Advanced Human Culture Dating Back 40,000 Years Found in China
A new study published in the journal Nature by an international team of archaeologists has provided fascinating new insights into hunter-gatherer lifestyles 40,000 years ago in north China, and Homo sapiens expansion out of Africa. Archaeological excavations at the site of Xiamabei in the Nihewan Basin of northern China have revealed the presence of inventions, tools, and behaviors associated with younger sites. But that’s not all! The new study also shows that the ochre workshop found at the site is the oldest in East Asia and that the lithic tools found there link to Africa, but in a new way.
“Xiamabei stands apart from any other known archaeological site in China, as it possesses a novel set of cultural characteristics at an early date,” Dr Fa-Gang Wang of the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, whose team first excavated the site, states a Max Planck Society release.
While archaic humans are known to have begun reaching Eurasia at least 2 million years ago, when their anatomically modern counterparts began their outward spread from Africa is more of a mystery, reports the Haaretz.
What is known from previous studies is that by 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens were present in northern Asia, having replaced archaic populations after earlier episodes of movement and interbreeding. However, not much is known about their lives, cultural adaptations, and interactions with their evolutionarily older cousins such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Extraordinarily well preserved bladelet showing microscopic evidence of a bone handle, plant fibers used for binding, and plant polish produced by whittling action found at the oldest ochre workshop in East Asia. (Andreu Ollé / Wang et al / Nature)
Abundant Evidence at Oldest Ochre Workshop in East Asia
One of the most astonishing discoveries at the 40,000-year-old site was the red ochre workshop where the mineral was processed. While the use of ochre itself has been documented quite reliably at an early Neanderthal site in the Netherlands some quarter of a million to 200,000 years ago, the Xiamabei prehistoric ochre workshop now stands as the oldest in East Asia.
Ochre was found on 10 of the tools. One piece of iron-rich ochre had been ground to produce a dark red powder. Another small piece of a different kind of ochre seems to have been the remains of a larger piece. And an elongated limestone slab, clearly stained with ochre, was also discovered at the site.
According to the archaeologists, the occupants were bringing different kinds of ochre to the Xiamabei cave site and pounding and grinding the mineral stones into paint. Evidence of what they subsequently used the paint for, whether to decorate their habitations, their bodies, their clothes or their utensils, has unfortunately not survived. But they processed it in sufficient quantities for it to leave traces on the floor where the grinding was done.
Prof. Michael Petraglia of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, a member of the study team, said to Haaretz, “The preservation of this floor [where the ochre facility was found] is literally unprecedented – it’s Pompeii-like, if you will. So we can say a lot about hominin activities . We actually saw an activity area of ochre processing, which is unprecedented for China.”
Artifacts found lying on the red-ochre-stained sediment patch in the ochre workshop in north China. (Andreu Ollé / Wang et al / Nature)
Evolved Stone Tool Evidence From The North China Site
The stone tools discovered at the Xiamabei site are novel and surprisingly modern for China in that period. Until about 29,000 years ago, when microblades became the dominant variety of tools, little is known about stone tool industries in East Asia. Therefore, north China’s Xiamabei, with its stone tool assembly consisting of 382 artifacts, provides important insights into the region’s toolmaking industry during a crucial transition period.
This collection of tools demonstrates complex and innovative technological capacities including miniaturization and hafting to a handle or strap . Almost all the tools are less than 40 millimeters (1.5 inches) and more than half measure less than 20 millimeters (0.7 inches). Seven of them bear traces of hafting. There was also a finely crafted bone tool. The residue deposited on the tools and a functional analysis showed that they were used for boring, hide scraping, whittling plant material, and cutting soft animal matter.
So, what is unusual about these tools? According to Petraglia, the tool technology of microblading found in Xiamabei is considerably in advance of its time for East Asia and became widespread and dominant only about 10,000 years later. Hafting too is very unusual in that period in East Asia .
Zhoukoudian Upper Cave, which is close to where the ochre workshop site was found, suggests that the visitors to Xiamebei 40,000 years ago were Homo sapiens bringing with them microliths, hafted tools and ochre processing. (Mutt / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Waves of Homo Sapiens Spread
What does Xiamabei tell us about the outward spread of Homo sapiens from Africa? Although no modern human remains have been found at the site itself, supporting evidence from the contemporary nearby site of Tianyuandong and the slightly younger sites of Salkhit and Zhoukoudian Upper Cave suggests that the visitors to Xiamebei 40,000 years ago were Homo sapiens bringing with them microliths, hafted tools, and ochre processing tech.
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Possibly, there was some earlier genetic and cultural exchange between these modern humans and archaic humans, such as Denisovans, at the site. Ultimately these early colonizers were replaced by later waves of Homo sapiens using microblade technology.
Therefore, the archaeological record does not point to a pattern of continuous cultural innovation that enabled early humans to expand out of Africa. Rather there seem to have been several waves of outward movement, with the spread of earlier innovations, the persistence of local traditions, and the local invention of new practices all taking place in the transitional phase.
The study argues for a more complex and non-linear evolutionary scenario than the accepted one, with several episodes of genetic and cultural exchanges spread over an extended period and a large area rather than a single wave of dispersal into Asia.
Top image: Archaeologists have discovered the oldest ochre workshop in East Asia in north China and a recent study in the Nature journal shows how the lithic tools found at the site link to Africa. Source: Griffin University
By Sahir Pandey
Fa-Gang Wang et al. 2022. Innovative ochre processing and tool use in China 40,000 years ago . Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04445-2
Max Planck Society. 2022. Archaeologists discover innovative 40,000-year-old culture in China . Available at: https://phys.org/news/2022-03-archaeologists-year-old-culture-china.html
Schuster, R. 2022. Archaeologists Find Evidence for 40,000-year-old Modern Culture in China . Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/archaeologists-find-evidence-for-40-000-year-old-modern-culture-in-china-1.10646632