Cambridge University scientists help to uncover 500-year-old Chinese cave 'graffiti' which 'predicted' climate change

Weather model pieced together by the scientists suggests a drought will happen in the late 2030s, followed by more serious ones in the future

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A team of international scientists, including a group from the University of Cambridge, has uncovered unique ‘graffiti’ in a Chinese cave from 500 years ago – which has also unknowingly ‘predicted’ a pattern of climate change yet to come.

Found on the walls of Dayu Cave in the Qinling Mountains of Central China, the writings have helped the team piece together a story of seven drought events which took place in the region between 1520 and 1920.

While the inscriptions are described as being ‘business-like in tone’, the droughts of the 1890s should not be underestimated as scientists say they led to severe starvation and triggered local social instability.

This, they added, eventually resulted in a fierce conflict between government and civilians in 1900, and the drought of 1528 also led to widespread starvation – where there were even reports of cannibalism.

The carvings tell of how the locals would flock to the cave to get water and to pray for rain in times of strife.

'Modern poems' (credit: L. Tan)

The cave's entrance in Central China (credit: L. Tan)

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, 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.”

Another from 1528 says: “Drought occurred in the 7th year of the Emperor Jiajing period, Ming Dynasty. Gui Jiang and Sishan Jiang came to Da’an town to acknowledge the Dragon Lake inside in Dayu Cave.”

Dr Sebastian Breitenbach, from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, said of the writings: “When people don’t have enough water, hardship is inevitable and conflict arises.

“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.”

The inscriptions have since helped scientists piece together a weather model. The model correlated with a drought that occurred in the 1990s and suggests another will happen sometime in the late 2030s, followed by more serious droughts in the future.

Dr Liangcheng Tan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xi’an, and the paper’s lead author, emphasised just how important and relevant the discovery is and said: “We’re still vulnerable to these events – especially in the developing world.”