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Time Frozen: The Haunting Glimpse of 4,000-Year-Old Chinese Earthquake Victims in Their Final Moments

The victims of an earthquake that struck the Chinese community of Lajia in Qinghai Province on the Upper Yellow River were put on display by the Lajia Ruins Museum in 2015. It’s a scene that the  China People Daily  says brings tears to the eyes of visitors as victims are seen huddling together in terror, while women are embracing young children in an attempt to protect them.

Like the victims of Pompeii, the Roman city overcome by the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 AD, the residents of the building in Lajia are preserved in sudden brutal death. While the humanity of the Pompeiians is preserved by the casing of volcanic ash and mud, in Lajia the full horror is brutally apparent in their skeletal remains.

Bronze Age Disaster

The disaster was caused by a mudslide triggered by an earthquake which crushed a Bronze Age building including all those inside. It was a family home within which the occupants sought refuge in the hope of survival. The remains of a woman and child, probably a boy, are preserved against one of the walls. The woman’s skull looks upwards as her arms encircle the child. Another woman and child can be seen upstairs in a similar posture while the skeletons of two children clinging to an adult lie against another wall. The people here belonged to China’s Bronze Age  Qijia culture , which means their remains are 4,000 years old, the earthquake hitting the area around 2,000 BC.

The victims keletons are scattered throughout the room. (Chinanews)

The victims keletons are scattered throughout the room. ( Chinanews)

Pompeii of the East

The unfortunate town of Lajia has now been branded the  “Pompeii of the East” . Similar to Pompeii,  the entire Lajia site provides a snapshot in time due to the sudden disaster, which preserved artifacts and features of the Neolithic village as they were at the moment of the catastrophe. This has allowed archaeologists a rare glimpse into the everyday life and practices of the people of the Qijia culture.

Artifacts found at the site have included mirrors, stone knives and oracle bones used for divination. The residents of Lajia were first discovered in 2000 in a  subterranean dwelling  which was later found to be the base of a loess cave, one of several in a settlement in which the dwellings consisted both of caves and houses. One of the artifacts turned out to be the oldest noodle in China, made from wheat flour. A sacrificial platform in the center of the town contained the grave of its priest surrounded by numerous jade objects.

Woman shielding a child, Lajia Ruins Museum. (China News)

Woman shielding a child, Lajia Ruins Museum. ( China News )

The Qijia Culture

The Qijia culture was an early Bronze Age culture that existed in the upper Yellow River region in China from approximately 2200 BC to 1600 BC. Named after the Qijiaping Site in Gansu Province where the first artifacts were discovered and identified, this culture is noted for being one of the earliest in China to smelt bronze, signifying an important transition period from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The Qijia culture is known for its pottery, which often has a painted exterior and a black or reddish-brown burnished interior. Houses of the Qijia culture were usually partially underground pit-houses, and their society was likely clan-based, with livestock being a significant part of their economy. The Lajia archaeological site is one of the most significant Qijia culture sites. The Qijia culture played a significant role in the early development of the broader cultural and technological landscape in ancient China.

The haunting visage of the Lajia victims, frozen in their last moments of life, serves as a stark reminder of the power and unpredictability of nature. However, their preservation has provided archaeologists and historians with an invaluable opportunity to delve into the past and understand the daily life, practices, and culture of the Bronze Age Qijia people. Lajia, the “Pompeii of the East”, stands today as both a poignant memorial to those who perished millennia ago and a beacon of knowledge, shedding light on a significant period in China’s history.

Top image: Woman embracing a child, Lajia Ruins Museum. Source: Chinanews