China's Yangtze River was once home to an ancient civilisation, just as the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus rivers were, according to new archaeological research.
A series of 13 walled towns and cities have so far been discovered. Dating from around 3000BC these ancient urban centres - excavated by Chinese and Japanese archaeological teams over the past decade - appear to have had populations of up to 10,000. The largest cities had up to three miles of defensive walls. The discoveries show that exactly the same process of urbanisation and state formation was taking place in China in the same river valley environment and in roughly the same period that similar developments were occurring in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.
Like the earliest phases of the other great riverine civilisations, the newly discovered Yangtze civilisation belonged to the neolithic period - substantially prior to the development in China of metal technology.
The culture that gave rise to these first Chinese towns had its origins in around 7000BC, when the first villages started appearing on the banks of the Yangtze. Indeed the Yangtze area was one of the first in the world to produce pottery - an amazing 13,000 years ago.
Archaeological investigations have so far revealed the sites of nine ancient towns in the Middle Yangtze Valley between Wuhan and Jiangling, and four in the Upper Yangtze near Chendu.
The excavations - carried out by the local Hubei Province Archaeological Institute and other Chinese and Japanese archaeological units - have been revealing evidence of the Yangtze Valley civilisation's culture. Stone weapons and sickles have been unearthed as well as jade statuettes of humans, birds and animals. Beautiful pottery with geometric designs is also being found. The three biggest urban sites each cover up to 2,250 acres.
The archaeological discoveries, revealed in the current issue of BBC History Magazine, show that the Yangtze Valley civilisation lasted for 500 years and collapsed as a result of climatic and environmental problems and warfare.
It is not clear who the people were who created China's first civilisation. They may have been related ethnically to Malays, Burmese or Tibetans, and were probably pushed south as peoples from further north invaded the Yangtze Valley.
According to one leading authority on Yangtze Valley archaeology, Professor Kazuo Miyamoto of Japan's Kyushu University, the discoveries are "transforming the academic world's understanding of early China".
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