. Work on Baodun sites has been delayed, because many lie beneath modern towns and villages, and the 2001 discovery of the Jinsha site in Chengdu dating to 1000 B.C.E.—likely a successor to the Sanxingdui culture—forced regional archaeologists to focus their attention and resources there instead. Wang says there are plans to resume digs at Baodun once villages on the site are relocated.

    Face time.

    Enigmatic carved visages decorate this jade box from Liangzhu.


    The sophisticated sites in Sichuan, in the northeast, around Liangzhu and elsewhere have made it clear that “the origin of Chinese civilization is scattered all over the present-day country,” says Jiang Weidong, an archaeologist and director of the Liangzhu Museum outside the city of Hangzhou. Weidong thinks that these independent cultures began to link up only sporadically and gradually over many centuries. He notes that in later Chinese history, a half-dozen or so regions periodically reassert their sovereignty and that each of these regions had highly developed prehistoric cultures. For example, in the early centuries B.C.E., the Shu state in today's Sichuan and the Yue state in the Liangzhu area repeatedly broke away from central control. The serial pattern of Chinese centralization followed by the rise of regional powers may be an artifact of those ancient regional developments, Weidong suggests.

    Although not even half-complete, the project to define the origins of Chinese civilization has already laid to rest the notion of an imperial China rising from the central plains of the Yellow River to bestow its gifts on backward hinterlands. Now archaeologists face the challenging task of understanding how the myriad peoples and cultures of the region interacted over several millennia. UCLA's Von Falkenhausen even suggests that, as a result of this complexity, “the very notion of [a single] Chinese civilization will probably have to be jettisoned.” Chinese scholars say that they will follow the data. “The focus of this project is not to prove the glory of Chinese civilization but to see how it formed,” says Wang. “We want the details.”

  9. Archaeology in China

    Founding Dynasty or Myth?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A new crop of archaeologists, less willing to take ancient texts at face value, are challenging the existence of a legendary dynasty.

    Mythical creature?

    A turquoise dragon found at Erlitou, an important early site in the central plains area of the Yellow River. When discovered in 1959, the settlement was hailed as the capital of the legendary Xia dynasty, which was described in early texts. But recent excavations, coupled with new dating, cast doubt on that claim, as well as on the accuracy of the texts detailing the rise of the Xia.


    ERLITOU, CHINA—In the 6th century B.C.E., Confucius referred to the ancient Xia dynasty as China's first, based on documents that were old in his day. For generations of Chinese scholars, the Xia was China's initial great flowering of civilization, inaugurating a history that unfolded in methodical fashion from city-state to empire (see main text and timeline, p. 930). But there was no physical evidence for the dynasty's existence, so in 1959 an archaeological team set out to find its seat. Along this marshy section of the Luo River in the central plains of the Yellow River Valley, they uncovered a 300-hectare site dating to roughly the correct period—and promptly hailed it as the long-lost first capital.

    But did the Xia, said to have flourished from 2100 B.C.E. to 1600 B.C.E., really exist? New, unpublished dates and excavation data from this modest site challenge its status as the capital of the Xia. “We have proven that Erlitou is the largest and most culturally developed site with the biggest population,” says Chen Guoliang, an assistant researcher at the site, standing in a gentle spring rain on the roof of the dig house. “But what it was exactly requires more research.”

    Until the archaeological finds of the past half-century, most of what we knew of early Chinese history was based largely on ancient texts, which have a status here somewhat comparable to that of the Bible in the West. They provide a detailed account of how the Xia succumbed to the Shang dynasty, which in turn gave over to the Zhou dynasty around 1045 B.C.E. Although the texts were written long after most of the events, digs have confirmed many of the assertions made about the Shang and later eras. But the Xia dynasty has remained elusive, despite the identification of Erlitou as its capital.

    During the past decade, Xu Hong of the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing has directed extensive excavations here, although digging has stopped for now to allow archaeologists to interpret their data and the site has been reburied and planted with wheat. The digs have revealed the details of Erlitou's rise, including a central complex, possibly a palace, in the first phase. Then the settlement grew, the palace area was walled, and a street network was built. A section of road with wagon tracks provides the oldest evidence for wheeled vehicles in China, though whether they were pulled by humans or draft animals is unclear. Many bronze and other precious artifacts, including a spectacular, snakelike turquoise dragon, were apparently made in the palace area and found in large numbers in nearby tombs of the elite. At its peak, as many as 20,000 people may have lived at Erlitou before it slowly faded into obscurity around 1500 B.C.E.

    “It looks like a planned city, separated by function, with relatively clustered tombs, workshop areas, pottery workshops near the river, and a clear hierarchy,” says Chen. With regular walls surrounding a spacious palace complex near the city center and wide, straight streets, Erlitou's design matches an urban layout that became common throughout China for millennia and is still visible in cities like Beijing, built around the Forbidden City.

    Xu's radiocarbon dating of Erlitou to between 1900 B.C.E. and 1500 B.C.E. was later than records indicated for the Xia. Some archaeologists therefore called Erlitou a “late Xia” capital. Now, a larger series of organic samples from the lower layers shift the start date even later—to approximately 1750 B.C.E., says Wu Xiaohong of Peking University, where the samples were recently analyzed. That will make it much more difficult to connect Erlitou with the Xia, which was supposedly ending at the time Erlitou was evolving.

