Origins of Chinese Civilization

3 Things to Know About the Origins of Chinese Civilization

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
The ornate dragon in the center of the colorfully painted ceiling in the Pavillion of Ten Thousand Spring Seasons in the Forbidden City dates back some 400-600 years but pulls from artistic traditions far older and still current today. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Two things everyone knows about China are that it is very big and that it has been around a very long time (by the way, Happy New Year 4713!).

The look of the buildings, the style of art, and the form of the language almost seem to be timeless.

In presentations at the 2015 Dialogue of Civilizations being held this week in Beijing though, archaeologists are peeling back layers of history and revealing the latest discoveries and theories of the culture’s origins.

Here are some key takeaways so far:

1. , Like Rome, Wasn’t Built in a Day

For as far back as certain elements of Chinese civilization and culture go, the build up was still a gradual one with plenty of ups and downs.

Professor Li Boqian of Peking University (PKU), curator of the Sackler Museum there, opened the conference discussing the development (seen in many places around the world) from hunter-gatherer chiefdoms to early settled agricultural states to full-blown empires expanding and coordinating society over large areas.

Intricately decorated rams' heads decorate the four sides of this large bronze wine vessel from the Shang era, 1300-1046 BC, from the permanent collection of the Palace Museum, Forbidden City. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Intricately decorated rams’ heads adorn the four sides of this large bronze wine vessel from 1300-1046 B.C., during the late Shang Dynasty, from the permanent collection of the Palace Museum, . The Shang has often been viewed as the dawn of Chinese civilization. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Some 80 years of archaeology have shown though that it wasn’t a straight shot. Different sites in different parts of the region grew and shrank, combined and separated, and these different threads weave together to tell the full story of China’s beginnings. Some such key sites are Liangzhu, Shimao, and Erlitou.

2. The Writing System Goes Way Back

“It’s hard to imagine what China would be like without Chinese characters,” said Xu Tianjin, head of the Chinese Archaeology Research Center at PKU as he discussed the system’s origins.oracle-bone-illustration

The Shang Dynasty of the second millennium B.C. is often seen as the start of Chinese civilization, which occurred during an era that also saw the destruction of Troy and the reign of Rameses the Great, King Tut, and the Hebrew patriarchs.

In addition to intricate bronze vessels and large states though, the Shang era also produced oracle bones—shoulder blades and turtle shells inscribed with signs and symbols, many of which are recognizable as Chinese characters to this day.

Professor Xu points out though that these long engravings, used for divination and containing some 5,000 signs in total, already represent a mature system of writing. Intriguingly, pottery dating back several centuries earlier is painted with some of the same symbols, often grouped together as though forming a sentence. What preceded that or what was inscribed on more perishable items such as wood or cloth is at this point anyone’s guess.

3. Some Early Cities Were Tigers, Some Were Bunnies

During his introduction, Li Boqian also pointed out that in early China, large settlements seem to take one of two paths: They emphasize either godly power or military might. He said the former “pay attention to their own cultural tradition and continual development of their society.”

Liu Bin is director of excavations at Liangzhu, a walled city and capital of a culture dating from around 3300 to 2300 B.C. He described the differences that show up in the archaeological record.

At some sites such as Hongzhu, he said, there are just platforms for rituals, elite burials, temples, or ceramic statues, probably related to worship of important figures.

Others, such as Liangzhu, have these ceremonial elements as well but also contain actual weapons and symbolic ones, buried in large number with the rulers. For these cultures, looking outward, conflict, and might become important themes reflected in the objects they value.

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
The engraved details between the eyes on this stone vessel depict a headdress, identifying the face as that of a god or spiritual power. Called a cong, the stone cup comes from the Liangzhu Culture, 3300 to 2300 B.C., and is exhibited at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at PKU. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

BONUS: Some Things Never Change

Finally, in perhaps the most disheartening revelation, PKU professor Sun Hua described certain buildings from around 1500 B.C. that he was able to recognize as consistent with historic descriptions of administrative centers from A.D. 500. So for over 2,000 years, he said, office space was office space.

The Dialogue of Civilizations is an annual conference organized by the National Geographic Society and partners in a host country bringing together top archaeologists focused on different ancient civilizations from around the world. In public presentations they discuss what they can learn by better understanding each other’s sites and how those lessons can help us better understand and navigate the world today.

 

Species Disappearing From Earth

Here’s How Fast Different Animals Are Disappearing From

From red pandas to golden-striped salamanders, Earth’s wildlife is in trouble.

Many scientists believe our planet is in the early stages of a mass extinction, an event defined by a loss of 75% of species on Earth. It will be the sixth one to occur in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history — and the first to be caused by humans.

But just how fast are species disappearing from Earth, and how much should we be worried?

Information recently compiled by the journal Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sheds some light on these questions. It’s not a pretty picture.

Drawing from the IUCN’s “Red List,” a catalogue of species considered in danger of , Nature recently published a detailed analysis of threatened animals on Earth. The report concluded that 26% of all known mammals, 13% of birds, and 41% of amphibians are in jeopardy. Scientists don’t have enough data for fish and reptiles to make an assessment for them, and insects got off comparatively easy — an estimated 0.5% of known species are thought to be facing extinction.

