A team of archaeologists from China who specialize in the study of ancient water management systems discovered the earliest ceramic pipe drainage system ever found on Chinese soil. This marvel of prehistoric engineering was unearthed during excavations at a long-deserted Neolithic settlement known as Pingliangtai in the Henan Province of North Central China. The construction of the drainage system, which included a vast network of interconnected ditches and a huge moat in addition to the underground pipes, is believed to have taken place between 2,100 and 1,900 BC.
This construction of such a complex water management system was necessary to allow the community of Pingliangtai to exist. The ancient settlement was built on a floodplain in the vicinity of the Upper Huai River, in a region where the summer monsoon season can deliver as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rainfall in a single month. Through an examination of 4,200-year-old sediment samples, the Chinese archaeologists found evidence of extremely heavy and potentially catastrophic rainfall events that took place at that time, confirming that flooding would have been a huge issue in the region in the late Neolithic just as it is now.
Closeup photo of water pipe segments fitted together in situ at Pingliangtai. (Yanpeng Cao/ Nature)
Severe Environmental Conditions Brought Social Cohesion
One of the fascinating aspects of the drainage system was its egalitarian design.
Individual drainage ditches were built for each separate home in the village, ensuring that every one of Pingliangtai’s 450 -600 residents would have been protected from floods. Meanwhile, public areas in Pingliangtai featured deeper ditches that connected to the ceramic pipes that diverted the water to a moat that encircled the earthen walls that enclosed the community.
The latter part of this two-tiered system was exceptionally complicated and would have required an enormous amount of labor to construct and maintain. What is notable here is that each household and public area in the settlement was equally well drained, showing that no one was given special privileges when the system was constructed.
One unanswered question is about the use of the moat. While the moat plus the earthen walls could have kept the community safe from invasion, it also would have provided a source of standing water that could be used for irrigation during dry months. It’s likely the moat was used for both purposes, although there is no way to know for sure without the existence of any written records.
The excavated ceramic pipes, which are still mostly in excellent condition, are between eight and 12 inches (20 and 30 centimeters) in diameter and were manufactured in sections that were between 12 and 16 inches long and could be fitted together as needed. The settlement was built on a slight slope angling downward to the south, and the drainage system was aligned to make sure the water all ran downhill and away from residential neighborhoods.
Photo of in situ water pipes leading to a drainage ditch near Pingliangtai’s southern gate. (Yanpeng Cao/ Nature)
The water management system was clearly built to protect everyone in the community from flooding. This commitment to equality was further reflected by the fact that all the houses excavated at Pingliangtai were of the same modest size, and all were grouped together in rows that betrayed no suggestion of social divisions. Burials in the community’s cemetery also showed no sign of difference between elites and more common citizens, as all excavated graves and tombs were dug to the same proportions and featured no elaborate tombstones or collections of grave goods.
According to the Chinese archaeologists, the design and layout of the drainage system and the community as a whole reflect a democratic power-sharing structure and decision-making process.
“Rather than a ‘centralized hierarchy’, the drainage activities were mainly practiced at household and communal levels, through which Pingliangtai society was drawn to more pragmatic aspects of social governance,” the archaeologists wrote in an article published in the journal Nature Water . “Through their emphasis on spatial uniformity, cooperation in public affairs, and a series of technological innovations, water management at Pingliangtai gravitated to collective shared interest as the society responded to recurrent environmental contingencies.”
Rethinking the Story of Water Management and the Rise of China’s Dynasties
The discovery of the ancient ceramic pipes shows that sophisticated water management systems were being engineered in China even before the Neolithic age gave way to the Bronze Age around 2,000 BC. But this find also reveals that large-scale water management infrastructure construction did not pave the way for centralized political control in this area of North Central China, as it did elsewhere.
In other parts of China, political leaders solved flooding problems by ordering their citizens to dig long and deep canals that diverted raging river waters elsewhere. Scholars are convinced these exhausting projects contributed to the growth of dynastic political power in the country, as they were launched by despotic leaders who could order the population to do as they wished.
The dynastic era in China began with the rise of the legendary Xia Dynasty , which was founded by Yu the Great in 2,070 BC. Notably, Yu became emperor as a result of his success constructing a vast network of canals for the purposes of flood control, which was made necessary by persistent flooding along the Yellow River .
But as the enlightening discoveries at Pingliangtai show, centralized authority was not necessary to manage floods or complete water management projects in ancient China, as had been assumed for so long. This community survived because they came up with a cooperative solution that brought the community together and made engineering history at the same time.
It remains to be seen if further excavations in Central China or elsewhere will produce more evidence of water management infrastructure being built by communities with egalitarian or democratic ruling structures. If they do, it may prove that the rise of despotic dynastic control was not as inevitable in ancient China as was once believed.
Top image: Ceramic drainage pipe. Source: Yanpeng Cao./ Nature
By Nathan Falde