Category Archives: CHINA

Fossils May Represent China’s Earliest Hominins

Fossils May Represent China’s Earliest Hominins

Scientists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación Sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) form part of a team of Chinese, Spanish, and French scientists that has just published a study of what may prove to be China’s most ancient human fossil, in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Remains of jawbone and teeth of Gongwangling skull/Xing Song

The researchers employed microCT, geometric morphometry, and classical morphology techniques to investigate the remains of the maxillary and five teeth from the skull unearthed at the Chinese site of Gongwangling.

This site is on the vast plains on the northern slopes of the Quinling Mountains (province of Shaanxi, in central China) and was discovered by the scientist Woo Ju-Kang in 1963.

The age of the site was reevaluated in 2015 through regional palaeomagnetism studies.

Those data suggest that the Gongwangling remains date from something over 1.6 million years ago, and so they could belong to one of the first human beings to colonize what is now China.

According to the new study, there exist similarities between the Gongwangling teeth and those from rather more recent Chinese sites: Meipu and Quyuan River Mouth; but some variability is also presented, suggesting a certain diversity among the populations of H. Erectus that colonized Asia during the Pleistocene.

The importance of this new work lies in the scarcity of information about the early colonisation of Asia.

The Dmanisi site (Republic of Georgia) has furnished very significant evidence of the earliest inhabitants of Asia, who arrived from Africa around two million years ago. But much more information is needed to connect Dmanisi with the classic H. erectus populations of China (Hexian, Yiyuan, Xichuan, or Zhoukoudian), who lived in this great continental mass between 400,000 and 800,000 years ago.

“The Gongwangling site helps to plug this enormous lapse of time and it suggests that Asia might have been settled by successive populations of the species H. Erectus at different moments of the Pleistocene”, comments José María Bermúdez de Castro, coordinator of the Paleobiology Program at the CENIEH.

Characteristics of Homo erectus

The Gongwangling skull presents all the characteristics described for H. Erectus: low and very long cranium, with very thick bones that protected a brain of some 780 cubic centimetres; steeply inclined frontal, with pronounced superciliary arches that form a sort of twin visor above the eyes; flattened parietals which rise at the top to produce a sagittal keel; maximum parietal thickness at the skull base.

The Gongwangling occipital is incomplete, but the reconstruction shows how this bone turns abruptly to comprise the skull base.

Close collaboration between Chinese scientists, led by Liu Wu, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), and the Spanish scientists at the CENIEH who, in alphabetical order, were Bermúdez de Castro, Laura Martín-Francés, and María Martinón-Torres, has been essential to this new study of the fossil teeth from China.

A trove of 13,000 Artifacts Sheds Light on Enigmatic Chinese Civilization

A trove of 13,000 Artifacts Sheds Light on Enigmatic Chinese Civilization

A trove of 13,000 Artifacts Sheds Light on Enigmatic Chinese Civilization
Bronze sacrificial altar unearthed at the Sanxingdui archaeological site

For hundreds of years, the Sanxingdui culture flourished in what is now southwest China, producing ornate bronze masks and precious wares before vanishing abruptly around 1100 or 1200 B.C.E.

Believed to be part of the broader Shu state, the civilization continues to fascinate more than 3,000 years after its demise. As state-run news agency Xinhua reports, a trove of 13,000 artefacts unearthed at the Sanxingdui Ruins site over the past two years is poised to offer new insights into the mysterious Bronze Age culture.

Found in six sacrificial pits, according to China Daily’s Wang Kaihao, the cache includes 1,238 bronze wares, 543 gold artefacts and 565 jade objects.

Among the highlights of the discovery is a bronze box with a tortoise-shaped lid, dragonhead handles and bronze ribbons. Green jade is tucked inside the container, which appears to have once been wrapped in silk.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of its kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design,” Li Haichao, an archaeologist at Sichuan University, tells Xinhua. “Although we do not know what this vessel was used for, we can assume that ancient people treasured it.”

