Climate Change Caused the Collapse of an Ancient Culture

Climate Change Caused the Collapse of an Ancient Culture

The Liangzhu excavation site, located in eastern China and seen as ‘China’s Stone Age Venice’, is considered one of the most important evidence of early advanced civilizations in China. More than 5000 years ago, the city already had a very detailed water management system. But what caused the sudden collapse has always been discussed. Now, geoscientist and climate researcher Christoph Spötl at the University of Innsbruck, together with an international research team, has discovered that the collapse was caused by massive flooding, triggered by abnormally heavy monsoon rains.

In the Yangtze Delta, about 160 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, are the archaeological remains of Liangzhu City. About 5300 years ago, a highly developed culture emerged here, which is thought to be the first evidence of a monumental aquatic culture. The earliest evidence of major hydraulic engineering structures in China comes from this late Neolithic cultural site. The fortified city is home to a complex system of navigable canals, dams and water tanks. This system allowed the cultivation of very large agricultural areas throughout the year. This is the first example of highly developed communities based on a water infrastructure in the history of human civilization. But metals were still unknown in this culture. During the excavations, thousands of burial objects elaborately constructed using jade were found. This excavation site, whose historical significance has long gone undiscovered, is now seen as a well-preserved relic of Chinese civilization dating back 5,000 years. Liangzhu was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2019. But the advanced civilization that resided in the city for almost 1000 years faced a sudden end. What causes this has always been debated. Christoph Spötl, head of the Fourth Age Research Group at the University of Innsbruck’s Department of Geosciences, explains: “A thin layer of clay was found in the preserved remains. This layer points to a possible link between the collapse of advanced civilization and floods from the Yangtze River or the East China Sea. No evidence of human-caused causes such as war-like conflicts was found. But from the mud layer, no clear decision can be made as to the cause.”

However, researchers examining the dripstones found in the caves determined that an extremely high precipitation period occurred between 4345 and 4324 years ago. The findings are presented in Science Advances.

Source: University of Inssbruck.
The dripstones of Shennong Cave provide definitive evidence of the collapse of the Liangzhu culture about 4300 years ago. Photo: Haiwei Zhang

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