Dialogue of Civilizations Opens: Maya Leaders, Bird With Pig’s-Head Wings, Ancient China, More

The first ever “Dialogue of Civilizations” has begun in Guatemala and in the first hours there is already amazing interplay of cultures on display.

The goal of the three-day conference is to bring together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can be a part of the conversation as well, tweeting your questions using #5Civilizations.

Among the first people to speak was Tomás Calvo, one of the most respected leaders among the living Maya, speaking in the ancient Quiche language, saying we must “go back to the beginning to find peace for the future.” National Geographic’s President of Mission Programs Terry Garcia added that while civilizations rise and fall, “Decline is not destiny. We can learn from choices wise and foolish made by people of the past.”

Next, the lights dimmed, flutes and drums were heard, and the Guatemala Ballet appeared in native-inspired costumes doing a modern dance evoking the vitality of ancient Maya culture.

Dancers from the Guatemalan Ballet strike poses before performing their traditional-inspired dance. (Photo by Erick Fernando Velásquez/INGUAT)
Dancers from the Guatemalan Ballet strike poses before performing their traditional-inspired dance. (Photo by Erick Fernando Velásquez/INGUAT)


First Up: Ancient China

Dr. Dorian Fuller from University College London was the first academic presenter, and he focused on the rise of agriculture in ancient China. Speaking about why studying that could be important, he opened by pointing out that “A strong agricultural base produces a food surplus, and that’s been important for all civilizations.”

He then pointed out five key elements in the development of agriculture in Mesopotamia that are useful for studying it anywhere in the world:

1) It involves a complimentary package of crops, not just one kind of plant.

2) All crops don’t all originate in the same place.

3) People cultivate wild plants for a long time before they are truly domesticated.

4) Domesticated traits develop slowly.

5) People continue to gather some wild resources long after domesticating others.

These are great things to keep in mind, but there’s still the question of how do archaeologists discover when plants become crops? Fuller gave two examples.

First, wild plants naturally drop their grains. Domesticated crops were selected because they held onto their grains making them easier to harvest in an orderly manner. This difference shows up in the dried-out remains of the rachis, the piece of the plant where the grain is attached to the stalk. In remains from wild plants, the rachis is whole and undamaged. In domesticated varieties, the rachis is roughly damaged on one end from the process of threshing the wheat to force the grain to separate.

That takes some pretty close attention to find and notice, but the next example was even more subtle. Ironically when you cultivate food plants, you also get a boom in weeds. Seeing a rise in non-food, or poisonous plant remains is a good indicator that people in the areas were beginning the development towards agriculture.

Using both these methods, you can observe a gradual increase in broken rachises and number of weeds between 9000 and 6000 years ago, giving a strong indication that this is when domestication of plants occurred in the area.

He then spoke specifically about rice cultivation. In India, wild rice grows in seasonally wet areas, and the plant lasts just one season and is very high-yield. In half a day’s work, someone could harvest enough rice to feed a small family for three months. In China, with perennially wet areas, the wild rice is also perennial and devotes a lot of energy to growing extensive roots and robust leaves. The grain is then much less nutritious. This is why so much more attention was placed into humans artificially getting more out of their wild resourcess, beginning the process of developing a rice-based agricultural system. (Follow Dorian Fuller’s blog and pages on ancient China and crop origins.)

The Secret of the Bird With Pig’s-Head Wings

The other presenter on ancient China was Dr. Li Xinwei from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who asked three big questions about the origin of Chinese civilization: when did it start, what can we find that shows a developing civilization, and how did smaller earlier cultures begin to combine into one cohesive civilization?

One bizarre object that he showed illustrated the answer to all of these questions.

Dr. Li Xinwei explains the ancient symbolism behind a strange stone bird with pig’s-head wings. (Photo by Andrew Howley)


The two early cultures of Lingjiatan and Hongshan were 1000km away from each other, but from both, archaeologists have found similar objects that reveal a shared symbolic view of the cosmos. In the image above, you see a stone bird with an octagonal star on its chest and pig heads for wings.

Through comparison with other images of turtles from the same time and places that are also known to represent the cosmos, researchers realized the symbol in the center is the pole star (at that time Thuban, or Alpha Draconis, not Polaris as it is now), and the pig heads represent the constellation we call the Big Dipper, spinning around this central light in the night sky.

Through it we see an illustration of how the separate cultures of prehistoric China began to coalesce, and we get answers to Li Xinwei’s questions: the timing of the beginning of broader Chinese civilization was around 3300 BC, the thing that was shared was this sacred cosmological vision, and the way it was shared was through an elite exchange network.

With these insights and descriptions of the origins of critical elements of civilization in China, the morning’s speakers set the tone and got the wheels of the audience members’ heads turning, asking what does this say about the way any civilization may develop, what parallels it has with our own, and what ideas it may inspire about how we can work together to shape a positive future for all civilizations on Earth.

What do you think? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations.

NEXT: Read All Posts From “Dialogue of Civilizations”

[Updated 4/24/13: The 3300 BC pole star was originally mis-identified as Polaris]



Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.