Archaeologists in China claim to have found two million-year-old stone toys
Researchers excavating an eroded basin in Hebei province, China, claim to have made a remarkable discovery - a two-million-year-old ‘playground’ of ancient hominids complete with stone artifacts carved by women and children, and some that even appear to be toys.
The discovery was made at the Heigugou site in the Nihewan basin, the site of some of the earliest Paleolithic remains in East Asia. The basin used to be an enormous lake, which provided an ideal habitat for early hominids.
Nihewan was first discovered in 1921 and has already produced significant archaeological findings including a dining area where hunters ate their kills, ancient animal fossils and stone tools dating back an incredible 2 million years. The well-preserved nature of the tools suggests they were buried by a sudden event, like a landslide, preventing further damage by wind and water erosion.
The Nihewan Basin in China Credit: Xu Ming/Global Times
South China Morning Post reports that archaeologists found more than 700 stone artifacts and 20,000 fragmented pieces dating to between 1.77 and 1.95 million years old in an area less than six square meters. An examination of the artifacts suggests that they were too small to have been made by males. More than 80 per cent of them ranged from 20 – 50 mm in length, which researchers believe points to the fact that they were carved by women and children. One artifact in particular seems to be a toy made by a mother for her child.
Examples of stone tools found at Nihewan ( Wikimedia Commons )
“This is an amazing discovery,” said professor Wei Qi, paleoanthropologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead scientist of the project at the Heitugou site in Nihewan basin. “The site is a treasure chamber that may hold some useful clues to answer a lot of important questions, from the social structure of the early hominids to whether, when and how they arrived in Asia all the way from Africa.”
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The artifact that drew special attention from Wei has been labelled HTG268. He believes the stone object was a children’s toy. (Unfortunately, photographs of the artifact have not yet been released to the public.)
“You can almost feel the maker’s love and passion, which was deeply embedded in this piece,” said Wei. “It was so finely made and beautifully shaped, its quality could rival the stone artifacts of much more recent periods.”
Prehistoric child holds a toy. Museum of History, Hong Kong ( Wikimedia Commons )
“There is other evidence suggesting the site was a playground instead of a living or working area,” reports South China Morning Post. “Researchers failed to find large amount of animal remains that are common in a habitat, and the near absence of large size stone tools could be a sign that few adult workers were involved in these activities… Children and their mothers could feel safe enough to sit by the lake making large amounts of stone toys. The scant animal fossils discovered at the Heihegou site were all herbivores such as elephants and rhinoceros.”
Was Nihewan Basin a playground for prehistoric children? ( Natural History Museum )
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Discoveries made at Nihewan have challenged the perspective that Africa was the sole origin of mankind. It is commonly believed that the first hominids migrated out of Africa about 1.8 million years ago, but if there were hominids in China at the same time or earlier, it suggests that either they left Africa earlier, or hominids independently evolved in China at the same time.
“The timing is very interesting,” said Wei. “It could open a door to new discussions about hominin origins.”
Featured image: Researchers carrying out excavations in the Nihewan Basin ( Washington University Anthropology News ). Note: This is a representational image only and does not show the exact excavation site in which the above discovery was made.