A Liangzhu period structure of the Meirendi bank with wooden planks still standing upright.

5,100-year-old Hydraulic System Found in China is the Oldest in the World

Four years of excavations have unearthed an immense water engineering project created in China about 5,100 years ago. This predates the oldest known comparable system; which is from Mesopotamia and dates to around 4,900 years ago.

It only took about a decade for the estimated 3,000 people to build the water management system and researchers needed almost half that time to excavate it. Newsweek reports that researchers were working at the site from 2009 to 2013. The team used archaeological samples, remote sensing data, geographic modeling, and satellite imagery while trying to discern how water was managed in the Yangtze Delta region between 5300 BC and 4300 BC. Speaking on the time estimate for the construction of the engineering project, study author Yijie Zhuang of the University College London, told Newsweek that “the dams were built surprisingly quickly given their sheer scale.”

The archaeological investigation unearthed a large and intricate system of high dams, low dams, and levees. The researchers write in their paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) “together with the well-excavated remains of Liangzhu city and its rice fields, the new findings represent one of the largest efforts of hydraulic landscape engineering in the ancient world.” They propose that this system is one of the oldest known and most extensive hydraulic engineering projects in the world.

Earth sandbags wrapped in woven grasses were used in many of Liangzhu's dams.

Earth sandbags wrapped in woven grasses were used in many of Liangzhu's dams. (PNAS)

Liangzhu was an agricultural Neolithic society that existed in China from approximately 3300 BC until 2300 BC. The people of this culture lived along the lower reaches of Yangtze River Delta of China, in what is today the Zhejiang Province. Until the recent discovery of the hydraulic system, the architectural remains of the Liangzhu culture were known to include city walls, residences, docks, workshops, altars, and tombs.

Jade in burial, Liangzhu culture.

Jade in burial, Liangzhu culture. (CC BY SA 2.5)

A previous Ancient Origins article on the Liangzhu culture shows that these people “possessed knowledge of silk weaving, lacquering, and the use of mortise-and-tenon joints in timber construction. Nevertheless, this culture is perhaps best known for their sophisticated jade artifacts.”

These artifacts were probably used for ritual purposes, and the two most prominent types are known as cong (琮) and bi (璧). A cong is a “squared tube with a round hole” and a bi is “a wide disc with a center hole”. Thousands of bi have been unearthed from tombs of the Liangzhu elite.

Jade cong from Liangzhu culture, Neolithic Period (3300 - 2200 BC), lower Yangzi River Valley.

Jade cong from Liangzhu culture, Neolithic Period (3300 - 2200 BC), lower Yangzi River Valley. (CC BY SA 2.5)

The PNAS paper on the water management system describes what the recent discovery can tell us about the Liangzhu people:

“The Liangzhu culture represented a peak of early cultural and social development predating the historically recorded Chinese dynasties; hence, this study reveals more about the ancient origins of hydraulic engineering as a core element of social, political, and economic developments […] Concurrent with the evidence of technological achievements and economic success, a unique relationship between ritual order and social power is seen in the renowned jade objects in Liangzhu elite burials, thus expanding our view beyond the practicalities of water management and rice farming.”

The immense hydraulic system is said to have supported the ancient city of Liangzhu with an estimated size of about 300 ha of structures. Its discovery provides a new aspect to the story of the Liangzhu and is also rewriting the history of early Chinese engineering.

Top Image: A Liangzhu period structure of the Meirendi bank with wooden planks still standing upright. Source: PNAS

By Alicia McDermott

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