Bronze head with gold mask excavated at the Sanxingdui archaeological site

Other key finds include a bronze sacrificial altar, a giant bronze mask, and a bronze statue with a human head and a snake’s body. Per the Global Times’ Ji Yuqiao, the hybrid figure rests its hands on a lei drinking vessel; another type of vessel known as a zun is painted on the statue’s head in vermillion hues.

The sculpture’s blend of artistic styles reflects the “early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization,” says Ran Honglin, a researcher at the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, to Xinhua. It’s human and snake components are typical of the Shu state, while the lei is more commonly associated with the pre-Western Zhou Dynasty. The zun is historically found in the Zhongyuan region.

“These three factors are now blended into one artefact, which demonstrates that Sanxingdui is an important part of Chinese civilization,” Ran adds.

According to an official government FAQ, a farmer stumbled onto the Sanxingdui Ruins in 1929. The first archaeological excavation at the site took place in 1934, but work soon drew to a halt amid the political tumult of the mid-20th century.

It was only in 1986 that scholars recognized the significance of the ruins: As Live Science’s Tia Ghose wrote in 2014, archaeologists found two pits filled with 1,000 artefacts, including eight-foot-tall bronze sculptures whose artistry points to an “impressive technical ability that was present nowhere else in the world at the time.” Because the objects were broken or burned before burial, experts concluded that they’d been placed in the pits as part of a sacrificial ritual.

A large bronze head with protruding eyes is believed to be a depiction of Cancong, the semi-legendary first king of Shu

In addition to the towering figurines, excavators discovered oversized bronze masks with exaggerated facial features. Measuring around three feet wide, the masks share several key characteristics, per the Saxingdui Museum: “knife-shaped eyebrows, protruding eyes in [a] triangle shape, big stretching ears, snub nose and fine mouth.” Experts posit that the masks may have memorialized their creators’ ancestors or gods.

No written records or human remains associated with the Sanxingdui survive today, reports Kathleen Magramo for CNN. But scholars generally agree that the culture was part of the kingdom of Shu, which thrived on the Chengdu Plain until its defeat by the state of Qin in 316 B.C.E. The exact reasons for the Sanxingdui’s decline are unknown, but theories abound, with earthquakes, war and flooding all proposed as possible explanations.

Based on the discovery of similar artefacts at Jinsha, about 30 miles away from the Sanxingdui Ruins, some archaeologists argue that the Sanxingdui moved to Jinsha and rebuilt their community there.

Between 2020 and 2022, a renewed slate of excavations uncovered six additional pits at the Sanxingdui site. Last year, archaeologists revealed fragments of a gold mask, traces of silk, bronzeware adorned with depictions of animals, ivory carvings and other artefacts.

The current round of excavations is slated to conclude in October. As Ran tells the Global Times, “The number of unearthed cultural relics will keep increasing with further work.”

China’s mysterious 8,000-year-old structure ‘guarded by the military could hold key secrets

China’s mysterious 8,000-year-old structure ‘guarded by the military could hold key secrets

More than 100km outside the ancient city of Xi’an, among the overgrown forests, rise scores of pyramid-shaped mounds that have been shrouded in mystery for thousands of years. The West learnt about them when Fred Meyer Schroder, an American trader, first reported the enigma in 1912.

At the time, he was travelling through the Shaanxi Province with a guide, where he recorded a thorough description in his diary, noting he had seen one giant pyramid approximately 1,000 feet tall and nearly twice that size in length, surrounded by a number of smaller pyramids.

Fast-forward three decades and US Airforce pilot James Gaussman would be left mesmerised by a “pure white” structure spotted while flying over Asia, said to be twice the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

He said: “The remarkable thing was the capstone, a huge piece of jewel-like material that could have been crystal.

“There was no way we could have landed, although we wanted to. We were struck by the immensity of the thing.”

Two years later, Colonel Maurice Sheahan, the Far Eastern director for Trans World Airline, reported the same experience.

