Archaeologists in China have unearthed a hoard of intricately crafted stone blades and ochre processing activities attributed to ancient humans living less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of modern-day Beijing, near Datong. However, these “advanced” tools and the ochre processing evidence is not clearly Denisovan, Neandertal nor Homo sapiens but they were obviously used by a group of ancient humans about 40,000 years ago according to the latest dating techniques.
The north-China collection of ochre-processing materials and tools dated to around 40,000 years ago have been described in a new study published in the journal Nature. The discovery was made at the ancient site of Xiamabei, a well-preserved Paleolithic site in the Nihewan Basin of northern China which boasts archaeological sites dating back to two million years ago.
The ancient humans who made the tools have been described as an “innovative Old Stone Age culture.”
The scientists involved in the new research suspect that Homo sapiens might have come face to face with Denisovans or Neanderthals or both at the site. Furthermore, while the archaeologists didn’t find any human remains at the Xiamabei site they did recover fossils and tools for processing ochre, an iron-rich rock that can be used to make pigments.
Collectively, these artefacts prove that ancient humans were living at Xiamabei as early as 40,000 years ago, which changes the prehistoric historical migration timeline of this region.
A cracked red ocher wall that ancient humans in north China must have broken into manageable pieces for pounding and abrasion. ( Goodpics / Adobe Stock)
Whoever These Ancient Humans Were: They Loved Ochre!
The new study was led by professors at the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Shijiazhuang, China. The authors write that the ancient hominins inhabiting Xiamabei most likely conducted activities “around a campfire, hafting blade-like stone tools to conduct tasks including hide and plant processing, and sharing food including the meat they hunted .”
A total of 382 artefacts were recovered at the site. However, two particular pieces of ochre with different mineral compositions, discovered alongside a limestone slab with smoothed areas marked with ochre stains , excited archaeologists the most. The researchers determined that the different types of ochre were brought to Xiamabei and processed “through pounding and abrasion to produce powders of different colours and sizes.”
The research team concluded that so much ochre was produced that the overspill and waste permanently impregnated the area, which represents the “earliest known evidence of ochre processing in East Asia.”
An analysis of the lithic stone stools found at the well-preserved Xiamabei Paleolithic site in north China were unusual because of how small and fine they were and how they were used. This image depicts epipalaeolithic lithic tools including scrappers. ( WH_Pics / Adobe Stock)
Reverse Engineering Ancient Craft Skills
The team of scientists analyzed each of the 382 artefacts and worked out the skills and dexterity required to have crafted them. Seven of the ancient tools were “ hafted.” This means they were designed to be attached to a handle or strap. Other tools were bored with holes. And some were specially crafted for scraping meat off animal hides. Miniaturization dexterity was also a primary skill possessed by the ancient humans, given that all of the tools measured between 0.7-1.5 inches (1.8-3.8 centimeters).
Study author Professor Michael Petraglia at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History says none of the artefacts excavated at Xiamabei match others found at other archaic archaeological sites associated with Neanderthals or Denisovans. Therefore, the site has been attributed to Homo sapiens.
The north China site’s advanced stone tool technology and ochre processing knowledge has changed how we view the migration of ancient humans eastward into the northern regions of East Asia. ( Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
Multiculturalism, 40,000 Years Ago
The research team claim their new findings reflect “an initial colonisation by modern humans, potentially involving cultural and genetic mixing with local Denisovans, who were perhaps replaced by a later second arrival.” Author Shixia Yang concluded that the ancient humans’ ability to live in cold and highly seasonal northern latitudes was likely facilitated by “the evolution of culture in the form of economic, social and symbolic adaptations.”
These new findings are a big step towards a better understanding of how humans adapt in different, and often challenging, extremely hot and cold environments. And when we know more about the tool building skill sets developed by hunting cultures in different regions around the world, we will finally know how these adaptations affected and changed the course of human migration across the planet.
Top image: The evidence found in north China from roughly 40,000 years ago, including advanced stone tools and ochre processing knowledge, was created by ancient humans. However, archaeologists are still trying to figure out who these ancient hominins were, and the choices are Neanderthals, Denisovans or Homo sapiens. Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie