Ancient China: Lost City With Pyramid and Human Sacrifices Is Rewriting History

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Ancient buildings in the ruins of Shimao. Archaeologists in China unearthed the skulls of more than 80 young women who may have been sacrificed more than 4,000 years ago. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The remains of Shimao, an ancient walled settlement in today's northern China, is revolutionizing archaeologists' understanding of the country's history, scientists reported in the journal Antiquity.

Academics studying the ruins reported that the area once was home to a bustling metropolis surrounding a giant step pyramid dating back some 4,300 years. Home to trade, religion and even human sacrifice, the city was likely once part of the "political and economic heartland" of what is now China, the authors wrote.

Stone buttresses lined each of the pyramid's 11 steps. Eyes and human-like faces adorned the structure, symbols previously found in much later settlements in the country's Central Plain. The remains of a water reservoir, roof tiles, pillars and domestic items suggest that elite residents used the top of the structure as their home. Parts of the pyramid, which stood at least 230 feet tall, were likely used for crafts like metalworking.

Visible from the surrounding homes, the pyramid likely "provided a constant and overwhelming reminder to the Shimao population of the power of the ruling elites residing atop it," the authors wrote, calling the structure "a concrete example of the 'social pyramid.'"

Researchers used to think Shimao was just a section of the nearby Great Wall of China, but recent excavations suggest it's more than two millennia older, LiveScience said. At one square mile at its peak, it was "not only the largest walled settlement of its time in ancient China, but was also among the largest centers in the world," researchers wrote in Antiquity.

The city's stone buildings are embedded with jade, which, the team wrote, might represent the religious and ritual power of the site. The green stone also signals the economic importance of the city. The researchers believe the jade artefacts, sourced from miles around, show that Shimao was likely a hub for trade.

But it wasn't all peace and prosperity for the city, with scientists reporting practiced human sacrifice "on a massive scale." Archaeologists have found decapitated heads in pits around Shimao, Archaeology noted. Ramparts, bastions and barbicans were probably erected in defense of the city, the research team wrote.

This once great city, the authors argued, shows that the surrounding area was sold short in the past as peripheral to the more "civilized" Central Plain of China. They wrote, "Analysis and comparison of new archaeological data...have revealed a highly complex society, the political and economic heartland, and possibly the most powerful [organized society], of the territory of what is today China."