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An inscription from 1891 found in Dayu Cave.

Unique inscriptions in Chinese cave reveals record of ancient droughts

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Researchers have discovered unique inscriptions on the wall of a cave in China recording the effects of droughts on the local population over the course of 500 years.

The inscriptions were found on the walls of Dayu Cave in the Qinling Mountains of central China by a team of international experts including scientists from the University of Cambridge in the UK. When there was a drought, people from the local area would go to the cave to collect water and to pray for rain. Some of them recorded the impacts of the drought by writing a graffiti-type scrawl on the yellow rock wall. Seven such droughts occurring between 1520 and 1920 were recorded in this way. For example, one of the inscriptions, from 1891, reads:

“On May 24th, 17th year of the Emperor Guangxu period, Qing Dynasty, the local mayor, Huaizong Zhu led more than 200 people into the cave to get water. A fortune-teller named Zhenrong Ran prayed for rain during the ceremony.”

Inside the Dayu cave.

Inside the Dayu cave. Image: L.Tan

The area receives around 70 percent of its rainfall from the summer monsoon in which torrential rain is the dominant weather pattern over the course of a few months. Changes in the timing of the monsoon as well as its duration have major effects on the local ecosystem and it is clear that in times past this in turn led to severe starvation and social instability. In 1900, this also led to fierce conflict between the local population and the Chinese government, while in 1528 the drought was so severe that it may have led to incidences of cannibalism.

“In addition to the obvious impact of droughts, they have also been linked to the downfall of cultures -- when people don't have enough water, hardship is inevitable and conflict arises” Dr Sebastian Breitenbach of Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences told Science Daily. “In the past decade, records found in caves and lakes have shown a possible link between climate change and the demise of several Chinese dynasties during the last 1800 years, such as the Tang, Yuan and Ming Dynasties.”

According to Dr Liangcheng Tan of the Institute of Earth Environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xi'an, the lead researcher on the project, this is the first time that inscriptions have been found on the wall of a cave relating to drought.  The teams investigation, combined with chemical analysis of stalagmite formations within the cave, have led to an increased awareness of the importance of developing measures to counter present and future climate change impacts. It is the first time that it has been possible to conduct an in situ comparison of historical written records with geological formations at the same location. This in turn has enabled the team to gain an awareness of what may happen in the region as rainfall patterns are reduced and droughts are increasingly common.

When stalagmites are cut open, they often display a series of layers much like a tree ring. Mass spectrometry can then be used to analyse and date the ratios of the stable isotopes of oxygen, carbon, uranium and other elements. Given that these elements are affected by local precipitation levels and surrounding vegetation, on the basis that the water in the cave is related to the water outside, scientists have been able to determine that higher oxygen and carbon isotope ratios correspond with lower rainfall levels, and vice versa. The team has now used this information to construct a model of future precipitation, starting in 1982 and correlating with a drought in the 1990’s. This in turn has enabled the scientists to predict a future drought, probably in the late 2030’s.

The droughts also correspond with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle which itself is also widely suspected of being exacerbated by climate change.

“Since the Qinling Mountains are the main recharge area of two larger water transfer projects, and the habitat for many endangered species, including the iconic giant panda, it is imperative to explore how the region can adapt to declining rain levels or drought” added Dr Breitenbach. “Things in the world are different from when these cave inscriptions are written, but we're still vulnerable to these events -- especially in the developing world.”

The Qinling Mountains, China

The Qinling Mountains, China (Wikipedia)

The discovery of the inscriptions is an important reminder that sudden changes in rainfall patterns can very quickly affect large populations, particularly appropriate at a time of severe drought in California. This has happened at numerous times in history, as shown in 2013 when new research suggested a severe drought may have led to the downfall of Ancient Greece. In May 2014 similar research suggested climate change as bringing about a calamity in Ancient Egypt and in December 2014 similar discoveries were made relating to the Maya civilization.

The team has now published the results of their investigation in the journal Scientific Reports.

Featured image: An inscription from 1891 found in Dayu Cave. Credit: L. Tan

By Robin Whitlock



Robin Whitlock's picture

Thanks David, I’ve taken a note of that and will take a look at it when I get some time. Cheers.

Very interesting but you might be interested in another important set of texts describing droughts. This set is from the a drought which occurred in 850 BCE in the middle east which has been confirmed by sediment cores from the Sea of Galilee. This drought also lead to civil unrest in ancient Israel during the time of Jezebel and the prophet Elijah. These texts include the Moabite Stele and the Tell Dan Stele among others. Their translations can be found at:

Robin Whitlock's picture

Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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