    Most younger archaeologists avoid the term Xia altogether. They prefer the term “Erlitou culture” to “Xia dynasty,” and its successor “Erligang culture” to “Shang dynasty.” Chen explains that “old scholars who graduated before the Cultural Revolution are steeped in a background centered on written Chinese history—and they wanted to solve the ‘problem’ of the Xia and Shang dynasties by using archaeology to prove their view.” He adds that the Cultural Revolution wiped away the traditional lineages of historians, while archaeologists have since embraced Western methods. “Only physical evidence can prove the existence of these two dynasties,” he says.

    Xu, the excavation chief, criticizes the recent government-funded Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project as “a kind of political propaganda.” For him, “archaeology and legendary history are different disciplines.” He says that research has been overshadowed for too long by a preoccupation with the dynastic tradition.

    As Xu and his team analyze the data from a decade of excavation, they are focusing on how salt production may have been Erlitou's economic driver; such issues are neglected in the written histories. The resulting scenario may be less dramatic than the texts' story of a great storm sent by heaven—complete with 3 days of blood rain—that inaugurated the Xia kingdom, but more convincing to modern archaeologists.

    For many researchers, the controversy pitting texts against excavations is a distraction rather than an assault on Confucian learning. Like Near Eastern archaeologists, they are happy to make use of revered ancient texts but do not treat them as revealed truth. “We don't just want to know whether Erlitou is Xia; we want to know the economic and political system. That's what's important,” says Ma Xiaolin, vice-director of the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in nearby Zhengzhou. “We don't care about the name; we just want a clearer picture.”

  10. Archaeology in China

    Archaeologists Raise The Old With the New

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Researchers are working to transform China's development boom from a curse into a blessing for ancient sites.

    Golden days.

    New archaeology museums, such as this one in Chengdu, are springing up all over China.


    CHENGDU, CHINA—Amid tangles of highways and phalanxes of high rises in this booming capital of Sichuan province, more than 30 hectares of prime urban real estate—three times as large as New York City's Battery Park—is meticulously landscaped around two massive glass, steel, and stone pavilions. But unlike many of the high-rise buildings, this $75 million, 2-year-old complex is not the modern headquarters of a successful Chinese corporation. Instead, it is a museum paying homage to a 3000-year-old settlement and its surprisingly rich culture, which until recently was completely unknown.

    This sprawling ancient site, called Jinsha, lies 1000 kilometers from the traditional center of Chinese civilization along the Yellow River (see p. 934) and deep within a region long assumed to have been a cultural backwater until it was absorbed into the Qin dynasty in the 3rd century B.C.E. In recent decades, however, archaeologists have uncovered astonishing evidence of sophisticated and largely independent cultures in the region dating back to 2500 B.C.E., cultures that are helping to rewrite the origins of Chinese civilization (see p. 930).

    A decade ago, Jinsha was still buried. Until its accidental discovery during a construction project, the site was verdant farmland on the outskirts of a city with a mere 5 million people. Today, thanks to savvy archaeologists and their allies in city government, the new Jinsha Site Museum not only offers a welcome haven from urban sprawl but also sets aside a large area for future digs. The excavated area is covered with a vast glass roof, and a separate building houses state-of-the-art exhibits. Chengdu hotels and department stores proudly sport the site's icon, a gold sun disk surrounded by four birds, as a symbol of the city's unique past.

    Jinsha creates a place of beauty, bolsters civic pride, and pulls in tourists—and its success is encouraging other cities to follow suit. “Dozens of local governments have come to see this,” says Zhu Zhangyi, 49, who is now the museum's vice curator. “It has become a model.” Western archaeologists are deeply impressed, too. “The priority is to teach people about their past,” says Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto, Mississauga, in Canada. “They are willing to put real money into that—and we could learn some lessons from that.”

    Archaeologists say models such as this are desperately needed in a country developing more rapidly than any other in human history. Half of the world's concrete is poured in China. There are more than 2 million kilometers of highways, double the amount there was in 1986. And cities like Chengdu—which now boasts more than 10 million people and adds a million a year—have mushroomed, eating up land along rivers and on plains typically favored by ancient peoples. The pace of construction threatens to destroy sites ranging from Paleolithic campsites to Han royal tombs, and with them, a treasure trove of data critical for understanding the role of East Asia in early human migrations, animal and plant domestication, and urbanization.

    Past protector.

    Chengdu's Wang Yi saves sites.


    Halting or even slowing development in a society eager to emerge from rural poverty is not possible. Instead, archaeologists are exploring creative ways to collaborate with both government and developers, and using museums like Jinsha's to build popular support for preserving key sites. Thus China's development boom is powering a new wave of archaeological discovery and appreciation even as it threatens sites. Courts are increasingly willing to enforce harsh penalties on looters (see sidebar, this page). And in a dramatic departure from the past, local governments are now willing to lend support and funds to preserve sites. “It was a great fortune we discovered [Jinsha] in 2001,” says archaeologist Zhu, who led the team that examined the site just ahead of developers. “If it had been earlier, it would have been impossible to preserve the whole area.”

