In 1992, a Chinese villager named Wu Anai, made an amazing discovery near the small village of Shiyan Beicun in the Zhejiang province (People’s Republic of China). While pumping water from a pool that everyone claimed had an endless bottom, Anai discovered an entrance way to a series of underground man-made caverns. The complex is known today as the Longyou Caves, or Longyou Grottoes. To date 36 grottoes covering over 322,000 square feet, have been documented. They are so amazing of a sight, that as a whole, many consider them the Ninth Wonder of the World. What’s strange about this site is not just the size, but that no records exist about its creation, how it was made, why it was made, and who it was made by. What’s even stranger is that, like the Egyptian pyramids, there is no evidence to show how the still-unknown builders managed to accomplish this task without advanced technology.
All the caves are carved into solid siltstone, a naturally hardened sedimentary rock. Using comparisons with other ancient societies, the Longyou caves are estimated to be about 2,000 years old. Each one contains stone rooms, bridges, gutters and pools and descends about 100 feet underground. Each cave is also lined with carved pillars which support the ceiling. On the walls, engravings of trees, birds, mustangs, sharks, fish, and scenes that appear to depict martial arts practice and hunting, as well as Buddhist imagery. A second, and quite strange feature is seen throughout the complex; on every surface in fact. If we subtract the sections with pictures, nearly every other section, including the columns, the ceilings, and the walls are uniformly decorated with a series of parallel lines. These lines are expertly chiseled; a task which would have taken considerable manpower and time.
The perplexing questions that no one seems to be able to answer, is, who built them and what were they used for? To date there are no historical references or evidence to answer this, which is surprising due to the fact that the Chinese were meticulous record-keepers. How were they constructed, what culture did they belong to, and what does the chiseling signify, and more. The craftsmanship tells the story of a highly developed workforce, able to carve out over one million cubic feet in total with such precision. The overall design appears to be based in sound scientific principles with a sophisticated construction process and superior craftsmanship. Each cave is similar in design, with a wide-opened hall; one side is steep and another side is 45% inclined. The walls are uniform, straight with clean corners. Unlike the pyramids, there were no artifacts discovered in any of the grottoes, which makes researching them even more difficult.
Deconstructing The Building Process
The building, or construction phase of a project of this magnitude would have taken a large number of workers, support people, and time. Based on the estimated age, there is no dispute that the Longyou Caves were entirely constructed by hand. Estimates are that over 1,000,000 cubic feet of rock were extracted from the mountain; some from depths of 100 feet. One person calculated that it would have taken 2,000 laborers, six years to just remove the rock, working back to back 12 hour shifts. The chisel work would have been time consuming and back-breaking in the dark underground. Precision tools would have been necessary to ensure the level of uniformity that exists. It would have taken a very powerful person, perhaps a king or ruler, to finance and coordinate such a building project. And yet, no historical records even hint at this complex.
Thousands of workers would require food, shelter, and services. Yet, no archaeological evidence of a work camp, village, or nearby settlement have been discover in connection to the Longyou Caves complex. Also, there are no cemeteries or grave sites in the area; we’d expect injuries and loss of life in a huge project such as this. Using estimates, a six year long (likely more) work camp supporting that many people would have burned a forest worth of timber and left a permanent scar on the land. Also, there’s no sign of 1,000,000 cubic feet of rock debris being dumped anywhere. All that stone waste had to go somewhere, but so far it’s still undiscovered. Additionally, no tools of any kind have been discovered anywhere near the area, nor any artifacts signifying a technological advance.
Another odd feature is the design of the overall complex. The caves themselves are not connected, but instead separated by very thin walls. It has been called hive-like by some observers. The craftsmanship seems to point toward the separations as something planned, but no one is sure why. Some thoughts are that it could have been a giant underground tomb for a royal family, a monastery with multiple prayer chambers, or a barracks for troops. With no physical evidence, other than the walls remaining, there isn’t much to go on.
The Chiseled Walls Of The Longyou Caves
Virtually every surface in each of the Longyou Caves is covered in uniformly chiseled lines. It’s a strange feature that, to this day, has not been associated with any previous building project from that era. Some similar examples have been found on a few pottery pieces, which are dated between 500 and 800 BC. From a practicality standpoint, there is no reason for the carvings. It may have been for aesthetics. The other question that these marks brings up again, is how could they have been done without sophisticated tools. It’s a mystery that really has scientists baffled.
The interior of the caves are in pristine condition, despite their age. As mentioned, there were no artifacts found inside; not even a small item. There is no damage to anything either. The carvings appear to have just been finished and there isn’t any structural breakdown found anywhere throughout the complex. None of the pillars are toppled, no erosion damage, or any cracks in the walls. Some of the walls are very thin (approximately 20″) and since the caverns were filled with water, we’d expect at least one of them to buckle, but none have. Also, there is no sign of soot or smoke-damage. With the grottoes being so deep into the earth, it would seem impossible that workers could do such intricate carvings without a source of light. In those days, torches or oil would be burned for light (both would have left significant residue on the surfaces) but no trace of anything has been identified.
The Water Factor
Prior to the pumping, the Longyou Caves were filled with more than 1 million cubic feet of fresh water. The villagers considered them an endless source of water, or bottomless pools. The first cave contained fish, but none of the others did, which indicates that they were not connected with any underground water source. Since they were totally submerged, no signs of obvious water damage are evident. The water itself brings up another unanswered question. How did the caves get filled? If it was a slow process, such as occurring naturally over time, we should see some evidence of damage such as water lines along the walls, algae or other growth, and debris. But, because none of those were reported, it seems that they were filled up entirely during a very short window. If that’s the case, then add one more mystery to the growing list of unanswered questions.
Analysis and Conclusion
Everything about the process in trying to date the Longyou Caves is contradictory and confusing. Logically, historians date the Longyou Cave Complex to the 1st century BC (during the Western Han Dynasty). Yet those who focus on the carvings and the artistic style employed, connect them to a much older time period (3400–2250 BC). The presence of the female Buddhist icon Guan Yin would suggest the caves are newer. Buddhism was first recorded during the Eastern Han Dynasty during the 1st Century AD, but, the female form didn’t appear in China until the 12th Century AD. Some say that the Buddhism was actually in China during the 1st Century BC, but not yet firmly rooted across the nation.
There were no artifacts found that might assist scientists in dating the site, nor does it appear that the Longyou Caves were ever inhabited. Some have said the complex was a tomb for royalty or an underground bunker for the wealthy. No evidence supports either of these theories, especially since none of the grottoes are connected. Additionally, the lack of specialized rooms makes either of those seem possible. If troops were stationed underground, we’d expect to see sleeping areas, cooking areas with ventilation, and fewer artistic carvings.
The lack of records is probably the most difficult portion of this narrative to comprehend. The Chinese were meticulous record keepers and something of this size would be noted somewhere. A nearby temple was built int he 7th Century AD and the caves are never mentioned in any of the records – almost like they didn’t exist.
It’s very likely that the reason for the caves being built will never be known. They will however continue to amaze and impress visitors to the region with both their grandiosity and size. How they managed to survive thousands of years without prior discovery, damage, or mention in the records will likely keep scientists and historians busy for years to come.