The Liangzhu culture (/ˈljɑːŋˈdʒuː/; 3300–2300 BC) was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. The culture was highly stratified, as jade, silk, ivory, and lacquer artifacts were found exclusively in elite burials, while pottery was more commonly found in the burial plots of poorer individuals. This division of class indicates that the Liangzhu period was an early state, symbolized by the clear distinction drawn between social classes in funeral structures. A pan-regional urban center had emerged at the Liangzhu city-site and elite groups from this site presided over the local centers. The Liangzhu culture was extremely influential and its sphere of influence reached as far north as Shanxi and as far south as Guangdong. The primary Liangzhu site was perhaps among the oldest Neolithic sites in East Asia that would be considered a state society. The type site at Liangzhu was discovered in Yuhang County, Zhejiang, and initially excavated by Shi Xingeng in 1936. A 2007 analysis of the DNA recovered from human remains shows high frequencies of Haplogroup O1 in Liangzhu culture linking this culture to modern Austronesian and Tai-Kadai populations. It is believed that the Liangzhu culture or other associated subtraditions are the ancestral homeland of Austronesian speakers.
On 6 July 2019, Liangzhu was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Liangzhu Culture entered its prime around 2500 BC, but suddenly disappeared from the Taihu Lake area around 2300 BC when it reached its peak. Almost no traces of the culture were found from the following years in this area.
Recent research has shown that rising waters interrupted the development of human settlements several times in this area. This led researchers to conclude the demise of the Liangzhu culture was brought about by extreme environmental changes such as floods, as the cultural layers are usually interrupted by muddy or marshy and sandy–gravelly layers with buried paleo trees. An alternative scenario proposes that extremely heavy monsoon rains during this period resulted in massive flooding which destroyed dams and the culture’s settlements. This theory was backed by a study in 2021, suggesting that a decades-long period of high precipitation (between 4345 ± 32 years and 4324 ± 30 years B.P.), probably caused by increased frequency of El Niño–Southern Oscillation conditions, coincided with the disappearance of the culture. The researchers stated that “massive rainfall in the entire middle-lower reaches of the Yangtze River Valley might have induced fluvial flooding and/or overbank marine flooding transported by the Yangtze River plume and thus impeded human habitation and rice farming. Massive flooding and inundation due to poor drainage in the low-lying land may have forced the Liangzhu people to abandon their capital city and dwellings in the Taihu Plain, ultimately leading to the collapse of the entire Liangzhu civilization.”
Some evidence suggests that Lake Tai was formed as an impact crater only 4500 years ago, which could help explain the disappearance of the Liangzhu culture. However, other work does not find an impact crater structure or shocked minerals at Lake Tai.
City-building and agriculture
The culture possessed advanced agriculture, including irrigation, paddy rice cultivation, and aquaculture. Houses were often constructed on stilts, on rivers or shorelines.
A new discovery of ancient city wall base relics was announced by the Zhejiang provincial government on November 29, 2007. It was concluded that the site was the center of the Liangzhu culture. A new Liangzhu Culture Museum was completed in 2008 and opened late in the year.
The Liangzhu Ancient City is located in a wetland environment on the plain of river networks between Daxiong Mountain and Dazhe Mountain of the Tianmu Mountain Range. This ancient city is said to be the largest city during this time period. Its interior area is 290 hectares, surrounded by clay walls which had six city gates. Two gates were located in the north, east and south walls. At its center was a palace site that spanned 30 hectares and there was also evidence of an artificial flood protection design implemented within the city. Both of these constructions are said to be indicators of the social complexity developing in Liangzhu at the time. A granary may have been in place containing up to 15,000 kg of rice grain. There are numerous waterway entrances both inside and outside of the city, linking it to the river networks. Inside the city were artificial earth mounds and natural hills. Outside of the walled area, remains are found for 700 hectares, the residences are said to be built in an urban planning system. 8 kilometers to the north various dam-like sites were found and are speculated to be an ancient flood protection system. Also discovered inside and outside the city are a large number of utensils for production, living, military, and ritual purposes represented by numerous delicate Liangzhu jade wares of cultural profoundness; the remains including city walls, foundations of large structures, tombs, altars, residences, docks, and workshops. The Liangzhu city site is said to have been settled and developed with a specific purpose in mind since this area has very few remains that can be traced back to earlier periods. At its peak, the city might have been inhabited by 34,500 people.