    During a recent visit by Science, however, archaeologists at several provincial centers also warned that they must race to keep up with the bulldozers and have largely set aside purely academic endeavors in order to rescue sites. The recent economic downturn, rather than easing the pace, has only quickened it, as the central government pumps hundreds of billions of dollars into dams, canals, and highways to stimulate the economy. Says Zhu: “We have to do our best to persuade our government that if it doesn't move aggressively to protect sites, there will be nothing left in 10 or 20 years.”

    Water over the dam?

    The current boom is hardly the first threat to China's past. Qin Shi Huang, the man credited with first unifying China in the 3rd century B.C.E., consolidated the Great Wall and left behind the famous terra-cotta army in his mausoleum—two of the modern nation's most famous tourist attractions. But he also ordered that evidence of previous rulers be destroyed in order to ensure his importance in history. More than 2 millennia later, China's revolutionary leader Mao Zedong encouraged his people to obliterate “old ways of thinking,” triggering the destruction of thousands of ancient buildings and artifacts. During the years of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, archaeological publishing ceased, university courses were restricted to political subjects, and many researchers were forced out of their jobs.

    Today, the more insidious threat is not to China's visible past but to the undiscovered sites that lay safely underground until recent development. The most infamous example of this third wave of destruction is the Three Gorges Dam project, which began in 1993 and eventually drowned a 600-kilometer stretch of the middle Yangtze River. The government initially allotted $37.5 million for archaeological salvage, although archaeologists called for at least $500 million. The amount was only marginally increased, and salvage work was not finished before the dam was completed in 2006 (Science, 1 August 2008, p. 628). “We may have missed a few sites,” says one Chinese archaeologist sheepishly.

    Other massive projects have received less publicity but are having a tremendous impact. The $8 billion South-North Water Transfer Project will divert water from the wetter areas of central and southern China to its thirsty north, through a complex mix of reservoirs, canals, and dams. When complete by 2014 (Science, 25 August 2006, p. 1034), the central route—an average of 110 meters wide—will cut across nearly 1300 kilometers, much of it in central Henan Province, which is traditionally considered the homeland of Chinese civilization.

    Ma Xiaolin, vice-director of the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Zhengzhou, says work on the canal has uncovered some 340 sites in Henan alone, from Neolithic settlements to Tang Dynasty tombs. Ma says time and funding for salvage work are ample, but there are complications. Archaeologists are now excavating a 2000-year-old king's tomb and have requested that the government alter the canal route. “No decision has been made,” says another scientist familiar with the site. “It's a sensitive issue.”

    That sensitivity reflects the tension between development and preservation. China passed a heritage protection law in 1982, but archaeologists say it was only haphazardly enforced until recently. “In past decades, we were in a very bad position,” says Wang Yi, who leads the Chengdu City Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics. “Since the first law was passed 27 years ago, we have been fighting against developers. And in the past, local governors were enemies of archaeologists. … We could not counter a city's development.”

    But that is changing. In 1997, the government made violations of cultural heritage laws a criminal act punishable by jail terms and even the death penalty. In Chengdu, the manager of a real-estate company went to jail for 5 years for failing to do archaeological salvage work before construction. “There have been those who destroyed sites and artifacts—but now, if they do, they get in big trouble,” says Wang. “Even government officers don't dare break this law.”

    Hearts and minds

    Along with the legal stick comes a carrot. Both the city and provincial government see that development “is not just about an increase in GDP,” asserts Wang. “We have to make this mainstream, so that all branches of government and citizens support archaeology.” He and a growing number of other Chinese researchers are increasingly involved in outreach activities to create a broader constituency for protecting sites. “It is impossible not to lose some sites,” says Wang Wei, director of the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing. “But the public is starting to appreciate the importance of cultural heritage—and that you can move the site of a planned building.”

    The archaeologists' efforts can be seen in a new and surprising phenomenon: multimillion-dollar popular archaeological museums that have opened in recent years across China, sporting three-dimensional movies, elegant restaurants, and exhibits that equal or surpass those in major U.S., European, and Japanese cities. Many, like the Jinsha museum, are on land protected from further development. “For less than $100 million, the Chengdu municipal government bought a history 1000 years older than it had before,” Zhu says over sushi in the chic museum restaurant.

    Big dig.

    A massive new north-south canal threatens hundreds of ancient settlements.


    In another example, last October a gleaming monument of Iranian marble opened outside the southern port city of Hangzhou to celebrate Liangzhu, which started flourishing around 3500 B.C.E. and is one of the oldest major settlements in China. Now 42 hectares around the site have been protected from major development. When a real-estate company sought to buy neighboring land, the government sold it for under market value in exchange for nearly $24 million for the museum and private-sector expertise in big projects. “This was a real innovation,” says archaeologist Jiang Weidong, director of the Liangzhu Museum, over tea in his sleek Bauhaus-style office.

