A recent study led by researchers from University College London (UCL) has unveiled a remarkable insight into the capabilities of neolithic societies in China.
The study, published in Nature Water, focuses on the discovery of an intricate network of ceramic water pipes and drainage ditches at the Pingliangtai archaeological site. These ancient water management systems, dating back 4,000 years, challenge the conventional understanding that centralized state authority was required for complex engineering feats.
The Pingliangtai site, located in what is now the Huaiyang District of Zhoukou City in central China, showcases a comprehensive drainage system comprising ceramic water pipes and ditches. This intricate network, unprecedented in its time, reflects advanced planning and cooperation within the community. Strikingly, the absence of evidence pointing to a centralized power structure raises intriguing questions about how such feats were accomplished.
Dr. Yijie Zhuang, a senior author of the study from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, highlights the significance of this discovery, “The ceramic water pipe network in Pingliangtai challenges our assumptions about the necessity of a centralized power for sophisticated water management systems. The coordination and execution required for this engineering marvel indicate a level of community-wide planning that was achieved without a central authority.”
What stands out about the Pingliangtai site is its lack of evidence for social hierarchy, a characteristic that sets it apart from neighboring towns of the same era.
This absence of stratification is evident in the uniformity of its small houses and the absence of hierarchy-related differences in burials. Despite this, the community demonstrated a remarkable ability to collaborate on the construction, layout, installation, and maintenance of the complex ceramic pipe network.
The drainage system itself is a testament to advanced engineering. Comprising interconnected ceramic pipe segments with diameters of 20 to 30 centimeters and lengths of 30 to 40 centimeters, these pipes were used to divert rainwater along roads and walls, showcasing sophisticated planning.
Dr. Hai Zhang from Peking University, a co-author of the study, comments on the significance of the Pingliangtai site, “This discovery reshapes our understanding of neolithic societies. The complex water management system in Pingliangtai reveals a level of engineering knowledge and hydrological understanding that was previously thought to be present only in societies with more centralized governance.”
The study suggests that the community’s cooperative focus on public affairs, spatial uniformity, and technological innovations contributed to the successful execution of the water management project. Such decentralized achievements are a stark contrast to earlier theories that linked advanced water systems to stronger centralized governance.
The Pingliangtai site’s water management was crucial in mitigating the impacts of frequent, heavy monsoon rains that characterized the region’s climate at the time. The drainage system’s operation and maintenance required extensive coordination, reflecting a community-wide commitment to managing environmental challenges collectively.
This study challenges established notions about the relationship between centralized power and complex engineering in ancient societies.
More information: Li, C., Cao, Y., Zhang, C. et al. (2023). Earliest ceramic drainage system and the formation of hydro-sociality in monsoonal East Asia, Nature Water. DOI: 10.1038/s44221-023-00114-4.