A typical Liangzhu community, of which there are over 300 found so far, chose to live near rivers. There have been boats and oars recovered which indicate proficiency with boats and watercraft. A Liangzhu site has provided the remains of a wooden pier and an embankment thought to have been used for protection against floods. Houses were raised on wood also to help against flooding, although houses on the higher ground included semi-subterranean houses with thatched roofs. Well, technology at the Miaoqian site during this period was similar to that of the earlier Hemudu period. The Liangzhu culture is said to have been more socially developed and complex than northern contemporaries in the Han Valley.
Artifacts and technology
The inhabitants of Liangzhu sites used artifact designs of “bent knee” shaped adze handles, stone untangled adzes, art styles emphasizing the use of spirals and circles, cord-marking of pottery, pottery pedestals with cut-out decorations, baked clay spindle whorls, slate reaping knives, and spear points. Pottery was often decorated with a red slip. These artifacts are also common in later neolithic Southeast Asia and the technological and economic toolkits of these societies possibly developed in the neolithic Yangtze River area. Some of the Liangzhu pottery is reminiscent of the Shandong Longshan black “eggshell” style, however, most differed and were a soft-fired gray with a black or red slip. There has also been evidence of tremolite particles being used as an ingredient for crafting some of the black “eggshell” pottery. It was determined that the black color of the pottery resulted from similar advancements in carburization and firing processes. Similarities between Liangchengzhen, the largest Dawenkou site, pottery making process, and that of Liangzhu were noted, which led researchers to believe there was communication between the two cultures. The Guangfulin site showed influence from more northern cultures but also had pottery practices very similar to that of the typical Liangzhu sites.
Researchers have found that some of the axes at Liangzhu sites were crafted using diamond tools. The inhabitants of Liangzhu, using these tools, worked corundum into ceremonial axes. The axes were said to “have been polished to a mirrorlike luster”. The techniques they used generated results that are said to be difficult to replicate even with modern technology. This is the earliest known use of diamond tools worldwide, thousands of years earlier than the gem is known to have been used elsewhere. The researchers also note that this is the only prehistoric culture known to work sapphire.
The jade from this culture is characterized by finely worked large ritual jades, commonly incised with the taotie motif. The most exemplary artifacts from the culture were its cong (cylinders). The largest cong discovered weighed 3.5 kg. Bi (discs) and Yue axes (ceremonial axes) were also found. Jade pendants were also found, designed with engraved representations of small birds, turtles, and fish. Many Liangzhu jade artifacts had a white milky bone-like aspect due to its tremolite rock origin and influence of water-based fluids at the burial sites, although jade made from actinolite and serpentine were also commonly found. Most of Liangzhu’s contemporaries have some jades, but 90 percent of all the cong and bi jades recovered, and by far the best in quality, are from Liangzhu sites. Jade artifacts unearthed from Liangzhu sites are said to have been influential on the development of other neolithic cultures in China: “The impactful legacy of Liangzhu Culture is seen in Longshan in Shandong, Taosi in Shanxi, Qijia in Ganqing and many other sites in northern Shaanxi, where cong tubes, bi disks and other jade objects reminiscent of Liangzhu Culture have been unearthed.” Liangzhu jade work is also said to have had a lasting influence on ritual objects in later periods of Chinese culture.
The Liangzhu “ancient city” or Liangzhu site-complex controlled the best jade products, but less important centers also produced elite crafts, which lead researchers to believe the Liangzhu culture was not a simple pyramid structure society in terms of status levels. Many minor centers had access to their own jade (nephrite). However, the Liangzhu elites at the ancient city communicated and exchanged goods with elites from other parts of the Liangzhu world (and also in other regions of Longshan-era China) and set the criteria of what jade should look like. The Liangzhu did not seem to be importers of jade, even though they did export it extensively.
A neolithic altar from the Liangzhu culture, excavated at Yaoshan in Zhejiang, demonstrates that religious structures were elaborate and made of carefully positioned piles of stones and rock walls: this indicates that religion was of considerable importance. The altar has three levels, the highest being a platform of rammed earth. Three additional platforms were paved with cobblestones. There are the remains of a stone wall. On the altar are twelve graves in two rows. Some scholars claim that ritual sacrifice of slaves was part of the Liangzhu tradition.
A 2007 analysis of the DNA recovered from human remains in archeological sites of prehistoric peoples along the Yangtze River shows high frequencies of Haplogroup O1 (Y-DNA) in the Liangzhu culture, linking them to the Austronesian and Tai-Kadai peoples. The Liangzhu culture existed in coastal areas around the mouth of the Yangtze. Haplogroup O1 was absent in other archeological sites inland. The authors of the study suggest that this may be evidence of two different human migration routes during the peopling of Eastern Asia, one coastal and the other inland, with little genetic flow between them.
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