Remains of an ancient, 5,100-year-old hydraulic system excavated in China

Researchers have come across what is believed to be the oldest hydraulic system on the planet. Archaeologists discovered how ancient people living in the Yangtze River Delta managed to ‘terraform their landscape’ by altering 10,000 hectares of land, and somehow moving approximately 3.3 million cubic meters of land.

Chinese archaeologists have discovered one of the largest water management projects in the ancient world, on what is now part of the eastern coast of modern China.

In an article published in PNAS, the group of researchers describes their findings and compares them with other ancient water management systems across the ancient world.

More than 5,000 years ago, people living in the Yangtze River Delta apparently grew tired of the floods that periodically destroyed their crops.

Image Credit: PNAS

They embarked on what became one of the largest water management projects in the ancient world, moving the land and piling it up in the desired ways to change more than 10,000 hectares of the landscape to meet their needs.

Researchers at the site have been working for four years discovering the massive hydraulic system that was built to support the ancient city of Liangzhu.

Researchers report that ancient workers spent years digging up the earth to make channels, piled it up to make dams and even installed a system of gates to control the movement of water. The result was a system capable of preventing normal floods and irrigating crops during dry times with rainwater stored in large reservoirs.

They also dug canals to allow small boats to transport people and materials through the area.

It was an extremely complex system note experts.

Experts estimate that approximately 3,000 people worked for eight years to build one of the largest dams, and in the process, they moved approximately 3.3 million cubic meters of land.

Here we see a map of the Liangzhu city and the ancient hydraulic system, Lower Yangtze River, China. Image Credit: PNAS

“The scale of landscape transformation at Liangzhu indeed was unparalleled in its era,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “thereby opening a window into how such a system originated and developed largely in isolation.”

Previous research has dated Liangzhu to date back between 5,300 to 4,300 years, which would make this water engineering project one of the oldest in the world.

The most recent research shows that the use of such technology began in China sooner than previously thought.

And it happened in a relatively isolated place: the water system was not part of the construction of the empire; It was built to meet the needs of a single city.

However, the previous evidence also revealed that their efforts were not enough to prevent the entire area from flooding massively approximately 4,200 years ago, leaving behind a layer of clay one meter thick. The devastation was so great that the city never recovered, and those who survived migrated to other areas.

Nevertheless, the idea that more than 5,000 years ago, ancient inhabitants of China managed to ‘terraform’ more than 10,000 hectares of the landscape is beyond fascinating, as they did not possess advanced technologies like we do today, to perform certain tasks effortlessly.

Source: PNAS—Earliest hydraulic enterprise in China, 5,100 years ago

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