Shimao, graphic arts, and long distance connections

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Introduction to the site:

"The importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 2" (5/11/20)

I have written about Shimao informally before, but the more we keep finding out about it, the more I come to believe that it is the most important archeological site in China from before the beginning of our era.

Li Jaang, Zhouyong Sun, Jing Shao, and Min Li, "When peripheries were centres: a preliminary study of the Shimao-centred polity in the loess highland, China", Antiquity, 92.364 (August 22, 2018), 1008-1022.

Chinese archeologists continue to do work at Shimao, although with restrictions because of the sensitive nature of the site.  We can expect additional publications about the site and its artifacts, including, for example, 20,000 bone needles (reported by Min Li who is writing a paper on the textile industry found at Shimao).

New article:

"King Carved In Stone Found at 4,200-Year-Old Chinese Pyramid Palace", by Sahir Pandey, Ancient Origins (8/11/22)

With copious illustrations from the site, including clear photographs of relief carvings and inscriptions.  Astonishingly, in some respects they resemble figures from the mysterious Bronze Age site of Sanxingdui in Sichuan (southwestern China)

Deputy lead archaeologist of the excavation team, Professor Shao Jing from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, is excited about the probable portrait of a king found at the site that could answer the ruler mystery.

“The face on the west side is about 80 cm (31 inches) long and 50 cm (20 inches) high with a crown on its head. It is the largest single image in the Shimao stone carvings . The eastern face that has been unearthed appears to be in the center of the whole group … and may be the image of the king of the Shimao ancestors,” said Professor Shao.

He is referring to the giant 2-meter carved stone wall with three faces, of which only two have been completely exposed. The elite portrait of the city’s ruler is carved into blocks of a wall section. The carving of the king is distinctive as it has “arc patterns on the outside of the eyes.” Other solemn human faces are adorned with earrings, with protruding eyes [VHM:  emphasis mine; cf. Sanxingdui] and mouths, and visible teeth.

Were Global Communication Channels Used Before Civilization?

The animal portraitures and stone carvings do suggest an element of spirituality to the entire structure. Perhaps these fantastical creatures and animals were carved in stone to protect the king, in both the current life and the next. What is most interesting to note is that roughly at the time this civilization disappeared, other ancient civilizations also vanished mysteriously. This most famously includes the Indus Valley Harappa-Mohenjodaro civilization and Mesopotamia.

There is some commonality in the way these late-Neolithic-period stone structures were organized. Artifacts found at these sites, the jade pieces, for example, at the Chinese pyramid city, along with musical instruments [VHM:  especially lithophones] that have been identified in over 100 places across the world, suggest an effective communication amongst elites some 4,000 years ago. This line of thought is fascinating and could open up a wide variety of historical research.

Bede Fahey has pointed out that some of the glyphs at Shimao resemble Mayan writing and, to a certain extent, early forms of Chinese script, but much more research needs to be carried out before any definitive conclusions can be reached.


Selected readings

"Embodied Materials:  The Emergence of Figural Imagery in Prehistoric China"
Sandrine Larrivé-Bass

Ph.D. dissertation Columbia University   2015


This dissertation explores the emergence of figuration in prehistoric China. It approaches the topic by focusing on image-makers’ engagement with the materials they used to fashion figural works. Chapter 1 presents a survey of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic images created from the Epipaleolithic through the Neolithic periods. It highlights a multiplicity of forms, materials and representational approaches while uncovering recurring patterns. Chapter 2 introduces the principal theories scholars have applied to discuss this corpus, and draws out their similarity with paradigms used in Western scholarship on prehistoric art. The discussion further draws attention to a bi-directional influence exerted on the reception of prehistoric imagery in Europe and China. Chapter 3 focuses on images produced prior to or around 5,000 BCE, and repositions their emergence in the context of broader interests in materiality and representation. The analysis uncovers trends and explores circumstances that notably led image-makers separated in time and space to represent human heads as flat entities. Chapter 4 investigates the role of pareidolia in the emergence of images. It reveals that perceptive imagination informed the creation of some works, when craftspeople drew inspiration from forms in raw materials or artifacts. Chapter 5 explores the possibility that image-makers sought to achieve material-representation synergies. The discussion presents a new taxonomic model addressing materiality and the sensory channels through which figurative images are perceived, and it describes how these factors possibly constituted a core aspect of mimesis. The analysis proposes that some image-makers employed both visual and tactile qualities of substances to represent animals and human beings.


"Qijia and Erlitou: The Question of Contacts with Distant Cultures"
Louisa G. Fitzgerald-Huber
Early China, 20 (1995), 17-67.

Published online 3/25/15


This paper investigates the relationships between the Early Metal Age cultures of the Inner Mongolia and Gansu-Qinghai area with the Erlitou culture of the Central Plains region, and addresses the issue whether specific metal objects characteristic of these cultures may have their source of inspiration in areas as remote as southern Siberia and present-day Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan. The proposal that China at the very beginning of its Bronze Age may have been affected by long-distance cultural transmissions depends upon recent reevaluations of the early history of the Eurasian steppe, in particular the advent of nomadic pastoralism and horse riding, and upon newly recalibrated carbon dates ascertained for specific Siberian sites and for the Bactrian-Margiana complex.


  1. Chris Button said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 7:59 pm

    This is very Mayan looking to my novice eyes:

  2. David Marjanović said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 2:05 am

    This is very Mayan looking to my novice eyes:

    To mine, too! It's striking!

    It's not terribly different from Pacific Northwest styles, too, isn't it?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 8:08 pm

    new article with more photos

  4. Doctor Science said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 10:57 pm

    Sanxingdui art has always struck me as very reminiscent of Mayan/Central American art. Decades before I ever heard of it, I wondered at some coincidences (?):

    – Central American cultures valued jade in ways very similar to Chinese culture

    – four colors/directions schemes are found in both China and Native America — and Turkey!, as outlined here.

    The Shimao carvings are so reminiscent of Mayan art it's practically creepy. Not at all similar to contemporaneous art or earlier art from the Fertile Crescent.

    I don't see (given geography, currents, etc) that influences could have gone from the Western Hemisphere back to East Asia at that period, and there's no direct evidence for East Asian transfer to the W. Hem. Definitely needs more research!

  5. Doctor Science said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 11:40 pm

    Fig. 1.68 in the Larrivé-Bass dissertation is startlingly similar to Zuni images. For what it's worth.

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