China’s oldest water pipes were built communally

Ancient ceramic water pipes in China show the neolithic (Late Stone Age) people accomplishing complex engineering feats communally, without centralised authority.

The pipes are 4,000 years old, dating back to the Longshan period (about 3000–1900 BCE) of Chinese society. Also known as the Black Pottery Culture, the Longshan period marked the transition from independent neolithic communities to China’s first dynastic states which emerged more than 3,000 years ago.

Ancient ceramic pipes in archaeological site
Closeup photo of water pipe segments fitted together in situ at Pingliangtai. Credit: Yanpeng Cao.

A network of ceramic water pipes and drainage ditches at the central Chinese walled site of Pingliangtai show signs of cooperation among the neolithic community to build and maintain the water system, according to a study published in Nature Water. There is no record of centralised power or authority in the region during that period.

About 500 people would have lived in neolithic Pingliangtai. The town was surrounded by protective earthen walls and a moat. It sits on the Upper Huai River Plain. 4,000 years ago, the region saw major seasonal climate shifts. Summer monsoons regularly saw 500 mm of rain  fall monthly.

Managing such deluges would have been critical for the region’s inhabitants.

Pingliangtai’s neolithic occupants built and operated a two-tier drainage system unlike anything on Earth at the time. Drainage ditches running parallel to rowed houses diverted water from the residences to a series of ceramic water pipes that carried water into the town’s surrounding moat.

The pipes have a diameter of about 20–30 cm and are made up of 30–40 cm segments that slot into each other to carry water over large distances.

Pingliangtai’s drainage system is unique  for its primary function to divert flood waters. Other water infrastructure from this period around the world tended to be used for sewerage or other purposes.

While it is unclear exactly how labour was divided, the lack of any evidence of centralised power at the time suggests that the townspeople worked together to build and maintain the structure.

“The discovery of this ceramic water pipe network is remarkable because the people of Pingliangtai were able to build and maintain this advanced water management system with stone age tools and without the organisation of a central power structure,” says senior author Dr Yijie Zhuang from the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology.

“This system would have required a significant level of community-wide planning and coordination, and it was all done communally.”

Previously, it has been assumed that complex water systems in ancient societies would have required strong, centralised governance or even despotism.

India’s Indus River Valley contains the world’s oldest known water pipes. The copper pipes ran through a palace complex around 4000–3000 BCE. Around the same time, Ancient Egyptians and Minoans had established vast networks of underground water systems.

These systems predated the impressive Roman aqueducts by nearly 4,000 years. They also emerged in societies that fit the conception that only communities led by congregated authority saw the building of complex water systems.

“Pingliangtai is an extraordinary site,” says co-author Dr Hai Zhang of Peking University, China. “The network of water pipes shows an advanced understanding of engineering and hydrology that was previously only thought possible in more hierarchical societies.”

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