Skip to main content Accessibility help

Radiocarbon Dating the Ancient City of Loulan

  • Bing Xu (a1) (a2), Zhaoyan Gu (a1) (a2), Xiaoguang Qin (a1), Yong Wu (a3), Guijin Mu (a4), Yingxin Jiao (a5), Lei Zhang (a1), Qingzhen Hao (a1), Luo Wang (a1), Dong Wei (a6) and Jiaqi Liu (a1)...


The discovery of the ancient city of Loulan in Xinjiang, China, at the beginning of the 20th century was of great significance for understanding the evolution of culture and civilization in Inner Asia. However, due to the lack of systematic chronological studies, the history of this ancient city remains unclear, particularly the date of its construction and abandonment. Here, we present the results of the first systematic radiocarbon (14C) dating carried out on artifacts from ancient Loulan. Our results show that human activity began as early as 350 cal BC, flourished during the interval from the 1st to 4th centuries AD, and completely disappeared around 600 AD. Most of the buildings in the city were constructed during the Eastern Han Dynasty rather than in Wei/Jin Dynasty, as previously indicated by excavated documents and letters (Hedin 1898; Xiao 2006). The development and flourishing of Loulan coincided with the interval of high ice accumulation and meltwater supply from surrounding mountains. The city began to decline and was finally abandoned following an abrupt decrease in ice accumulation and meltwater supply (Yao et al. 1996; Lauterbach et al. 2014), suggesting that natural climate change was the major factor responsible for the abandonment of Loulan.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All
Ban, G. 1930. Hanshu. Beijing: The Commercial Press.
Chen, F, Huang, X, Zhang, J, Holmes, J, Chen, J. 2006. Humid little ice age in arid central Asia documented by Bosten Lake, Xinjiang, China. Science in China (Series D) 49(12):12801290.
Di Cosmo, N. 2002. The Tarim Mummies: ancient China and the mystery of the earliest peoples from the West. Journal of Anthropological Research 58(2):279281.
Fan, Y, Sima, B. 1996. Houhanshu. Urumqi: Xinjiang People’s Publishing House.
Getachew, G, Kim, S, Burri, BJ, Kelly, PB, Haac, KW, Ognibene, TJ, Buchholz, BA, Vogel, JS, Modrow, J, Clifford, AJ. 2006. How to convert biological carbon into graphite for AMS. Radiocarbon 48(3):325336.
Hare, J. 1999. Loulan: a journey of exploration from the east. Asian Affairs 30(2):131140.
Harmatta, J. 1994. History of civilizations of Central Asia. 2. The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 BC to AD 250. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.
Hedin, SA. 1898. Through Asia. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Higham, C. 2014. Encyclopedia of ancient Asian civilizations. New York: Infobase Publishing.
Hou, C. 2002. Clearing up questions in Loulan research—arguments about Loulan problems, Part 2. Dunhuang Research 71(1):6672.
Huang, S. 1996. Some notes on the first capital of the Loulan Kingdom and Town LE. Cultural Relics 8:010.
Huang, S. 2014. The crucial reason for the debate on the original capital of Loulan Kingdom and new evidences for LA City as the Capital of Loulan Kingdom in Western Han Dynasty. In: Jiao Y, editor. The Culture and History of Loulan Xijiang. Urumqi: People’s Publishing House. p 87116.
Jiao, YX. 2014. Chronological comparison between the newly/previously discovered ancient cities in Lop Nur and other relics. In: Jiao Y, editor. The Culture and History of Loulan Xijiang. Urumqi: People’s Publishing House. p 140146.
Lauterbach, S, Witt, R, Plessen, B, Dulski, P, Prasad, S, Mingram, J, Gleixner, G, Hettler-Riedel, S, Stebich, M, Schnetger, B. 2014. Climatic imprint of the mid-latitude Westerlies in the Central Tian Shan of Kyrgyzstan and teleconnections to North Atlantic climate variability during the last 6000 years. The Holocene 24(8):970984.
Lin, M. 1995. On the first capital city of the Louian Kingdom. Cultural Relics 6:09.
Liu, B. 1976. Climate Change in Southern Tarim Basin. Tokyo: Ancient and Present-Day Bookstore.
Liu, C, Zhang, JF, Jiao, P, Mischke, S. 2016. The Holocene history of Lop Nur and its palaeoclimate implications. Quaternary Science Reviews 148:163175.
