Shimao sits in China‘s far north, an ancient settlement that likely played a central role in the region’s culture and trade thousands of years ago.
Archaeologists believe it played this role during the early Xia Dynasty, and was once referred to as the “Stone City” given its advanced fortifications and installations.
Thriving for over three centuries, Shimao dates back to 2000 BC and is the largest known walled site of that period of China.
Researchers originally believed that the city’s fortifications were once a part of the Great Wall, but on discovering pieces of jade, realised that they had found a Neolithic-era settlement.
Perhaps the darkest of all the discoveries made at the site have been in the piles of human bones, hinting at a culture of human sacrifice, and the first of its kind in China.
Before excavations were briefly suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, archaeologists uncovered 70 beautiful relief sculptures in stone, impressions of serpents, monsters, and half-human beasts similar to Bronze Age icons found in China.
Radiocarbon dating astonished the researchers when they found much to date from 4,300 years ago, making it nearly 2,000 years older than the first section of the Great Wall, and 500 years before the Chinese Chinese civilisation emerged in the Central Plains to the south.
The most grisly of all the discoveries came underneath the city’s eastern wall in the form of 80 human skulls clustered in six pits.
No skeletons were attached to any of the skulls, and their number and placement suggest a ritual beheading was committed during the laying of the wall’s foundation.
The earliest known example of human sacrifice in Chinese history, forensic scientists determined that almost all of the victims were young girls, most likely prisoners who belonged to a rival group.
Li Min, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has visited and written extensively about Shimao, told National Geographic: “The scale of ritual violence observed at Shimao was unprecedented in early China.”
The skulls, according to Li, preempted what would become a culture of human sacrifice and a “defining attribute of Shang civilisation” many centuries afterwards before dynasties eventually put an end to the practice.
Skulls are just one indication that the gates to the city marked the entrance to another world, for anyone crossing the threshold would have been amazed at the relatively advanced architecture.
Stone blocks in the high terrace walls were carved with lozenge designs to make them appear like giant eyes gazing down at the East Gate.
And, wedged into the stone walls at regular intervals were thousands of pieces of black and dark green jade, ornaments that shimmered in the sun and warded off the evil eye and displayed the power and wealth of the Shimao elites.
It wasn’t an insular society, however, and the vast wealth of jade artefacts found at the site suggests Shimao — which had no natural jade of its own — had distant trading partners.
Ideas, technology, and goods are thought to have been exchanged from a host of other cultures across modern-day China, from the Altai steppe to the north to coastal regions near the Yellow Sea.
Besides the jade, many of the artefacts found could only have come from distant lands.
Quantities of alligator skins were found, which must have come from the swampy south, used to craft drums played in Shimao’s palace.
Only a fraction of Shimao has been excavated so far, and the discoveries keep piling in.
But there is one question that remains almost unanswerable: why Shimao was abandoned?
While it flourished from around 2300 BC to 1800 BC, Shimao suddenly vanished and was abandoned, a mystery archaeologists have yet to crack.