China’s mysterious 8,000-year-old structure 'guarded by the military could hold key secrets
China has a mysterious structure that could be key to understanding the country’s history.
China has a number of pyramid structures

In the early Nineties, German investigator Hartwig Hausdorf searched for the massive pyramid, but he was unsuccessful in finding it.

Instead, he found “the Chinese military meticulously patrolling the area,” according to reports.

Today, Google Earth will show anyone with the right coordinates evidence of not just one, but around 40 known pyramids, but not all are easily distinguishable to the human eye.

They are covered with trees and grass, and many date back 8,000 years. This region, in essence, is China’s version of both Egypt’s Giza and the Valley of the Kings in one, particularly because there is a huge amount of royalty rumoured to be beneath the surface that no one has disturbed.

Two farmers discovered the famous terracotta army of China’s First Emperor

As early as the 17th century, a Roman Jesuit wrote about the pyramids, and in 1785, the French orientalist and sinologist Joseph de Guignes wrote ‘An Essay in Which We Prove The Chinese Are an Egyptian Colony’.

Western archaeologists have, to this day, rarely been permitted to investigate the sites and some have claimed photos show shrubs have been deliberately planted to keep the secret under wraps.

But experts theorise there are almost certainly lost emperors and artefacts below the mounds that would dwarf Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun. In 1974, the world got a peek at a truly extraordinary history of China when two farmers were digging just outside Xi’an and discovered the famous terracotta army of China’s First Emperor – Qin Shi Huang.

There were legends that he had been buried inside a veritable mini-city with palaces, carriages, treasures, and anything else he’d need in the afterlife – and through luck, or fate, these farmers hit the jackpot. The site is so massive, that researchers are “going to be digging there for centuries,” archaeologist Kristin Romey told Live Science in 2012.

The mounds are shrouded in secrecy
Some can be seen on Google Earth

But the Emperor himself has never been found.

The authorities have opened up sites like the Han Yang Ling Mausoleum to tourists, but no one is allowed to excavate them.

Xi Jinping’s government say the technology does not exist yet to disturb the pyramids without damaging their contents, citing King Tut’s discovery for reference.

Dr Romey previously remarked: “It’s really smart what they’re doing.

“Think about all the information we lost just based on the excavation techniques of the 1930s.

“There’s so much additional [information] that we could have learned, but the techniques back then weren’t what we have now.

“Even though we may think we have great archaeological excavation techniques [at present], who knows, a century down the road if we open this tomb [they could be even better].”

Chinese strong “veneration of tradition” culture could mean they simply wish to leave their royalty at peace, which means there will be no choice but to watch them recede back into the Earth with their secrets – until someone decides otherwise.

But, due to the area being shrouded in secrecy, there are also doubts from some experts about whether the White Pyramid even exists.

Experts have squabbled over both the location and the feasibility of such a monumental structure.

The Largest And Oldest Pyramid On The Planet: The Great Pyramid Of China

The Largest And Oldest Pyramid On The Planet: The Great Pyramid Of China

The story behind the Great Pyramid of China is beyond fascinating. For years, the government has not allowed proper studies to be performed on the numerous pyramids near the city of Xi’an. Excursions that managed to sneak into the area where the pyramids are discovered numerous anomalies like a metallic material which could not be identified by researchers. The Pyramids are believed to be over 8,000 years old.

The Largest And Oldest Pyramid On The Planet: The Great Pyramid Of China

Are the Pyramid of China among the largest on the planet? According to many, one of the Pyramids – kept a secret for years — in China is so large that the Great Pyramid of Giza seems like a miniature monument.

The story of the Chinese pyramid began at the end of the Second World War when American pilot James Gaussman was about to complete a resupply mission to the forces of the Chinese Army.

Suddenly, a fault in the aircraft engine forced him to return to the Assam base located in northern India, for safety reasons, he decided to fly at a lower altitude.

Shortly after flying over the city of Xi’an, heading southwest, the pilot encountered what looked like a gigantic pyramid.

