A group of researchers believes that parts of the Great Wall of China were not built to serve as defensive structures.
The Great Wall of China is an ancient Chinese fortification built and rebuilt between the 5th century BC and the sixteenth century AD to protect the northern border of the Chinese Empire during successive imperial dynasties from attacks by Xiongnu nomads from Mongolia and Manchuria.
This, of course, is the view we’ve all been told in history books. However, recently uncovered data might point to an entirely different purpose.
According to new evidence, the Great Wall may not have served as a defensive structure.
For the first time ever, researchers have fully mapped the “Genghis Khan Wall,” a 737-kilometer section of the Great Wall that is located outside of China along the Mongolian steppe.
Archaeologist Gideon Shelach-Lavi from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led an international research team in a new study whose results were published in the Journal Antiquity.
Among his conclusions, he emphasizes that the Great Wall’s function did not seem to be defensive but rather conceived for the control population movement.
The famous “Great Wall of China” is not one massive structure. It consists of several smaller walls and fortifications.
Ancient Chinese states started building sections of the wall as early as the 7th century BC.
The wall’s total length covers 21,196 km (13,171 mi). The most famous parts of the Great Wall of China were constructed between 1368 and 1644, during the Mind Dynasty.
Shelach-Lavi and his team studied the northern phase of the wall’s construction. Aptly named “The Northern Line”, this 737-kilometer section is primarily located in Mongolia, with some sections in Russia and China, an area that used to be home to nomadic tribes invading imperial China.
The wall was built during the Medieval Period (11th-13th centuries), an era that saw the rise of Genghis Khan.
Originally, academics had thought that this specific part of the wall was constructed to defend the local population of the Great Khan and its nomadic invaders.
However, the Shelach-Lavi findings suggest that defense was not the main function of these fortifications.
“Our analysis of the wall suggests that it was not built to defend against large invading armies or even against nomadic raids into sedentary lands. Rather that it was geared to monitor and control the movements of nomadic populations and their herds,” explained lead author Gideon Shelach-Lavi, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After examining the location of the wall and style of construction, the international team of archaeologists, which included researchers from Yale University and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, revealed the Northern Line’s leading role: expanding the influence of the Khitan-Liao empire, one of the empires dynasties in the region, controlling and monitoring the nomads who lived in its northern territory.
The researchers note how many of the wall’s structures are not located at strategic high points, which are critical to military defense.
Instead, they were located at lower altitudes, probably closer to roads and other sites that would aid in population control.
“Our study suggests that the assumption that these were all military structures needs to be challenged,” revealed Shelach-Lavi. “We need to study the structures and their context to better understand the reasons they were built,” he added.
Despite the apparent importance of The Northern Line, its construction is not mentioned in any contemporary document. It was also neglected by later researchers, often only receiving a passing mention in textbooks.
“This huge structure is extremely enigmatic,” said Shelach-Lavi.
Professor Shelach Lavi and his colleagues set out to change that, systematically mapping The Northern Line for several years.
In addition to aerial views provided by drones, they conducted a detailed study of a small part of the wall and nearby structures. This allowed them to analyze the artifacts left behind and study the construction of the wall.
The researchers identified 72 structures along the wall that were organized into smaller groups, each located approximately 30 kilometers away.
This indicates that the wall was probably built in a single organized phase, presumably during the Khitan-Liao Empire (907-1125 AD). The Khitan-Liao dynasty was before the Khan rule (1162-1227 AD) and was one of the few states during the time period to constantly control this area of the Mongolian steppe.