    The exhibit lays out methods of excavation, the evolution of the site, and the day-to-day life of its people 5000 years ago, using cutting-edge artifacts, films, and displays. Visitors can even walk through a recreation of the settlement, showing both the jade-wearing elite—who were buried in elaborate tombs high on earthen platforms—as well as modest tradespeople and rice and millet farmers in wattle-and-daub houses.

    Back in Chengdu, archaeologists are also using their facilities to win the hearts and minds of their citizens. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, curators at Jinsha opened the grounds to more than 40,000 people who camped out amid fears of aftershocks. To mark the first anniversary of the disaster in May, they waived admission fees and drew an impressive 50,000 citizens. Regular festivals promote the site as a cultural oasis amid the city's congestion.

    Such efforts raise awareness of the nation's heritage, and plans for park and museum complexes at ancient sites are taking hold all over China, from the 3500-year-old city of Erlitou in the central plains to the ancient Silk Road city of Turfan in the far western province of Xinjiang (see p. 940). In May, a new underwater museum opened along the Yangtze, preserving 1200-year-old poetic inscriptions and measurements of annual high-water levels on rock from the waters impounded by the Three Gorges Dam. Such museums also provide opportunities for archaeologists themselves, and some scholars who studied abroad are now finding ways to return to China for research or even permanently (see sidebar, p. 938).

    Getting the goods

    In the rush to modernize, modest prehistoric settlements are at particular risk, although sometimes they can win a reprieve. In Shaanxi province, west of the central plains, for example, construction of a vehicle factory was put on hold after the discovery of an unusually complex, moated, Neolithic site with a line of pottery kilns suggesting specialized handcrafts, dated to a surprisingly early 4000 B.C.E. “The site was preserved, and the provincial government paid dozens of millions of yuan [tens of millions of U.S. dollars] to move the factory,” says Wang Weilin, vice director of the Shaanxi Archaeological Institute.

    Wang, whose organization includes 130 archaeologists, says developers pay nearly $3 million annually to cover the costs of salvage work in his province. But he is particularly concerned about smaller sites without dramatic architecture and artifacts. “We see traces of such sites, but we worry we might not catch up with development,” he says. Harvard University archaeologist Rowan Flad, who is collaborating with Wang, notes that international efforts “are often the only way that work beyond that of a salvage nature can get done,” because of the time pressures on Chinese institutes.

    Smaller, more ancient sites are also at greater risk because they typically lack what Chinese archaeologists privately call “hao dongxi,” which can be roughly translated as “goodies” in English. “There is a tendency among some Chinese archaeologists to look for the goodies, that is, the grave goods with artistic merit and which embody China's cultural heritage,” says Magnus Fiskesjö, an anthropologist at Cornell University. “Fishbones don't qualify.”

    As a result, material with the potential for providing critical data on scientific questions, such as ancient diet, health, and social organization—including fishbones—is often overlooked, particularly during fast-paced salvage digs. Even human bones are often still disposed of rather than analyzed, says Fiskesjö.

    That tendency is changing, albeit unevenly. In Zhengzhou, Ma, who studied at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, is eager to show off his labs and storage facilities, which include well-labeled blue bins of human and animal bones from a host of sites. “Smaller institutes just collect artifacts and throw away the rest,” he says. “We want to focus on new techniques involving plants, animals, and human skeletons and set up databases for each site.” With a healthy $3 million annual budget, Ma's institute has the funds to do more detailed research. But the organization is now juggling a dozen excavations, and he expects to conduct more than 30 digs this year alone—90% of which are salvage operations.

    Despite—and because of—the pace of development, archaeologists in China appear surprisingly optimistic. “Given the investment from our government, the 21st century will be a golden age for archaeology in Sichuan,” predicts Chengdu's Wang. With an interested public plus provincial government coffers filled by the economic boom, China is now paying heed to its archaeological treasures in a way that once might have been criticized as a bourgeois luxury. Says Jiang, smiling over green tea in his sun-filled office: “When your granary is full, you pay more attention to ceremony.”

  11. Archaeology in China

    Landing the Looters

    1. Andrew Lawler

    In a land chock-full of wealthy tombs and poor farmers, grave robbing is an ancient tradition. But in the past decade, China has tightened its laws against looting, a reflection of changing attitudes toward archaeological treasures.

    In the summer of 1998, a reservoir in a rural area of Hunan in southern China dried up. As the water receded, local farmers found ancient pottery and porcelain from the 10th to 13th century C.E. Song Dynasty, which produced some of the world's finest ceramic art. Within a few weeks, hundreds of looters were openly digging at the site. Despite an outcry from a television reporter and a few cultural-heritage specialists, local officials refused to intervene. It was not until the following February that police arrived to stop the illegal digs, arrest the culprits, and clear the way for a team of archaeologists to save what they could.

    In a land chock-full of wealthy tombs and poor farmers, grave robbing is an ancient tradition. But in the past decade, China has tightened its laws against looting, a reflection of changing attitudes toward archaeological treasures (see main text). Now those who destroy the country's past face jail terms and even the death penalty, although no one appears to have actually been executed for looting. Earlier this year, the United States and China agreed to work together to prevent smuggling of looted Chinese antiquities. “The situation in China has improved dramatically in recent years,” says Stefan Gruber, a lawyer at the University of Sydney in Australia, who follows the Chinese situation closely.

