Neolithic water system in China

Excavations in China have uncovered a set of ceramic pipes that represent the oldest water-drainage system ever found in the country, and appear to have been the product of impressive community efforts.

Pingliangtai is a Late Neolithic site in what is now the Huaiyang District of Zhoukou City, in central China. Excavations at the site and geological surveys of the wider area were carried out between 2014 and 2019 and the results have just been published. The site, which was occupied between 4,200 and 3,900 years ago, comprises a square-ish area, c.3.4ha, surrounded by earthen walls. A central road runs through the town, with rows of multi-roomed houses on either side, once home to the town’s c.500-600 residents. Geological survey confirms that c.4,000 years ago – much like today – the Upper Huai River Plain, where Pingliangtai is located, was subject to significant seasonal climate shifts and intense summer monsoons. However, it appears that the town’s occupants developed an innovative water-management system to deal with flooding during the rainy season.

The Neolithic occupants of Pingliangtai constructed and maintained a complex system of ceramic pipes and ditches to deal with floodwater. Image: Yanpeng Cao 

The unique system used a two-tier approach: drainage ditches running alongside the houses removed excess water from these residential areas, while a large network of ceramic drainpipes carried the water into a moat surrounding the settlement. The planning, construction, and maintenance of such a complex project would have required a considerable level of organisation but, perhaps surprisingly, there are no signs of social hierarchy at Pingliangtai. Unlike other Neolithic sites elsewhere in China, the houses are all of the same small size and the town’s cemetery so far shows no evidence of social stratification. Instead, the archaeology suggests that the town was run – and this impressive hydraulic management system executed – through a system of cooperative governance, rather than relying on an elite central power.

Details of this discovery and its possible implications appear in the journal Nature Water (