Archaeologists uncover innovative Stone Age culture in China – well-preserved 40,000-year-old Paleolithic site

Archaeologists excavate the well-preserved surface of the Xiamabei site in northern China, showing stone tools, fossils, ocher and red pigments. 1 credit

A well-preserved Paleolithic site in northern China reveals a host of new and previously unidentified cultural innovations.

The discovery of a new culture suggests processes of innovation and cultural diversification occurring in East Asia during a period of genetic and cultural hybridization. Although previous studies have established that Homo sapiens arrived in northern Asia around 40,000 years ago, much about the lives and cultural adaptations of these early peoples, and their possible interactions with archaic groups, remains unknown. In the search for answers, the Nihewan Basin in northern China, with a wealth of archaeological sites ranging in age from 2 million to 10,000 years, offers one of the best opportunities to understand the evolution of behavior culture in northeast Asia.

A new article published in the journal Nature describes a unique 40,000-year-old culture at the Xiamabei site in the Nihewan Basin. With the earliest known evidence of ocher processing in East Asia and a set of distinct blade-like stone tools, Xiamabei contains cultural expressions and features that are unique or extremely rare in Northeast Asia. Thanks to the collaboration of an international team of academics, the analysis of the findings offers important new insights into cultural innovation during the expansion of Homo sapiens populations.

Ocher treatment

Ocher pieces and stone processing equipment resting on a red tinted pigment stain. Credit: Fa-Gang Wang, Francesco d’Errico / Wang et al., Innovative ocher processing and tool use in China 40,000 years ago. Nature. 2022

“Xiamabei stands out from any other known archaeological site in China because it has a new set of cultural characteristics from an early date,” says Dr. Fa-Gang Wang of the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology, whose team first excavated the site.

Cultural adaptations in Xiamabei

“The ability of hominids to live in northern latitudes, with cold and highly seasonal environments, was likely facilitated by cultural evolution in the form of economic, social and symbolic adaptations,” says Dr Shixia Yang, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany. “The findings at Xiamabei help us understand these adaptations and their potential role in human migration.”

One of the important cultural characteristics found in Xiamabei is the extensive use of ochre, as seen in artifacts used to process large amounts of pigment. Artifacts include two chunks of ocher with different mineral compositions and an elongated limestone slab with smoothed areas bearing ocher flecks, all on a red-tinted sediment surface. Analysis by researchers from the University of Bordeaux, led by Professor Francesco d’Errico, indicates that different types of ocher were brought to Xiamabei and processed by pounding and abrasion to produce powders of different color and consistency. , whose use has permeated the dwelling. ground. Ocher production in Xiamabei represents the earliest known example of this practice in East Asia.

Extraordinarily well-preserved strip

Extraordinarily well-preserved bladelet showing microscopic evidence of a bone handle, vegetable fibers used for binding, and vegetable varnish produced by the cutting action. Credit: Andreu Ollé / Wang et al., Innovative ocher processing and tool use in China 40,000 years ago. Nature. 2022

The stone tools from Xiamabei represent a new cultural adaptation for northern China 40,000 years ago. As little was known about stone tool industries in East Asia until microblades became the dominant technology around 29,000 years ago, the finds from Xiamabei provide important insights into stone tool industries. toolmaking during a key transition period. The blade-like stone tools from Xiamabei were unique for the region, with the vast majority of the tools being miniaturized, with more than half measuring less than 20 millimeters. Seven of the stone tools showed clear evidence of single-handled hafting, and functional and residue analysis suggests that the tools were used for piercing, scraping skin, carving plant matter, and cutting soft animal matter. The inhabitants of the site made hafted and versatile tools, demonstrative of a complex technical system for transforming raw materials unheard of on older or slightly younger sites.

A complex history of innovation

Records from East Asia show that a variety of adaptations took place when modern humans entered the region around 40,000 years ago. Although no hominid remains have been found at Xiamabei, the presence of modern human fossils at the contemporary site of Tianyuandong and the slightly later sites of Salkhit and Upper Zhoukoudian Cave suggest that visitors to Xiamabei were Homo sapiens. Varied lithic technology and the presence of some innovations, such as handled tools and ocher processing, but not other innovations, such as formal bone tools or ornaments, may reflect an attempt at early colonization by modern man. This period of colonization may have included genetic and cultural exchanges with archaic groups, such as the Denisovans, before eventually being replaced by later waves of Homo sapiens using microblade technologies.

Given the unique nature of Xiamabei, the authors of the new paper argue that the archaeological record does not fit the idea of ​​continuous cultural innovation or a comprehensive set of adaptations that enabled early humans to spread. outside of Africa and around the world. . Instead, the authors argue, we should expect to find a patchwork of innovation patterns, with the diffusion of past innovations, the persistence of local traditions, and the local invention of new practices all taking place in a transition phase.

“Our results show that current evolutionary scenarios are too simple,” says Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute in Jena, “and that modern humans, and our culture, emerged through repeated but different episodes of genetic and social exchanges over large geographic areas, rather than as a single wave of rapid dispersal across Asia.

Reference: “Innovative Ocher Processing and Tool Use in China 40,000 Years Ago” by Fa-Gang Wang, Shi-Xia Yang, Jun-Yi Ge, Andreu Ollé, Ke-Liang Zhao, Jian-Ping Yue, Daniela Eugenia Rosso, Katerina Douka, Ying Guan, Wen-Yan Li, Hai-Yong Yang, Lian-Qiang Liu, Fei Xie, Zheng-Tang Guo, Ri-Xiang Zhu, Cheng-Long Deng, Francesco d’Errico and Michael Petraglia, March 2, 2022, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04445-2

James C. Tibbs