, H, Xia, X, Liu, J, Qin, X, Wang, F, Yidilisi, A, Zhou, L, Mu, G, Jiao, Y, Li, J. 2010. A preliminary study of chronology for a newly discovered ancient city and five archaeological sites in Lop Nor, China. Chinese Science Bulletin 55(1):6371.
Ma, D. 1995. An overview of 20th century Xinjiang explorations. Social Sciences in China 1:162171.
Meng, F. 2014. The nature of ancient Loulan city. In: Jiao Y, editor. The Culture and History of Loulan Xijiang. Urumqi: People’s Publishing House. p 3947.
Qin, X, Liu, J, Jia, H, Lu, H, Xia, X, Zhou, L, Mu, G, Xu, Q, Jiao, Y. 2011. New evidence of agricultural activity and environmental change associated with the ancient Loulan kingdom, China, around 1500 years ago. The Holocene 22(1):5361.
Sheppard, P, Tarasov, PE, Graumlich, L, Heussner, KU, Wagner, M, Österle, H, Thompson, L. 2004. Annual precipitation since 515 BC reconstructed from living and fossil juniper growth of northeastern Qinghai Province, China. Climate Dynamics 23:869881.
Sima, Q. 1959. Shiji (Historical Records). Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company.
Stein, MA. 1921. SerIndia(5 vols.). London: Oxford University.
Stuiver, M, Reimer, PJ, Reimer, RW. 2017. CALIB 7.1 [WWW program] at
Wang, BH. 2014. Centennial archaeology of Loulan. In: Jiao Y, editor. The Culture and History of Loulan Xijiang. Urumqi: People’s Publishing House. p 7377.
Wang, Z. 2010. The changes of Lop Nur Lake and the disappearance of Loulan. Journal of Arid Land 2:295303.
Wu, J, Liu, J, Wang, S. 2004. Climatic evolution indicated by isotopic records from the Aibi Lake sediments of Xinjiang region during the last 1500 years. Quaternary Sciences 24:585590.
Wünnemann, B, Chen, F, Riedel, F, Zhang, C, Mischke, S, Chen, G, Demske, D, Ming, J. 2003. Holocene lake deposits of Bosten Lake, southern Xinjiang, China. Chinese Science Bulletin 48(14):14291432.
Xia, XC, Wang, FB, Zhao, YJ. 2007. Lop Nur of China. Beijing: Science Press.
Xiao, XY. 2006. Summary of Archaeology in Luolan-Shanshan (in Chinese). Western Regions Studies 4:8292.
Yang, B, Braeuning, A, Johnson, KR, Yafeng, S. 2002a. General characteristics of temperature variation in China during the last two millennia. Geophysical research letters 29(9):38-138-4.
Yang, B, Braeuning, A, Yafeng, S, Fahu, C. 2004. Evidence for a late Holocene warm and humid climate period and environmental characteristics in the arid zones of northwest China during 2.2∼1.8 kyr BP. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 109:D02105.
Yang, B, Wang, J, Bräuning, A, Dong, Z, Esper, J. 2009. Late Holocene climatic and environmental changes in arid central Asia. Quaternary International 194(1–2):6878.
Yang, X, Zhu, Z, Jaekel, D, Owen, L, Han, J. 2002b. Late Quaternary palaeoenvironment change and landscape evolution along the Keriya River, Xinjiang, China: the relationship between high mountain glaciation and landscape evolution in foreland desert regions. Quaternary International 97–98:155166.
Yao, T, Thompson, L, Qin, D, Tian, L. 1996. Variations in temperature and precipitation in the past 2000 a on the Xizang (Tibet) Plateau–Guliya ice core record. Science in China (Series D) 39(4):425433.
Yuan, G, Zhao, Z. 1999. Relationship between the rise and decline of ancient Loulan Town and environmental changes. Chinese Geographical Science 9(1):7882.
Zhang, J, Lu, H, Wu, N, Qin, X, Wang, L. 2013. Palaeoenvironment and agriculture of ancient Loulan and Milan on the Silk Road. The Holocene 23(2):208217.
Zhang, QB, Cheng, G, Yao, T, Kang, X, Huang, J. 2003. A 2,326-year tree-ring record of climate variability on the northeastern Qinghai-Tibetan Plate. Geophysical research letters 30(14):2003GL017425.
Zhu Z, Chen Z, Wu Z, Li J, Li B, Wu G. 1981. Study of Aeolian Geomorphology of Taklimakan Desert. Beijing: Science Press.


Radiocarbon Dating the Ancient City of Loulan

  • Bing Xu (a1) (a2), Zhaoyan Gu (a1) (a2), Xiaoguang Qin (a1), Yong Wu (a3), Guijin Mu (a4), Yingxin Jiao (a5), Lei Zhang (a1), Qingzhen Hao (a1), Luo Wang (a1), Dong Wei (a6) and Jiaqi Liu (a1)...


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed