Sanxingdui: China’s lost civilization revises history

When you walk through the limited engagement collection of artifacts from China’s Sanxingdui (pronounced “sahn-shing-dwee”), or “three stars mound,” you feel an immediate connection to a looming unknown. Where these artifacts were discovered is clear enough, as is when they were created, but by whom, why and how are questions still puzzling archaeologists.

The artifacts, large, strange, and beautiful, with a verdant tarnish on the ancient bronze, depict human forms with large eyes, protruding pupils, and pointed ears. If these items were a direct imitation of the people who created them, they were an odd culture indeed.Bronze Head with Gold Mask copy

The relics were discovered in 1986 when a group of Chinese construction workers accidentally broke into the underground pit where the items had apparently been broken and dumped, yet another enigma. Were these items created with such meticulous effort sacrificed? If they were, then why? Archaeologists found a second pit nearby. Though research on artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture had continued since 1929, this monumental discovery was the find that caused historians to revise their ideas of the development of Chinese culture.

The items in both pits, Bronze Age masks, statues and charms, date back to about 1800 BC, but there is no information to reliably link Sanxingdui to the culture that existed contemporaneously in the Central Plain 1,200 miles to the northeast on the Yellow River, thought to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization. No writing was buried with the artifacts, and ancient texts make no mention of Sanxingdui.

More puzzling is the level of craftsmanship in the artifacts. The materials used to make the items reveals technology “that seems to arise out of nowhere,” to quote placard information. The Sanxingdui culture created huge figures like the eight-foot-tall statue that may depict a god or a shaman and the large masks that may have been attached to columns or walls.Standing Figure

Along with their size, some of the items were created using advanced techniques such as piece mold process casting and soldering, different from those used in the Central Plain, yet no foundries have been discovered. Even if these people had the knowledge to make the bronzes, where did they get the tools to manufacture them? Stranger still, after 500 years, the culture vanished for reasons unknown.

Archaeologists discovered a few answers in 2001 at Jinsha, where they unearthed artifacts depicting the same metallurgy and conception of the human form as those at Sanxingdui. The figures from Jinsha are much smaller, but they show the same standing or kneeling postures, tight clothing, almond-shaped eyes, braided hair, and hand positioning. Radiocarbon dating found these artifacts were made 500 years after the rise of Sanxingdui. Perhaps no more than a mass migration is to account for their abrupt disappearance, but then why did they leave?

Archaeologists have concluded that the Sanxingdui culture must have existed alongside other Bronze Age cultures, trading techniques and perhaps other information. Whereas historians believed China grew from a central birthplace, the revision of history tells a story of multiple centers contributing to the development of Chinese civilization.mask with protruding eyes

Limited Engagement: Come see the story for yourself at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is now on exhibition through Sept. 7.

Behind-the-scenes Tour: Join us for “The Bronzes of Sanxingdui” Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $37, members $27.

Distinguished Lecture: Dr. Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at the Minneapolis Institute of the arts, will visit the HMNS to present “Unmasked: Mysteries of the Ancient Shu Kingdom and its Bronze Art” to shed further light on the artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture. Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m.

King Richard III, Rediscovered: Forensic engineer to hold reburial lecture

The remains of King Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, were discovered under a parking lot and identified in 2013 using DNA, radiocarbon dating and the identification of his distinctive curved spine by a team from the University of Leicester. What science revealed from Richard’s skeleton has triggered a revival of scholarship regarding his reign.

Dr. Sarah Hainsworth, Forensic Engineer on the Richard III Project, will visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science Tuesday, April 21 to discuss the project’s findings and how history, archaeology and genetics were woven together to learn more about Richard III. Her lecture, “Richard III Rediscovered,” begins at 6:30 p.m.Richard III

Following the lecture, a real-life King Richard will join us for a festival featuring food, drink, dance and music inspired by the Renaissance. The event is cosponsored by the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America.

For more fascinating insights into the Richard III Project and reinterment, check out “From the Trenches,” the blog of the AIA, Houston Society. Excerpts below:

Richard III’s “Rebirth” and Reburial

 Richard III – Defiled in death, reviled in history…today, reburied with pomp and circumstance. image001

On March 26, 2015 momentous events took place in Leicester, England as Richard finally received a burial fit for a king, 530 years after his death on the battlefield. A processional lead by armored knights on horseback winded through the streets of Leicester to the cathedral for a service that included the Archbishop of Canterbury, descendant Benedict Cumberbatch, and descendants of both the noble from the Wars of the Roses.


Face to Face with History

With the discovery of the remains of King Richard III, a unique, exciting opportunity presented: the chance to discover Richard’s appearance. Perhaps at no other time in history, has it been possible to really know about the appearance of a ruler. The historian has textual evidence and artistic representations. These depictions are diluted through the opinions of the writer or the painter, often serving propagandistic purposes. The most famous portraits of Richard III, depicting him as dark-haired and steely eyed were painted 25 to 30 years after his death. However, archaeology has tools at its disposal that help to create a clearer portrait.

Richard III (Physiology & Experimental Archaeology)

One of the fascinating discoveries of the project was the physical evidence from the bones. For over 500 years, detractors (Shakespeare among the most famous) portrayed Richard III as a twisted, deformed tyrant. The remains that were found of the king put to rest the story of his skeletal deformities – it was immediately and dramatically apparent that Richard did indeed suffer from scoliosis.image004

New questions now emerged: could medieval armor be made to fit a person with that degree of scoliosis, how could a person with such deformities fight ferociously in battle, could he sit astride a horse? Anecdotal evidence mentions his fighting ability, his horsemanship, and his graceful dancing. Could these stories be true? Enter the field of experimental archaeology and physiology to work to arrive at answers. Today, we share the story of a young man who has the same type of scoliosis as Richard III. Researchers began working with him and the results are fascinating.

In search of the first settlers of the Americas, scientists keep finding surprises

The genus Homo, to which we belong, was the first to leave Africa and explore the world. Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, explored Asia and Europe as early as 1.8 million years ago. However, one huge landmass was left unexplored by these early humans: the Americas. Humanity did not reach this part of the globe until our own species, Homo sapiens, had evolved. We got there very late. Exactly how late is still a hot debate topic. However, once there, we spread rather fast across the landscape. To put things in perspective, it took these early pioneers a mere few thousand years to inhabit North, Central and South America; Ancient Egyptian history covers about the same amount of time.

What makes this dispersal across the landscape so remarkable is that these first Americans had to adapt to a wide range of landscapes, natural resources and climates. Their success in doing so reflects a great intellect and adaptability. Did they take in their new surroundings with a sense of awe and wonder? We will never know for sure, but I have a feeling they did. These earliest inhabitants of the New World did not have a name; archaeologists generally refer to them as Paleoindians, meaning “Ancient Indians.”  


This is a blog on one of the oldest known Paleoindians and her contemporaries.

Imagine a cave, a dark, damp and foreboding cavern forming an underground labyrinth more than a mile long. Some ten thousand years ago, in what is now Mexico, a young girl entered this cave. Most likely Naia was searching for water.

Yucatán does not have surface rivers, and people get water from caves or sinkholes. She never left. Welcome to Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole, the final resting place of one of the oldest known inhabitants of the Americas. Hoyo Negro is one of many cave complexes found on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. The presence of stalagmites in Hoyo Negro tells us that the cave was dry at one point. 

Dirk Settlement Americas 1

Map showing location of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Most of this peninsula is composed of limestone, which easily dissolves in water. Over time this leads to the formation of extensive cave systems, a phenomenon known as karst formation. Because of this, the peninsula is riddled with caves. Quite often, the roofs of these caves have collapsed, resulting in a sinkhole, or cenote.

Hoyo Negro is part of a larger system that is now completely flooded. In 2007 members of the Proyecto de Espeleología de Tulum (PET) discovered the cave. Their exploration was part of a three-year concentrated effort to map the underwater caves of the Ejido (township) of Jacinto Pat, some 20 km (about 12 miles) north of the city of Tulum, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. What they found surpassed their wildest imagination.

Dirk Settlement Americas 2

Quintana Roo (seen in red) is one of three Mexican states that make up the Yucatán Peninsula.

Dirk Settlement Americas 3

Map showing the location of Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo.

At one point in their dive, the divers entered a huge cavern and noticed that their lights did not illuminate the opposite walls of this space. It was as if their lights got swallowed up by this huge “black hole,” and that is where the name of this cavern came from. As they reached the bottom of this huge space, they found the remains of an adolescent girl. As is tradition in anthropology, this prehistoric individual received a nickname, Naia.

Together with Naia’s well preserved remains, the divers found those of now long extinct animals dispersed throughout the cavern. Among these prehistoric animals were giant ground sloths, gomphotheres, saber-toothed cats, bears, pumas, peccaries. About ten thousand years ago, sea levels were about 300 feet lower than today; because of this, these animals could walk through the cave in search of water or refuge. Some never left.

Dirk Settlement Americas 5

Cross section of the cave system of which Hoyo Negro is part.

How long ago did Naia enter this cave? The associated prehistoric megafauna had become mostly extinct by 13,000 years ago. Dating of the calcite that had encrusted her bones yielded a date of 12,000 years ago. Naia lived sometime between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. At the time of writing, scientists are attempting to sequence Naia’s nuclear DNA in an attempt to better understand her relationship to other Paleoindians.

Naia was not the only person living in the Yucatán. As mentioned earlier, archaeologists refer to the earliest presence of humans in the Americas as the Paleoindian period. These were the true pioneers, arriving from Asia, as genetic studies show, penetrating a new world full of unknown plant and animal life, the latter encompassing mostly impressive megafauna. Paleoindians were Stone Age people, skilled in stone tool making. They eventually populated all of the Americas.

Our understanding of these earliest settlers has slowly expanded since the first stone tools were found embedded in the bones of extinct animals. In November 1932, a road crew working in eastern New Mexico unearthed a jumble of ancient giant animal bones. The following summer, Edgar B. Howard, an archaeology research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, started a field project in that area. He encountered “matted masses of bones of mammoth,” and mixed in with the bones were slender, finger-long spear points—Clovis points, as we know them today. Wisely, Howard left them in place. Over time archaeologists found more sites with Clovis points, around 1,500 by 2011. Only in a small number of cases did the Clovis points appear in association with animal remains. It appears that the Clovis people were mostly gathering and fishing.

We are left with a lot of questions. Clovis points are unevenly distributed across the landscape.  Archaeologists have found more of them east of the Mississippi than west of that river. In the west, there are other stone tools made, generally referred to as Western Stemmed projectile points. Some of these seem to pre-date Clovis points, others are contemporary with them. What are we dealing with here? Who were these people? We cannot say for sure.

What the Western Stemmed projectile points have made clear is that there were humans here before Clovis points were made. Initially highly controversial, this presence is now widely accepted. One of the sites where pre-Clovis materials has been found in large quantities, is the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

Map showing the location of the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

Map showing the location of the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

This site is located in Central Texas, about 250 meters downstream from Gault, another famous Paleoindian site. Archaeological investigations, undertaken by Texas A&M University’s Center for the Study of First Americans, uncovered layers dating to Late Prehistoric, Late Archaic, Early Archaic, Paleoindian, Folsom, Clovis and the pre-Clovis horizons. The latter, known by its local name as the Buttermilk Creek Complex, dates to between 15,500 and 13,200 years ago. It pre-dates Clovis technology, which starts around 13,100 years ago, ending by 12,800 years ago. This makes it the “oldest credible archaeological site in North America,” according to Dr. Michael Collins.

More than 15,000 stone artifacts were retrieved, all of them made from Edwards chert, found in abundance in Central Texas. The majority of these artifacts consisted of the waste generated by stone tool making; only a very small number has been identified as tools. Moreover, these tools are small in size and lightweight, consistent with a highly mobile lifestyle. A small nodule of polished hematite was also retrieved. While thus far only stone tools have been found, some of these have wear that reflects use on both soft and hard materials. This raises the possibility that organic (and thus perishable) materials were also part of this assemblage.

Current thinking among archaeologists is that the Pre-Clovis people visited Buttermilk Creek to exploit the locally available chert, making stone tools and doing some animal butchering and/or wood working before moving on.  The techniques used to manufacture stone tools are seen as precursors to later Clovis technologies.

The last word on Paleoindians has not been said or written. There will always be new discoveries that help us better situate and understand these forbearers of modern American Indians. One wonders what they would make of our attempts to make sense of their lifestyle. What did we get right? Where did we go wrong?

Although Clovis points are no longer in use, they remain a symbol of this human sense of awe and wonder. It is doubtful that the Paleoindians realized they were moving ever deeper into a new continent. It is certain that they represent the final phase in human dispersal across our planet. It does not stop there, however. In December 1990, when the space shuttle Columbia launched, Commander Vance Brand took with him a ten thousand-year-old Paleo-Indian spear point that had been discovered on Colorado’s eastern plains. One wonders what the thundering liftoff of a NASA space shuttle might have looked like through the eyes of the earliest Americans, and what the next ten thousand years holds for human exploration of space in the solar system and beyond.

For those who read this before Nov 12, 2014, and are interested in knowing more, come listen to a lecture on Naia by Dr. Dominique Rissolo at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This lecture is presented by the Archaeological Institute of America, Houston.

Anyone who is interested in reading more about this topic, can peruse a wide offering of academic publications, including those of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M University.

Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.