Only a few weeks after a fossil discovery in Yunnan further explained the evolution of prehistoric jaws, a much younger archaeological find is shedding light on how people in this corner of the world lived more than three millennia ago. A dig site in Yuxi Prefecture (玉溪市) has so far offered up pottery fragments, smelted copper pieces, burial sites and a massive collection of snail shells.
The discovery was initially made in June 2015 when construction workers began flattening a small hill in the village of Xingyi (兴义村). The local school — located about 70 kilometers south of Kunming — was in the process of building a new school cafeteria. Work was halted when excavating equipment first unearthed an ancient pot and then uncovered enormous quantities of shells. The school's president immediately informed the Yunnan Bureau of Cultural Relics of the find.
Scientists from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Yunnan Archaeological Institute have now dug more than nine meters into the ground. Their discoveries are challenging them to rethink how ancient people once lived on the shores of Qilu Lake (杞麓湖). Carbon dating of burnt acorns found at the site show they and the other relics are at least 3,450 years old. Once the acorns were accurately dated, Zhu and his team placed particular importance on investigating the bronze pieces found in Xingyi.
These artifacts include the remnants of kettles and containers, indicating people in Yunnan were mining ore and smelting it much earlier than scientists previously thought. The people of the Dian Kingdom (滇国) and others have long been known from their bronze and iron artifacts. However, the discoveries at Xingyi push back the length of the Bronze Age in Yunnan several hundred years, according to Zhu Zhonghua (朱忠华), director of the Yunnan Institute of Archaeology.
The collection of shells found in Xingyi — thought to be the remnants of a giant food trash pit — has also revealed new insights into this mysterious culture. While sifting through thousands upon thousands of freshwater snail shells, archaeologists identified five larger specimens of an unknown tropical origin. Zhu believes the saltwater shells indicate the existence of trade networks stretching from Yunnan to either the Indian or Pacific oceans more than 3,000 years ago.
Bones taken from a dozen burial sites are currently undergoing DNA tests in an effort to identify who the ancient people of Qilu Lake were and whom they were related. Looking down into the excavation pit, Zhu recently told reports, "This is a history book, and each stratum is an individual page [...] The book spans thousands of years, and it is clear there are many mysteries waiting to be solved."