Surprised, after making several passes over the humongous structure, he decided to take a number of photographs, which later included a detailed report which was handed to his superiors as soon as he returned to base.

The incident was forgotten among the files of the US Air Force until 40 years later, the ‘Great Pyramid of China’ was brought back to light through the work of Australian writer Brian Crowley, who published one of the photographs of the Pyramid in his book.

As a result, it was known that this wasn’t the first time pilots saw the humongous Chinese Pyramid.

In fact, on March 147, when the war was already over, the New York Times published an article making reference to the sighting made by Col. Maurice Sheehan from his plane, when he flew over a gigantic pyramid, described by Col. Maurice Sheehan as having approximate dimensions of 300 meters in height and 450 meters on each side.

It is noteworthy to mention that these dimensions would make the Chinese Pyramid the largest one ever discovered on Earth, dwarfing the Great Pyramid of Giza with a mere 147 meters in height and 320 meters in width.

Even more fascinating is the fact that the Great Pyramid of Egypt has around 52,900 square meters, the ‘Great Pyramid of China’ exceeds the number with a staggering 202,000 square meters.

Over the years, numerous pilots claimed to have observed gigantic Pyramids in China, and there is a great number of images, taken by pilots and satellites which support the existence of the mysterious structures in Asia.

However, inexplicably, the Chinese authorities have rejected the existence of such monuments.

The Forbidden History Of Ancient China: Aryan Mummies And Hundreds Of Pyramids.

In the early twentieth century, explorers and traders, like German citizens Frederick Schroeder and Oscar Maman, testified to the presence of not only one, but several pyramids located around the Chinese city of Xi’an.

But the mystery behind the Pyramid of China is even more fascinating. According to reports, numerous European excursions managed to take samples of objects and metals around the Pyramids of China.

Analysis showed that these structures could be well over 8,000 years old, but the most fascinating detail isn’t the age of the Pyramids: Interestingly, the metallic material present at the Pyramids has not been identified so far; since it is made out of materials that are unknown to modern science.

Check out the images:

Qing Dynasty Tombs Discovered in Southern China

Qing Dynasty Tombs Discovered in Southern China

The file photo shows a cultural relic unearthed at the Houbeishan tomb complex in the city of Yongzhou, central China’s Hunan Province.

Archaeologists have found 25 tombs dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in central China’s Hunan Province, according to the provincial cultural relics and archaeology research institute.

More than 60 cultural relics, including porcelain jars, porcelain bowls, copper hairpins and copper knives, were unearthed at the Houbeishan tomb complex in the city of Yongzhou.

Some of these porcelain jars, known locally as “food jars,” were found with food residue inside.

According to experts, there was a local burial custom to preserve food in tombs, and the practice continues to this day.

Archaeologists said the distribution of the tombs suggests that they belonged to a family and that the owners of two adjacent tombs were husband and wife.

“The discovery of the tombs provides new archaeological materials for understanding the funeral customs and local history and culture in southern China during the Qing Dynasty,” said Li Yiyuan, an associate research fellow with the institute. 

The file photo shows a porcelain bowl unearthed at the Houbeishan tomb complex in the city of Yongzhou, central China’s Hunan Province.

Vase Kept In Kitchen Turned Out To Be 250-Year-Old Relic, Auctioned For 1.5 Million Pounds

Vase Kept In Kitchen Turned Out To Be 250-Year-Old Relic, Auctioned For 1.5 Million Pounds

A royal blue 18th-century Chinese vase decorated with gold and silver, which sat in a U.K. kitchen for several years, just sold at auction for about $1.8 million after historians realized it had once belonged to an emperor. 

This close-up photo shows a crane image on the vase. A mix of silver and gold were used in the vase's decorations.
The 18th-century Chinese vase was auctioned for about $1.8 million.

However, the vase’s unclear history — combined with the looting of Chinese palaces in the 19th century — raises ethical concerns, according to an expert who was not involved with the sale. 

