The Lajia site is located at the Lajia Village, Guanting Township, Minhe County, Qinghai Province. It is situated on the second terrace of the north bank of the Yellow River, and its altitude is around 1,800 meters. To the south of the Yellow River is today’s Gansu Province. The region is on the border of these two provinces. In 1923 and 1924, Swedish scholar J. G. Anderson conducted archaeological surveys in this area and discovered the Majiayao site, the Banshan site, the Machang site, the Qijia site and the Xindian site. The archaeological cultures named after these sites mostly distribute in this broader region of the Upper Yellow River valley.
Most remains of the Lajia site are of the Qijia Culture. The age of the site is around 4000 B.P. on the basis of absolute dating. It can be divided primarily into two periods. Evidence from survey and excavation indicates the Lajia site also has remains of the Majiayao Culture which was disturbed by the Qijia cultural layers and few Xindian cultural remains.
The excavations of the Lajia site carry significant academic implications for understanding the changing cultural and social process of the area around 4,000 B.P. It also provides valuable data to study the relationship between humans and their environments in this region. The excavations are parts of a research project “ Archaeological Investigations of the Archaeological Sites in the Guanting Basin”, a joint project of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Qinghai Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity. The most prominent discoveries include, but not limit to, large disaster features caused by earthquake and Yellow River flooding, new cultural features and remains that reflect the level of the Qijia Culture unrecognized before. These new discoveries are the most significant breakthrough of the archaeology of the Qijia Culture since the 1980s.
Six seasons of excavations have been carried out at the Lajia site since 1999, and in total 2,500 square meters have been exposed. More than a thousand artifacts were found, including pottery, stone tools, bone tools and jades. The excavations at the Lajia site are summarized as follows. In 1999, we conducted coring and test excavation, revealing this is a big settlement of over 200,000 square meters consists of three zones. The fact that this site has a wide moat, jades, jade flakes and the phenomenon of jades being found inside the house suggests that it is likely a central settlement of the Qijia Culture. The subsequent excavations have proved this is indeed the case.
In 2000, we discovered the disaster features on the northeastern platform of the village. Our discovery of a large number of human skeletons inside two house foundations (F3, F4) caused a sensation in China. There are 14 human skeletons inside House F4. Many skeletons show irregular postures. Some skeletons show that people helped each other before they died, and some adults died with children embraced inside their arms. House F7 also shows similar features. Parts of a moat were found to the north of House F4. A number of burials were found inside the settlement. Jades were found both inside the burials and the house. The coring suggests that there are many houses inside the village. We also found a big stone chime. We started to apply a multi-disciplinary approach to analyze these features. We identified the reddish deposits of flooding and concluded that this site suffered from the flood disasters of the Yellow River. The disasters preserved the real living scenes of the people. We also collected DNA samples from the human skeletons.
In 2001, we discovered human skeletons inside House F10, and further identified the stratigraphic sequences between the collapse of the house and the subsequent filling deposits. We conducted new excavations at the southern platform south of the village and discovered a small plaza and sacrificial features. We found cave-dwellings with surviving high loess walls and identified preliminarily the layout of these cave-dwellings. We also found the stoves inside the walls. We identified many features of earthquakes such as earth cracks, land folds, land faults, land collapse, sand chains, sand tubes and erupted sands. Combing these evidences with other stratigraphic sequences, it is clear that the Lajia settlement first suffered the earthquake, followed by flood which together destroyed the site. In addition, we also found evidence under the plaza suggesting the structure of the settlement changed over time.
In 2002, we continued to excavate at the small plaza. In addition to expose a larger area of the hard floor, we also found some distinctive house structures. For instance, House F20 is a structure with 12 postholes, and House F21 is a pile-dwelling with 9 postholes. Under the hard floor of the plaza, we found many burials. A large jade knife was found. We also noticed there was an earth platform to the north of this plaza and many sacrificial burials. In the meantime, environmental archaeological surveys further discovered the earthquake features in a larger area around the site. The degree of the earthquake was calculated. A geomorphological map of the Lajia site and the Guanting Basin was drawn by geologists.
In 2003, we further exposed the earth platform and identified its sloping rectangular shape, construction methods and special modification pattern. On top of the platform, we found some high rank burials, suggesting this platform was an altar. The plaza, the altar, and the special house structures constitute a special setting of the Lajia settlement.
In 2004, our excavation was carried out on the western side of the site. Here we found more cave-dwellings, damaged houses with human skeletons inside, further proving the disaster and the causes of the site abandonment that were first observed at the east side of the site. These new materials allow us to further understand the total layout of Lajia site, providing new information to study the social structure of the Lajia society.
The Upper Yellow River valley is one of the important sources for the Chinese civilization. Because of its unique position in time and space, the Qijia Culture bears an unparallel position in the study of the transition from prehistory to civilization in China and the interactions between China and her western neighbors. The Qijia Culture has both the components of Huaxia culture and the elements of the cultures in the areas west of today’s China. The new discoveries from the Lajia site have significantly moved forward the study of the Qijia Culture and other prehistoric cultures in the Upper Yellow River valley. The finds of high rank remains suggest that the Qijian Culture probably had developed a social structure similar to its contemporary counterparts in the Central Plain and eastern China. The changes of the Lajia settlement structure indicate the society also changed. The cave-dwellings provide new materials to study the prehistoric settlement types in the Upper Yellow River valley. In sum, the archaeology of the Lajia site has offered an excellent case to study the origin of a civilization in the context of the interchanges between the Yellow River and the Steppes, as well as to investigate the transformations of prehistoric societies and their ancient environment.