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Bone artifacts recovered from the Ma’anshan site.

Paleolithic Bone Tools Discovered in Chinese Cave Are Some of the Oldest in the World


A research team studying 17 bone tools recovered from the Paleolithic site of Ma'anshan Cave, Guizhou Province, southern China have named the artifacts as the oldest formal bone tools in China to date. They also have dated some of the oldest barbed points known outside Africa.

The researchers completed a techno-functional analysis of the artifacts that were found in strata 6,5, and 3 of the Ma'anshan cave and presented their results in a paper published in the  Journal of Archaeological Science in January.

The paper reports that the oldest tools are from stratum 6, which they dated to 35,000 years ago and consist of three sharp awls. The six probable spear points, awls, and a cutting tool found in stratum 5 were dated to 34,000 years ago. Two types of barbed points were found in stratum 3 and are believed to be between 23,000 and 18,000 years old.

Traces of manufacture on some of the Ma’anshan bone artifacts.

Traces of manufacture on some of the Ma’anshan bone artifacts. (S. Zhang et al.)

While prehistoric bone tools are not a new thing, the prevalence of very old examples outside of Africa still is something of a novelty. As the researchers wrote in their paper:

“Early instances of bone technology in other areas of the Old World such as China, are still however rare, and those that are known are often insufficiently documented. […] Formal bone tools, defined as artefacts that were cut, carved, polished or otherwise modified to produce fully shaped points, awls, harpoons and wedges, appears relatively late in human history, and is only recorded at a handful of African sites prior to 45 ka.” reports that the research team was led by Dr. Gao Xing, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Francesco d'Errico, Université de Bordeaux. IVPPs team were also responsible for the discovery of the tools, during excavations they completed in 1986 and 1990 at the cave.

Ma'anshan Cave is located 2 km (1.24 miles) southeast of Tongzi County at an altitude of 960 m (3149.61 ft.) above sea level, and 40 m (131.23 ft.) above the nearby Tianmen River. The excavators identified eight important strata over the years.

Photograph and schematic representation of the Ma'anshan stratigraphy.

Photograph and schematic representation of the Ma'anshan stratigraphy. (S. Zhang et al.)

Fossils, bird bones, and thousands of long bone shaft fragments were unearthed at the site along with the bone tools. The researchers write in the report that the bone tools were shaped by scraping, grinding, and, in strata 5 and 3, they were finished by polishing.

The authors of the study recognize that often the production of formal bone tools, along with the production of personal ornaments, engravings, art, etc., are seen as the outcome of a sudden change in human cognition. They believe that the change in the hunting toolkit between strata 5 and 3 may indicate a shift in prey preference from medium to small size mammals and fish, however they state that this needs to be verified by supplementary analyses.

Faunal remains from Ma'anshan damaged by root etching (a), carnivore gnawing (b), porcupine gnawing (c), and butchery (d). Scales = 1 cm

Faunal remains from Ma'anshan damaged by root etching (a), carnivore gnawing (b), porcupine gnawing (c), and butchery (d). Scales = 1 cm (S. Zhang et al.)

Dr. Shuangquan Zhang, a key author of the study, said that the discovery of the bone tools in Ma’anshan Cave “provides new materials for studies about the origin of bone tool technology in Africa and Eurasia,” and Dr. Xing added that the research “demonstrates that bone tool technology shows rates of cultural turnover comparable to those observed in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe.”

Each of the tools was shaped using stones.

Each of the tools was shaped using stones. (S. Zhang et al.)

The researchers concluded their paper by writing:

“Normal bone tools are ubiquitous at Upper Palaeolithic sites in Europe, and their production has long been regarded as an innovation introduced by anatomically modern humans from Africa colonizing this region 40 ka. Research conducted in the last 15years, including results presented in this paper, shows that the emergence of this key cultural innovation is better understood as a complex, discontinuous process that took place at different times and in different regions, which needs to be documented at a regional scale, and may be the outcome of both diffusion and independent innovation processes.”

The full article from the Journal of Archaeological Science has also been made available by the researchers on

Featured Image: Bone artifacts recovered from the Ma’anshan site. Source: S. Zhang et al.

By Alicia McDermott



So that is how they got so good at the carving techniques that would later make them be able to use casting with pottery so easily. They had very nice jade carvings also. Though neandertals did carve bone tools earlier that was in a scientific american article.

Troy Mobley

Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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