In the Yellow River valley of northern China, Zhichun Jing digs through the remains of long-ago cities to find insights for modern survival. Over the past 10 years, Jing has been excavating the cities of the late Shang Dynasty. Flourishing between 1,200 and 1,050 BC, the Shang was one of the first literate civilizations in China and East Asia. Its last capital city was Yinxu, where the present-day city of Anyang now stands.
An assistant professor in the Dept. of Anthropology, Jing studies the relationship between human and ecological systems in early China to investigate why certain civilizations rise or fall.
“The past can shed light on how we tackle present and future problems like the sustainability of human societies and environmental conditions,” says Jing, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Asia-Pacific Archeology and will be launching a new study to further integrate archeological and ecological data.
He says that as the world’s most populous country, China faces severe environmental problems -- far surpassing any other. But to meet immediate needs, China, like many nations, will often go ahead with projects like dams that end up destroying homes, history and the irreplaceable ecology of flood plains.
“The long-term perspective may help us better understand and evaluate current environmental debates, interpretations and even policies,” says Jing. “If there is vivid data presented, we can convince people to act for long- instead of short-term benefits.”
At present, scholars who grapple with sustainability issues usually have access to data that cover one or two centuries. In contrast, archeological records span thousands of years, says Jing.
His study will peel away the layers of China’s 6,000-year history of human and environmental interactions, focusing on the Yellow River valley where Anyang numbers among many early settlements.
Starting 8,500 years ago, China’s early people witnessed the rapid growth of argricultural communities followed by the development of urban centres. Jing will assess the archeologically visible consequences of these cities, their operation as political and economic centres and their decline during China’s Bronze Age, the period between about 2,000 and 771 BC.
“We’ll be studying the people’s responses and strategies to environmental changes, either climatic or human induced,” says Jing. “We’ll also investigate the changing biodiversity.”
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Jing and his team will employ archaeology, geology, paleography, isotope chemistry and palynology (the study of pollen and spores). Tools such as high-resolution pollen analysis of lake sediments and paleobotanical study of plant remains will augment an archaeological survey of prehistoric settlements. From this, Jing says they’ll be able to witness the cycles and consequences of social and natural actions over several millennia.
“The archaeological record encodes hundreds of situations in which societies were able to develop sustainable relationships with their environments, and thousands of situations in which the relationships with their environments were mutually destructive.”
Deciphering the worldview and mindset of a specific time and place can also reveal important clues, says Jing. For example, the material evidence turned up from Shang excavations reveals that in the early years, the first cities were going gangbusters creating new technology and arts.
“The Shang people invented writing, possibly for communication among different ethnic groups. They imported horse-driven chariots from the Near East or Central Asia, and rapidly absorbed ideas from other cultures.”
However, after a century the Shang vitality slackened. The initial diversity and creativity devolved into a dull sameness. “By the end we see that things like their pottery, architecture and artwork had become standardized and simplified.”
Jing says this phenomenon in the archaeological record suggests that people had less freedom to express their individuality and became less creative.
“When a society becomes rigid and homogeneous, there’s greater potential for collapse.”
Jing’s study has received support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, the National Science Foundation in the United States and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholar Exchange. International partners for his project include the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
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