But these are just the species that we know of. There are about 1.7 million species of animals, plants, and fungi that humans are aware of, but scientists estimate there are millions more yet to be discovered, and we have no idea what kind of shape their populations will be in if we ever do discover them before they die off.

Andean FlamingoWikimedia Commons

The Andean flamingo is threatened by habitat destruction.

And there’s more bad news where that came from.

Scientists aren’t completely sure how fast all these species are disappearing from the planet, but the fastest estimates — which suggest 690 extinctions take place every week — indicate that the mass extinction could be complete in the next 200 years. (Slower estimates give us several more hundred years before 75% of life on Earth is gone, and the most conservative guesses allow us thousands.)

In fact, research from the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the number of vertebrates on Earth (excluding humans) is only half what it was 40 years ago.

The Living Planet Index, an assessment of vertebrate populations, shows that between 1970 and 2010, terrestrial and marine vertebrate populations both declined by 39%, and freshwater vertebrates declined by a whopping 76%. Altogether, the total rate of decline for vertebrates was 52%, meaning their populations have been cut in half since 1970.

Brazil RainforestAP Photo/Andre Penner

Deforestation in Brazil. Habitat destruction is a major threat to animals on Earth.

So what’s causing all the trouble, anyway?

The report says that the biggest current threat to animals, accounting for 37% of all threats, is exploitation — hunting, fishing, and other similar activities. Habitat degradation is a close second at 31%, and habitat loss comes in third at 13%.

Other threats include climate change, invasive species, pollution, and disease, although scientists expect climate change to become a much bigger threat as temperatures continue to rise around the globe.

Extinctions are bad news for more than just the species facing them. Ecosystems are inextricably tangled up in the organisms that compose them, meaning if one species die off, others will feel its loss. That means humans, too. For instance, ecologists are gravely concerned over declining honey bees, because they pollinate many of the plants humans rely on for food.

It’s a scary future we’re looking at, given the stats — and, if the sixth extinction really does occur, a lonely one, too.

 

 

Species Are Disappearing From Earth

Here’s How Fast Different Animals Are Disappearing From

From red pandas to golden-striped salamanders, Earth’s wildlife is in trouble.

Many scientists believe our planet is in the early stages of a mass extinction, an event defined by a loss of 75% of species on Earth. It will be the sixth one to occur in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history — and the first to be caused by humans.

But just how fast are species disappearing from Earth, and how much should we be worried?

Information recently compiled by the journal Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sheds some light on these questions. It’s not a pretty picture.

Drawing from the IUCN’s “Red List,” a catalogue of species considered in danger of , Nature recently published a detailed analysis of threatened animals on Earth. The report concluded that 26% of all known mammals, 13% of birds, and 41% of amphibians are in jeopardy. Scientists don’t have enough data for fish and reptiles to make an assessment for them, and insects got off comparatively easy — an estimated 0.5% of known species are thought to be facing extinction.

But these are just the species that we know of. There are about 1.7 million species of animals, plants, and fungi that humans are aware of, but scientists estimate there are millions more yet to be discovered, and we have no idea what kind of shape their populations will be in if we ever do discover them before they die off.

Andean FlamingoWikimedia Commons

The Andean flamingo is threatened by habitat destruction.

And there’s more bad news where that came from.

Scientists aren’t completely sure how fast all these species are disappearing from the planet, but the fastest estimates — which suggest 690 extinctions take place every week — indicate that the mass extinction could be complete in the next 200 years. (Slower estimates give us several more hundred years before 75% of life on Earth is gone, and the most conservative guesses allow us thousands.)

In fact, research from the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the number of vertebrates on Earth (excluding humans) is only half what it was 40 years ago.

The Living Planet Index, an assessment of vertebrate populations, shows that between 1970 and 2010, terrestrial and marine vertebrate populations both declined by 39%, and freshwater vertebrates declined by a whopping 76%. Altogether, the total rate of decline for vertebrates was 52%, meaning their populations have been cut in half since 1970.

Brazil RainforestAP Photo/Andre Penner

Deforestation in Brazil. Habitat destruction is a major threat to animals on Earth.

So what’s causing all the trouble, anyway?

The report says that the biggest current threat to animals, accounting for 37% of all threats, is exploitation — hunting, fishing, and other similar activities. Habitat degradation is a close second at 31%, and habitat loss comes in third at 13%.

Other threats include climate change, invasive species, pollution, and disease, although scientists expect climate change to become a much bigger threat as temperatures continue to rise around the globe.

Extinctions are bad news for more than just the species facing them. Ecosystems are inextricably tangled up in the organisms that compose them, meaning if one species die off, others will feel its loss. That means humans, too. For instance, ecologists are gravely concerned over declining honey bees, because they pollinate many of the plants humans rely on for food.

It’s a scary future we’re looking at, given the stats — and, if the sixth extinction really does occur, a lonely one, too.