    But he adds that although “the central government has good ideas, the local governments do not necessarily follow their orders.” Archaeologist and China expert Lothar von Falkenhausen of the University of California, Los Angeles, remains deeply concerned. “The looters are absolutely everywhere,” he says. “Archaeologists can't keep up, and the looting often takes place with the connivance of local authorities.” Von Falkenhausen adds that the new U.S.–China agreement merely shuts American dealers out of a market increasingly driven by wealthy Chinese collectors.


    Both plaques are probably from Erlitou, but only one was dug legally.


    The pace of destruction is difficult to quantify, but it is clearly still taking place. In the northeast, for example, between 4000 and 15,000 tombs from the Neolithic Hongshan culture (see p. 930), which produced rich jades in fantastic animal shapes 5000 years ago, have been damaged or destroyed by looters during the past decade, says He Shuzhong of the National Administration on Cultural Heritage in Beijing. In the southern province of Hubei, 2000-year-old graves filled with jewelry, documents written on bamboo, and other artifacts have been stolen. “When an archaeological team finally went in, there was nothing left to save,” says one archaeologist familiar with the destruction.

    In response to such damage, museum and site security has recently improved. At the Yanghai cemetery in the remote western province of Xinjiang, for example, looters who a decade ago helped themselves to jewelry in the 3000-year-old graveyard are now stymied by a high fence, locked gate, and live-in caretaker. Recent high-profile cases, coupled with educational initiatives, are making China's vast population aware that looting is illegal and unpatriotic.

    Although strict laws likely dissuade many looters, they can have a perverse effect. Local farmers near Erlitou, one of China's oldest urban centers (see p. 934), now hesitate to bring artifacts found during plowing to archaeologists, perhaps fearing stiff penalties, says Chen Guoliang, an assistant researcher at the site.

    Clicking on his laptop in his office at the Erlitou dig house, Chen pulls up several images of similar turquoise-inlaid bronze plaques that appear to be in a style arguably unique to Erlitou. The use of these elaborate objects remains unclear, and archaeologists are eager to find more in context. But only one was legally excavated from the site. How and when the others were found remains a mystery, though Chen believes that they almost certainly came from Erlitou. Today, the other plaques reside in public and private collections around the world, from the Miho Museum in Japan to Harvard University in the United States. (Many museums have taken at face value claims by sellers that artifacts were legally exported.) Once taken out of their context and sold, says Chen, such artifacts— whose provenance is difficult to verify—no longer have a story about China's heritage worth telling.

  12. Archaeology in China

    Go East, Young Archaeologist

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Many Chinese-born scientists educated in the West are now returning to China, drawn home by family ties and professional opportunities.

    Zhijun Zhao started his career like many promising Chinese students: by studying in the United States with an eye to staying. He got his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and rose through the academic ranks, acquiring the nickname “Jimmy” and eventually landing a comfortable job at a museum in Kansas City. He also got a coveted green card that put him on the path to U.S. citizenship—all the ingredients of the American dream. “Big houses and cars—I could have lived the easy life,” he muses today.

    West to East.

    Zhijun Zhao returned to China.


    But instead, in 1999, Zhao made a bold decision. He returned to China and opened a lab at the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing, which at the time lacked many of the modern facilities common at any American university. He was given 5000 yuan—about $600 at the time—in start-up money. “I spent 4000 yuan on a microscope,” Zhao recalls with a laugh. He held on to the green card for a full year.

    Zhao's move was a gamble. But today, many Chinese-born scientists educated in the West return to China, says Wang Wei, director of the Beijing institute. Although in the past, that return may have been pushed by difficulties in language, culture, and getting a job overseas, now China is a magnetic pull. As archaeology attracts attention, central and provincial governments are spending more on new facilities and better salaries (see main text). Researchers are drawn home by family ties and professional opportunities. “We want all of our overseas scholars to come back,” says Wang. “And we do our best to provide a good environment for researchers.”

    The homeward pull is a relatively new phenomenon. With rare exceptions, war and politics isolated China from the outside world between World War II and Mao Zedong's death in 1976. For the most part, archaeological finds made behind the Bamboo Curtain remained unknown in the West, while new theories and methods failed to penetrate into China.

    Starting in the 1980s, large numbers of Chinese students, including archaeologists, began to study in the West. Some stayed, though others tried to keep a toehold in China as well. For example, Tianlong Jiao studied at Harvard University and is now an archaeologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He moves easily between worlds, doing fieldwork on trade and agriculture in South China and often visiting colleagues at the Beijing institute. But his status as a researcher in both countries may already be an anomaly. “I am probably among the few, if not the only one,” he says.

    Zhao says he has no regrets about returning to his homeland. His 2008 budget is 1.5 million yuan, or $220,000, and his modest lab in a Beijing suburb has an enthusiastic staff of mostly young researchers. On a recent weekday, his team ate lunch together and chatted about work, taking breaks at a Ping-Pong table in a nearby room. Some are specialists in dating ancient wood—dendrochronology—while others analyze spores and pollen to understand paleoenvironments, and another group identifies isotopes in animal bones uncovered in a recent dig. English as well as Chinese textbooks line the walls.

