A vivid snapshot of human activities 40,000 years ago in Eastern Asia

A well-preserved archaeological site in China reveals a window into hunter-gatherer lifestyle 40,000 years ago. Excavations at the site of Xiamabei, in the Nihewan Basin, have revealed the presence of innovative and unique toolkits, illustrating more cultural diversity than previously realised.
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Our team has been working in the Nihewan Basin of northern China, a magnificent landscape with dozens of meters of stratified deposits with archaeological sites ranging from almost 2 million years ago right up through to the last 10,000 years1. The Nihewan Basin provides one of the best opportunities for understanding the long-term evolution of cultural behaviour in Eastern Asia2. Among our key research aim is to search for signs of the first entrance of Homo sapiens and to learn how they were able to cope and survive in the highly seasonal and cold environments of northern China.

 

In the winter of 2013, a field team from the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology (HPICRA) found a well-preserved site on the southern bank of the Huliu River, on the south edge of the Nihewan Basin. The Xiamabei site was named after the local village. In 2014, a trench was excavated, exposing an occupation surface that extended over 12 m2. The excavation revealed ochre processing activities, a hearth, hundreds of small stone tools with blade-like forms, a variety of mammal fossils and a partially shaped bone tool. The remains seemed to be in their original spots after the site was abandoned by the residents, and now in a sealed and buried surface at 3 meters below the current ground surface.

 

Excavation at the Xiamabei site in the winter of 2013

Given the extraordinary field discoveries, we assembled an interdisciplinary international team to conduct scientific studies in order to reconstruct human activities at Xiamabei. Initial observation and analysis of the finds began at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and at HPICRA in 2018. In the coming years, archaeologists, geochronologists and geologists from Germany, France, Spain and Austria were brought on board for studies, including from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of CAS, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Université de Bordeaux, the Institut Català de Palaeoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES), the Université Côte d’Azur and the University of Vienna.

 

To reconstruct activities at Xiamabei, we engaged in a variety of studies. We examined the site environment, we worked out the age of the cultural layer, we described the ochre processing and we analysed the stone tools. 

 

To reconstruct what the environment was like during site occupation, we examined the site stratigraphy and we analysed pollen within the sediments. The findings indicated that the site inhabitants lived in a relatively cool and semi-arid climate. The mammal bones were highly fragmentary, but analysis showed the presence of horse, deer and zokor, consistent with the pollen evidence, and generally reflecting a steppe landscape with patches of forest.

 

To establish when Xiamabei was occupied, two chronological methods were applied, accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. Once we had the ages, we conducted Bayesian analysis, showing that the 3-meter sequence dating to between 43,000 to 28,000 years ago, with the main cultural layer dating to between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago.

 

Artefacts laying on the red stained sediment patch. A, Quartzite cobble, limestone slab and ochre piece identified during the excavation. B, limestone slab laying on an intense red stained sediment patch. C, Ochre piece modified by grinding. D, Ochre fragment probably resulting from crushing a larger ochre piece. E, limestone slab showing ochre staining.

A key component of our research was to examine the ochre found at Xiamabei. The recovery of ochre was particularly important, as this colourful material can be used for symbolic purposes such as decorating bodies, or for pragmatic uses. Evidence for the processing of ochre at Xiamabei consisted of three artefacts lying in close spatial association with a spot of red stained sediment. A variety of scientific methods were used to study the ochre and the sediment staining, including X-ray diffraction (XRD), Micro Raman spectroscopy (MR), Micro-X-ray fluorescence (Micro-XRF), mineral magnetism (MM), and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS). Systematic and microscopic analysis confirmed the archaeological evidence represented the earliest known instance of ochre processing in Eastern Asia. Though the use of ochre for symbolism could not be proven, microscopic work showed that the material was used as an adhesive for hafting stone tools and as an additive for efficient hide processing.

 

The small items made by bipolar reduction

To understand how stone tools were manufactured and used at Xiamabei, we performed technological, microscopic use-wear and residue studies.  We were able to show that stone tool manufacture was aimed towards the production of small items, including blade-like forms. These small pieces and blade-like forms showed clear evidence of hafting, and one spectacular example still had an adhering portion of the bone haft. Wear patterns indicate that the hafted pieces were used for a variety of purposes including hide scraping, boring and scraping against hard matter (likely wood), whittling soft plant material, and probably cutting soft animal matter. Spatially, most of the used stone pieces were associated with the hearth located in the center of the excavated area, with hafted pieces and tools clustering adjacent to it, suggesting an area of primary activity.  

 

Here we witness a vivid picture of what life was like 40,000 years ago. People were living in a cool, steppe-like environment, and at Xiamabei they gathered and conducted activities around a warm campfire, grinding ochre powder for economic purposes, hafting blade-like stone tools to conduct a variety of tasks including hide and plant processing, and mostly likely, sharing food, including the meat that they hunted.

 

Although we cannot be certain that Homo sapiens occupied Xiamabei, owing to the lack of human fossils on site, this is the most parsimonious hypothesis, considering the presence of contemporary fossils of modern humans at Tianyuandong3, around 110 kilometers away, and the presence of our species at younger sites such as at Zhoukoudian Upper Cave4. We cannot, however, entirely disregard the possibility that other closely-related human ancestors were not still present in the vast landscapes of northern Asia, as its clear that earlier groups of Homo sapiens were mating and mixing with Neanderthals and Denisovans5. Further planned excavations at Xiamabei will help us to better understand our evolutionary story.     

 

  1. Deng CL, et al. Quaternary integrative stratigraphy and timescale of China. Sci China Earth Sci 62,324-348 (2019),. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11430-017-9195-4

2..Yang, S., Deng, C., Zhu, R. & Petraglia, M. The Paleolithic in the Nihewan Basin, China: Evolutionary history of an Early to Late Pleistocene record in Eastern Asia. Evol. Anthropol. 29, 125–142 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1002/evan.21813

  1. Fu, Q. et al. DNA analysis of an early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, China. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 2223-2227 (2013)

 https://www.pnas.org/content/104/16/6573.short

  1. Li, F. et al. Re-dating Zhoukoudian Upper Cave, northern China and its regional significance. J. Hum. Evol. 121, 170-177 (2018).

 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248417302464

  1. Bae, C. J., Douka, K. & Petraglia, M. On the origin of modern humans: Asian perspectives. Science 358, 1269-1269 (2017). https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aai9067