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Researchers carrying out excavations in the Nihewan Basin

Archaeologists in China claim to have found two million-year-old stone toys

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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

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

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.”


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

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?

Was Nihewan Basin a playground for prehistoric children? (Natural History Museum)


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.

By April Holloway



Roberto Peron's picture

A 2 mya artifact finely made and beautifully shaped that rivals stone artifacts from later periods and no photo?  One would think that finding such an exquisite piece would be cause for an immediate photo op.  The date would indicate the "toys" were made by Homo erectus which is questionable.  Sorry but I see red flags with this find.  Myself, if I found such an artifact the camera couldn't load fast enough and I surely would publish a photo (several) of my find for all the world to see......but not Wei?


ancient-origins's picture

Hello Lernin, the featured image is a representational image only, showing excavations taking place in Nihewan. It does not depict the exact site in which the stone tools were found. This is because the archaeologists have not yet released photos of the actual discovery. We are still waiting for that.  We will update the description for the featured image so that this is clear.

The first picture from the Museum of History in Hong Kong is a bit confusing. I see a large ceramic vessel in the background. At least I would suspect it's ceramic. The problem: 2 million old ceramics? DId they work the clay as well? Did they have furnaces? Or perhaps it's an iron kettle. Perhaps they traded with the Cro-Mag for kitchen gadgets.

If we're talking about 2 million yr old hominids - why does one of the photos suggest the bronze age?

If you actually read the article, and also read what those displayed stones are labelled, you would have known that tit was stated that "the toy samples" have NOT YET been displayed publicly. Unfortunately many people just glance at photos (the microwave generation? lol). Archaeology is a science...and many people just want instant popcorn :)

What? These are toys?, or tools? Look like a bunch of rock fragments to me. And of course, there is no picture of the single most amazing find, a supposed toy lovingly created by a mother for her child. Somebody is really desperate to see things that aren't there.


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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