    Two worlds.

    Tianlong Jiao keeps a foot in each country.


    This analytical approach to archaeology marks a radical coming of age for the field in China, where organic material—from human bones to pollen—is still routinely ignored in the search for valuable grave goods. Zhao's example, other archaeologists say, is a powerful motivator for adopting newer techniques. The world is taking notice; a May workshop on archaeological methods in Beijing drew experts from several countries.

    Zhao still bemoans the difficulty of getting things done in China, compared with the ease of life in the United States. But he says China's authorities place no restrictions on his work: “Anything related to scientific research is OK.” The energy of his home country is palpable just outside his lab, where new high rises are sprouting all around while a group of elderly women perform their morning tai chi exercises.

    Last year, Zhao returned to the United States to give a talk and made a pilgrimage back to Columbia to see his former colleagues. “I was surprised,” he says. “Nothing had changed. In China, you see change every day. There is just more activity and more opportunity.”

  13. Archaeology in China

    Bridging East and West

    1. Andrew Lawler

    China's far west, home to unique ancient cultures, may help reveal how technology and goods flowed from West to East to shape Chinese civilization.

    Desert death.

    A 4000-year-old child mummy peers out of his wooden coffin in Xiaohe cemetery on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.


    YANGHAI, XINJIANG PROVINCE—No place on Earth is farther from an ocean than this dusty spot in the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China. But when archaeologist Lu Enguo recently excavated the sprawling 3000-year-old Yanghai cemetery here, he found a cowrie shell from either the Pacific or the Indian Ocean in the undisturbed tomb of a local shaman. That holy man—his body naturally mummified in the dry climate—was dressed in the style of the Russian steppes, with a headband of gold, a brilliantly colored woven garment, and a ceremonial bronze ax by his side. For him, the wealthy and fertile eastern land called China may have been just a rumor or tall tale.

    Yet despite the distance to ancient centers of Chinese culture, Lu, who works for Xinjiang's archaeology off ice in nearby Turfan, believes that this remote region may hold the key to understanding early Chinese civilization because of its crucial role in trade. Lu and many of his colleagues argue that as far back as the 3rd millennium B.C.E., during the rise of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus civilizations, Xinjiang may have served as a critical bridge between East and West, funneling some combination of bronzemaking, wheat domestication, and other technologies toward the incipient Chinese culture. Those technologies may have helped jump-start Chinese urban life along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. (see p. 930).

    That is a novel, even radical, idea among Chinese academics, many of whom still see Xinjiang as a distant region that enters history only when a unified China began to assert control in the early centuries B.C.E. Indeed, not so long ago, such discussion of outside influence on China's origins would have been at best frowned upon and at worst dangerous. “Ten years ago, you could not even say that China adopted anything from the West,” says one Chinese archaeologist. After more than a century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners—both Western and Japanese—China's leaders in the 20th century emphasized the country's indigenous traditions, and archaeologists followed their direction. Now recent discoveries, coupled with the growing self-confidence of a prosperous nation, are challenging the taboo. “Chinese archaeologists still believe China's civilization developed independently,” says Wang Wei, director of the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing. “But they also believe that there was important communication with the outside world.”

    Before the Silk Road

    China's contact with that outside world may have come from several directions—from Xinjiang in the northwest, from the steppes to the north, overland through Burma and Yunnan to the south, or around Southeast Asia to the eastern coast. The most direct route from the west to east is here in Xinjiang. For centuries starting in the first century B.C.E., the fabled Silk Road stretched across its deserts and mountains, linking the eastern cities of China with European markets. Roman silver, f ine silk, Buddhism, and Islam were passed across its length. Caves filled with Buddhist images, crumbling caravansaries, and ruined cities still dot the province's dry and rugged landscape.

    Forest of graves.

    These poplar poles from Xiaohe cemetery hint at a wetter climate 4 millennia ago.


    Today, Xinjiang still retains the hallmarks of a crossroads region. Signs in Arabic script and Russian Cyrillic compete with Chinese characters in the province's capital, Ürümqi, which is closer to Islamabad than it is to Beijing. It is home to ethnic Uighurs—many of whom are Muslim—who traditionally have more in common with their Central Asian brethren than the Han Chinese of the east. Recent ethnic riots in Ürümqi left at least 156 dead and 1000 people injured.

    But until the past decade, archaeologists had found little detailed evidence of early human occupation here. Ringed by high mountains, the Taklamakan is one of the world's driest and hottest deserts. So archaeologists and historians assumed that life here was all but impossible until camels were domesticated and deeper wells and other innovations were developed—long after Chinese cities began to flourish thousands of kilometers to the southeast.

    Recent excavations have upended that assumption. In the northeastern edge of the desert, archaeologists from 2002 until 2005 excavated an extraordinary cemetery called Xiaohe, which has been radiocarbon-dated to as early as 2000 B.C.E., says Liu Xuetang, a professor at Ürümqi University and former director of Xinjiang's archaeology institute in Ürümqi. A vast oval sand hill covering 25 hectares, the site is a forest of 140 standing poles marking the graves of a long-lost society and environment. The poles, wood coffins, and carved wooden statues with pronounced noses come from the poplar forests of a far cooler and wetter climate.


    One of 30 mummies from Xiaohe buried in airtight ox-hide bags, preserving both skin and cloth.


    A bronze mirror, gold ring, and scatterings of domesticated wheat found in some of the undisturbed tombs show a Central Asian influence. Ox skulls tied to the top of the wooden grave markers show that these animals were sacred. One grave includes a carved wooden snake, the remains of seven real snakes, and a hat made up of small pieces of the ears of sheep, probably serving shamanic purposes common to Central Asia but foreign to eastern China. A tomb of a child holds a pouch with the remains of ephedra, a drug favored by ancient Central Asian pastoralists.

    Of 350 tombs, Liu says 190 had been looted and destroyed, but 160 were excavated in the recent digs by a Chinese team. The human remains are eerily well-preserved. Behind the locked doors of the storeroom of the Ürümqi institute, Liu points to a young woman with still-smooth skin and auburn hair, wearing a white wool hat and felt shoes with laces still intact. French and Japanese researchers are helping to analyze the goods and remains at Xiaohe, but that work is still ongoing, he says.

    The origins of the Xiaohe culture—which lasted for some 5 centuries, until approximately 1500 B.C.E.—remain obscure. They do not appear to have used pottery, making their connections to other cultures opaque, but there is no evidence that these likely pastoralists were significantly influenced by the Yellow River and other settled cultures to the east. Liu argues that, given their material culture, they probably entered from the north, from present-day Russia, over the Tien Shan mountain range, before 2000 B.C.E. Although no extensive paleoclimate studies have been done, some evidence suggests that the climate became wetter at that time. The poplar no longer found in the area is one sign, as is increased snowfall that created channels through the Tarim Basin that contains the Taklamakan. Some lakebed samples in northwest China hint at a warm and wet period between 2800 and 2000 B.C.E., followed by a 1000-year cold and dry spell, says environmental archaeologist Qi Wuyun of the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing. But she adds that further data are needed.


    Some Xiaohe tombs feature boat-shaped wooden coffins unique to the site.


    The most important area of settlement may have been an environmentally hostile region on the desert's eastern end called Lop Nur, which China used to conduct nuclear tests. But in ancient times, “the Lop Nur delta was a large oasis hundreds of kilometers in length,” Liu says. Preliminary surveys and geological studies suggest a string of settlements along the now-dry Peacock River, which once flowed east and ended in a marshy lake.

    Researchers in others parts of Central Asia have found many settlements in similarly marginal climatic zones during the period, such as Gonur in the Kara Kum desert of Turkmenistan. But little archaeological work has been done along the Peacock because of its remoteness, security constraints, and a focus on rescuing sites endangered by development (see p. 936). Increasing aridity by 1500 B.C.E. may have forced the Peacock settlers to revert to a nomadic existence, says Liu. That cycle seems common throughout recorded history in Xinjiang, where small changes in rainfall have a dramatic effect.

    Other ancient Xinjiang cemeteries, most from the period starting in 1500 B.C.E., are coming to light and may offer additional clues. At one site in Xiabandi, in the far western end of the province near the Pamir Mountains and adjacent to Kazakhstan, archaeologists found pottery resembling that of the Andronovo pastoralist culture of the steppes. Yet they also found bracelets and earrings that Liu says are in a style common to Gansu, a Chinese province far to the southeast. And to the northwest of Ürümqi, bordering the steppes, Liu excavated a settlement from 1000 B.C.E. with round altars and evidence of horse and sun worship—classic traditions of steppe pastoralists. But at the same site, he also excavated painted pottery of a type found in the upper Yellow River valley. Such finds offer intriguing but still enigmatic evidence of the links between Central Asian pastoralists and China proper, says Liu.

    On the bronze trail

    The connection between the steppes and eastern China clearly existed. But did pastoralists such as those buried in Xiaohe carry important technologies like bronze eastward? That idea remains controversial. Bronze technologies in the form of weapons and adornment appear starting in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. across the steppes. The Xinjiang bronzes appear to be slightly earlier than several found in Gansu, to the southeast, and then, not long after, in Erlitou in the mid-Yellow River area. That makes for a neat pattern of diffusion. “But the techniques used in Gansu are more developed than in Xinjiang,” notes Liu. And the earliest bronze-casting workshops in the region don't appear until the 4th century B.C.E., adds Lu. “It is not likely these skills were introduced from Xinjiang,” he says, standing on the parched ground at the Yanghai cemetery.

    Trade with Central Asia likely led to the acquisition of bronzes here—but not necessarily the means to make them, Lu says. He and others increasingly think that bronze technology filtered south from Inner Mongolia, far to the east, and eventually was picked up by peoples along the Yellow River.

    Heads up.

    This tiny wooden face provides a glimpse into the beliefs of the Xiaohe people.


    But others point out that mold-casting dominates early Chinese metallurgy, and that technology is not used until later in the region between Europe and Central Asia—arguing against a technology transfer. Some scholars argue there was a connection with the West but that the technology then took an independent turn. Evidence for all theories remains thin. “How does it get to Gansu?” asks Chen Xingcan of the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing. “The route is just not clear.”

    Whatever the route for bronze, Lu cites another transformative import that he says arrived from the west via the Peacock River valley: wheat. Domesticated first in the Near East 10,000 years ago, wheat is northern China's most important staple today. And at the moment, the oldest domesticated wheat in China seems to be that strewn over bodies before burial at Xiaohe 3000 years ago. “The new term we use is the ‘wheat road,’” says Lu.

    But other archaeologists in China are not yet convinced. Wheat next turns up in the 1st millennium B.C.E. in northern China, and it's not clear if wheat from Xiaohe made its way there or if diffusion from the west simply stopped in Xinjiang. “We need to find actual wheat fields at Xiaohe,” says Xiaohong Wu of Peking University. Some researchers instead see a pattern similar to that of bronze, with wheat coming from the steppes through Inner Mongolia. And a recent find of a few early wheat samples roughly dated to 2000 B.C.E. in the far southeastern province of Fujian raise the possibility of seaborne transfer from the Indus civilization in today's India and Pakistan.

    Similar debates revolve around the appearance of domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle in China. Xinjiang sites show evidence of all three in the 2nd millennium B.C.E.—about the time that they appear in central China. But tracing a path of diffusion is difficult, in part because there are few Chinese zooarchaeologists. Everyone agrees that these questions require more extensive excavations in the province as well as better analytical techniques. In a region that retains its position as a continental crossroads, archaeologists are only starting to understand how this bridge between East and West contributed to China's evolution.

  14. Archaeology in China

    Millet on the Move

    1. Andrew Lawler

    If you said rice was the most important grain in ancient China, you'd be wrong, according to some archaeologists, who believe lowly millet served as the staple grain that allowed Chinese civilization to flourish in ancient times.

    What was the most important grain in ancient China? If you said rice, you'd be wrong, according to some archaeologists. It was lowly millet that served as the staple grain that allowed Chinese civilization to flourish in ancient times, says archaeologist Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto, Mississauga, in Canada. “Millet was the principal crop that supported town life,” he says. Although rice began to be domesticated in the southeast by 7000 B.C.E. or even earlier, millet was grown all across China in the preurban era, from the north to the southeastern coast.

    And whereas important goods and technologies like wheat, bronze, horses, and chariots all flowed from West to East starting some 4000 years ago, perhaps across China's westernmost provinces (see main text), there is now intriguing evidence that millet traveled the other way. Some researchers say the grain was first domesticated in northern China as early as 8000 B.C.E. and made its way to the Black Sea region of Europe by 5000 B.C.E. If so, it would be a sign of far earlier and extensive connections—going both ways—across the vast Eurasian landmass.

    Until this year, the earliest solid evidence of domesticated millet dated to about 6000 B.C.E. from a handful of sites in northern China. But in May, seed cases found at a northeastern site called Cishan in Hebei Province were dated to 8000 B.C.E., according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Houyuan Lu of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics in Beijing and colleagues.

    That's the oldest sign yet of this short-season crop, says Crawford, who backs the claim. But others are skeptical. The seed cases are domesticated millet, agrees Zhijun Zhao of the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing—but the dates are 2000 years older than the Cishan settlement itself, a 400-square-meter site with many storage pits, stone grinders, and sickles. Houyuan counters that his team's dates, done with accelerator mass spectrometry analysis of carbon-14, are solid. “To confirm our results, we rechecked the stratigraphy and obtained additional C14 dates from a second C14 laboratory,” he says. “Previous archaeological excavations in Cishan might be incomplete.” Crawford agrees, noting that Cishan was dated back in the 1970s.

    Whether the Cishan millet proves to be as old as supporters say, other sites in the region clearly show that millet was grown in significant quantities in northeastern China long before it appears around the Black Sea and in central Europe. Zhao and Crawford, for example, have dated millet at a northeastern Chinese site called Xinglonggou to approximately 5640 B.C.E. Early farmers in the region typically planted the crop on the fine and loose soil called loess, which may have been the home of millet's still-unknown wild ancestor. The grain—which can be turned into flour, porridge, or beer—then spread across northern China. It was widely planted in the Yellow River region and as far southwest as the Chengdu plain, where it became an important staple by 4000 B.C.E.

    From east to west.

    Millet (inset) may have made its way from China to Europe.


    Millet either diffused from China to Europe or was domesticated independently in each place. Archaeologist Martin Jones of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom suspects that the timing of millet's appearance around the Black Sea is no coincidence. Millet can produce seeds quickly—in 45 to 60 days—and the most common variety can survive dry conditions that kill other grains like wheat. So although wheat must have been traded across the steppes, mountains, and deserts that separate China and the Near East, millet could have been passed along by farmers who took up its cultivation across central Asia. Early results from ongoing genetic studies suggest that Chinese and European millets are indeed related, Jones says cautiously. Next year, he hopes to go into the field in Kazakhstan and China's northwest to find millet remains that might connect the dots between north China and the West. “It may seem like looking for a needle in the haystack,” says Jones, “but we're going to track down these sites.”