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16 July 2005
The mysterious capital of Sanxingdui

As archaeologists work their way through parched, yellow earth, traditional views of Chinese history are being dealt shattering blows.
     Three thousand years ago a city in southwest China flourished. Jinsha village was the 1000 BCE equivalent of New York or Paris and vanished with no trace in historical records. Locals had no idea they were living on top of a great lost bronze-age civilization.
     On a winter day in early 2001, excavation teams sent to the site by a property developer unearthed large numbers of ivory and jade artifacts clearly suggesting a major find. Authorities were called in. The finds were striking: masks with strangely protruding eyes, cult statues frozen in poses of unknown, but likely religious, significance. This spectacular discovery added to the mass of evidence requiring historians to rethink Chinese history. It is now clear that Chinese culture had multiple origins and did not follow a simple path from just one single source.
     Historians discovered the Sanxingdui civilization about 50 kilometers from the Jinsha excavation site and archaeologists have been unearthing artifacts for most of the 20th century, discovering one of the world's major pre-historic civilizations.
     The Sanxingdui culture, which blossomed from 5000 to 3000 BCE, is characterized by the same radical strangeness as that is being unearthed at Jinsha. Masks with oversized eyes and eyebrows, some of them covered with gold leaf, are among the hallmarks.
     Sanxingdui and Jinsha display unique features, but they show remarkable parallels with other ancient cultures. "Sun worship was practiced here at the same time as it formed a central part of ancient Egyptian cults," says Zhu Yarong, a young historian at the large Sanxingdui museum. "People here appear to have worshipped sacred trees, just like in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq," she says.
     Many questions have arisen: Why did the Sanxingdui site have a city wall and Jinsha did not? The absence of a city wall in Jinsha is particularly strange, because cities in ancient China emerged as concentrations of political power, not trading centers. The archaeological teams have uncovered large numbers of ivory tusks. The tusks came from China’s border with mainland Southeast Asia…how did they get there and why?
     Where did the Sanxingdui and Jinsha people come from? Where did they go? And what exactly characterized their religion? The Sanxingdui people left no written record, which adds to the mystery about the culture that suddenly disappeared about 3,000 years ago, handing the torch of civilization to Jinsha. "A large devastating flood is one of the hypotheses," says Zhu. "Another is that they simply devoted too many resources to religious activities." Another explanation favored by some historians is that Sanxingdui may have collapsed under the weight of massive immigration from further east.

Source: AFP (10 July 2005)

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