The vase is large, about 2 feet (0.6 meters) tall, and it is marked with a symbol associated with the Qianlong emperor — the sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty, the country’s last imperial dynasty — who ruled China from 1735 to 1795, according to a statement released by the auction company Dreweatts, which sold the vase on May 18.

The vase is painted with a colour called “sacrificial blue” — so named because the same shade decorates parts of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

At this temple, the emperor of China would sacrifice animals in hopes that these sacrifices would ensure a good harvest. 

This close-up photo shows a crane image on the vase. A mix of silver and gold was used in the vase’s decorations.

The decorations on the vase are made of a mix of silver and gold, and they depict clouds, cranes, fans, flutes and bats — symbols of the emperor’s Daoist beliefs that are associated with a good and long life, said Mark Newstead, a specialist consultant for Asian ceramics and works of art with Dreweatts, said in a YouTube video

The combination of silver and gold used on this vase is “technically very difficult to achieve and that’s what makes it so special and unusual,” Newstead said, noting that a man named Tang Ying (1682-1756), who was the supervisor of an imperial porcelain factory in the eastern city of Jingdezhen, is sometimes credited with the creation of the technique used on this vase. 

This vase would likely have been placed in the Forbidden Palace — where the Chinese emperor resided — or in one of the emperor’s other palaces, Newstead said. 

During the Qianlong emperor’s rule, the government had to put down a number of rebellions. Despite this unrest, the arts flourished in China, wrote historian Richard Smith in the book “The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture(opens in new tab)” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the political situation worsened as China lost a number of wars against Europe and America, and foreign troops looted a number of palaces.

Uncertain origins

Much about the history of this vase is unknown. The vase was owned by a surgeon who “we believe bought it in the early 1980s,” Newstead told Live Science in an email.

The surgeon “was a buyer in the country salerooms in the [English] Midlands from the 1970s onwards and that is all we know,” Newstead said. After the surgeon died, the vase was passed on to his son. Neither the surgeon nor the son realized the true value and the vase was placed in the son’s kitchen for some time, and Newstead first saw it in the late 1990s.

The vase’s unclear origins and the history of foreign troops looting palaces in the 19th century raise some ethical concerns that the vase was plundered by foreign troops in the 19th or early 20th century, an expert told Live Science. 

“It could have been a gift from the emperor to one of his officials, and that official’s family could have sold it on the open market in the 20th century when they fell on hard economic times. And from there it would have been sold many more times. Or, it could be the product of the military plunder of 1860 or 1901, which would make its auction much more morally dubious,” Justin Jacobs, a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C., told Live Science in an email.

Jacobs has studied and written extensively about the pillaging of Chinese art in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

“We just don’t know [how the vase left China] and likely we never will,” Jacobs said.

Ancient Chinese Silk Text Could Be “Oldest Surviving Anatomical Atlas In The World”

Ancient Chinese Silk Text Could Be “Oldest Surviving Anatomical Atlas In The World”

A series of 2,200-year-old Chinese texts, written on silk and found buried in ancient tombs, contains the oldest surviving anatomical atlas, scientists say. 

Ancient Chinese Silk Text Could Be "Oldest Surviving Anatomical Atlas In The World"
Ancient texts written on silk and found inside the tombs at Mawangdui, China, may represent the oldest surviving anatomical atlas.

The texts were discovered in the 1970s within tombs at the site of Mawangdui in south-central China. The tombs belonged to Marquis Dai, his wife Lady Dai and their son.

The texts are challenging to understand, and they use the term “meridian” to refer to parts of the human body. In a paper recently published Sept. 1 in the journal The Anatomical Record, a research team led by Vivien Shaw, an anatomy lecturer at Bangor University in Wales in the United Kingdom, argues that these texts “are the oldest surviving anatomical atlas in the world.”

Additionally the texts “both predate and inform the later acupuncture texts, which have been the foundation for acupuncture practice in the subsequent two millennia,” the researchers wrote in the study.

The find “challenges the widespread belief that there is no scientific foundation for the ‘anatomy of acupuncture,’ by showing that the earliest physicians writing about acupuncture were in fact writing about the physical body,” they added.

The ancient texts were discovered in the 1970s in a series of tombs at the site of Mawangdui in China. Remains of the tombs are seen in this photo.

Challenging texts

The texts, which are written in Chinese characters, are difficult to understand. “The skills necessary to interpret them are diverse, requiring the researcher firstly to read the original Chinese, and secondly to perform the anatomical investigations that allow a re-viewing of the structures that the texts refer to,” the researchers wrote in the paper. 

But if the texts are read carefully, it can be seen that the “meridians” refer to parts of the human body. For example, the text says (in translation) that one meridian starts “in the centre of the palm, goes along the forearm between the two bones following straight along with the tendons, travels below the sinew into the bicep, to the armpit, and connects with the heart.” The researchers contend that this description of a “meridian” actually refers to the path of the ulnar artery, the main blood vessel of the forearm. 

Another example from the ancient text describes a “meridian” in the foot that “starts at the big toe and runs along the medial surface of the leg and thigh. Connects at the ankle, knee, and thigh. It travels along with the adductors of the thigh, and covers the abdomen.” This “meridian” actually describes the “pathway of the long saphenous vein,” the conduit that carries blood from the legs back to the heart, the researchers wrote. 

The team concludes that the texts “represent the earliest surviving anatomical atlas, designed to provide a concise description of the human body for students and practitioners of medicine in ancient China.” 

Although the human body and ancestral remains were considered sacred in ancient China, the remains of lawbreakers were not always given this honour.

The researchers believe that ancient Chinese medical researchers dissected the corpses of prisoners to help them understand human anatomy. For instance, the Han Shu (Book of Han), a tome that covers the history of the Han Dynasty, records the dissection of the criminal Wang Sun-Qing in A.D. 16, the researchers noted in the study.

Until now, the oldest known anatomical atlas of the human body was thought to be from Greece, done by ancient Greek physicians such as Herophilus (335–280 B.C.) and Erasistratus (304-c.250 B.C.) however most of their texts have been lost and are known only from what other ancient writers wrote about them. As a result, the Chinese texts are the earliest surviving anatomical atlas, the researchers said. 

Vivienne Lo, a senior lecturer and convenor of University College London’s China Centre for Health and Humanity who is not affiliated with the research, said that she is hesitant to use the word “atlas” to describe these texts, and thinks that “map” or “chart” is a more appropriate term.

Lo said that the term “atlas” was a term that was used more during the 17th and 18th centuries and doesn’t seem appropriate to apply to a 2,200-year-old text. Lo also noted that some of the finds discussed in the paper — such as that prisoners were dissected to provide anatomical information — have been published by other researchers before.

TJ Hinrichs, a history professor at Cornell University who has conducted research into ancient Chinese medicine but is not affiliated with this research, also did not think that “anatomical atlas” was an appropriate term to describe these texts. Live Science has reached out to other experts not affiliated with the research, however, most were not able to reply at the time of publication. 

Ancient Chinese woman faced brutal ‘yue’ punishment, had foot cut off, and a skeleton reveals

Ancient Chinese women faced brutal ‘yue’ punishment, had foot cut off, and a skeleton reveals

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the foot of a Chinese woman was cut off in an amputation — probably not for a medical condition, but as punishment for committing a criminal act, a new study of her bones suggests. It’s one of the few times archaeologists have discovered evidence of yue, an ancient Chinese punishment. 

Ancient Chinese women faced brutal 'yue' punishment, had foot cut off, and a skeleton reveals
The rough endings on the bones of the lower right leg suggest the amputation was inflicted as a punishment and was not the result of an accident or disease.

Various clues hint that the woman’s foot was cut off as yue: her bones show no signs of any disease that could have made such an amputation necessary; and it seems the injury was roughly made, rather than with the precision of a medical amputation. 

The researchers considered other possibilities for how the woman might have lost her foot, such as from an accident, a war injury or a surgical procedure, study lead author Li Nan, an archaeologist at Peking University in China, told Live Science. But “after careful observation and media discussions, our research team ruled out other possibilities and agreed that punitive amputation is the best interpretation,” she told Live Science in an email.

The yue punishment was common in ancient China for over 1,000 years, until it was abolished in the second century B.C., according to a 2019 study in the Tsinghua China Law Review. At the time the woman was living, up to 500 different offenses could result in having a foot amputated, including rebelling, cheating, stealing and even climbing over certain gates, Li said. 

But nothing about the woman’s skeleton suggests what she was punished for: “We have no clue what kind of crime she committed,” she said.

Archaeologist Li Nan (centre) with other members of Peking University’s archaeological team at the Sanxingdui archaeological site in China’s Sichuan province.

Five punishments

According to historians, yue was one of the “five punishments for slaves” enforced since the second millennium B.C. by emperors of the Xia dynasty, the first dynasty of ancient China. There is extensive historical evidence of the practice, and a Chinese official in the first millennium B.C. complained of the need to find special shoes for amputees.

Minor crimes were punished with beatings, but offenders who committed severe crimes could be sentenced to one of the five punishments: mo, where the face or forehead was tattooed in indelible ink; yi, in which the offender’s nose was cut off; yue, the amputation of the feet (some of the worst offenders had both feet cut off); and gōng, a brutally complete castration.

The fifth was da pi, a death sentence that could be carried out by beheading, if you were lucky — alternatives included being boiled alive and being torn limb from limb by horses, according to a 1975 study in the Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law.

Chinese tradition records that the five punishments were in force until they were abolished in the second century B.C. by the Han dynasty’s Emperor Wen, who replaced them with a system of fines, floggings, hard labour and exile; the worst criminals were simply executed.

Historical writings and art attest to the yue punishment in ancient China, including these bronzes from the first millennium B.C. that show people who had lost a leg or a foot as punishment; they were traditionally employed as gatekeepers.

Li said the woman’s skeleton was found in a tomb at the Zhouyuan site in China’s northwestern Shaanxi province in 1999. The tomb dates from between 2,800 and 3,000 years ago when Zhouyuan was the region’s largest and most important city.

The skeleton’s missing foot was largely overlooked initially, but a new examination of the remains reveals more about the woman’s life, Li said. 

Anatomical analysis revealed that the woman was between 30 and 35 years old when she died, and that — apart from her missing foot — she was in good health. She seems to have suffered no disease after the amputation, which suggests that she was cared for; and the growth of the remaining leg bones indicates the woman lived for about another five years before she died.

Only a few shells were found in her tomb, which might indicate that she lived in poverty, and she was probably buried by members of her family, Li said.

Old bones

The analysis showed that the woman was between 30 and 35 years old when she died about 3,000 years ago and that she lived for about five years after the amputation.

The woman’s bones didn’t show signs of any diseases that might have made a foot amputation necessary, such as diabetes, leprosy or cancer; and there was no evidence of frostbite or burns.

In addition, there seem to be few good explanations of how it could have happened by accident. “If she was attacked or fell from a high place, it didn’t make sense that she only lost her right foot without other injuries,” Li said.

A critical clue was that the amputation seems to have been the result of an inexpert or perhaps remorseless action — something that can be seen in the bones that remain, including what’s left of the tibia, or shinbone.

“The cutting surface of her right tibia was not smooth and marked malunion [a badly-healed fracture] was observed,” Li said. “A surgical amputation could do much better at that time.”

The Zhouyuan amputation is the earliest evidence of yue yet found. But researchers have reported seeing mutilated skeletons with similar injuries in ancient graves, and it’s possible that older examples will be identified, Li said: “The point is not finding, but identifying.” 

The study was published earlier this month in the journal Acta Anthropologica Sinica.