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Evidence of innovative 40,000-year-old culture found in China

An international team of archaeologists led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has recently discovered an innovative 40,000-year-old culture in a well-preserved Paleolithic site in northern China. This previously unidentified set of cultural innovations found at the site of Xiambei in the Nihewan Basin consists of a set of distinct blade-like stone tools, together with the earliest known evidence of ochre processing in Eastern Asia.

“One main layer of the site contains the earliest known ochre-processing feature in East Asia, a distinctive miniaturized stone tool assemblage with bladelet-like tools bearing traces of hafting, and a bone tool,” reported study lead author Dr. Shixia Yang, a researcher at the Max Plank Institute and the Chinese Academy.

By using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating to establish the chronology of a 290-cm-deep section of the site, the researchers found that the main cultural layer discovered at Xiambei is 41,000 to 39,000 years old. Although no hominin remains were found at Xiambei, the presence of modern human fossils at sites located nearby suggests that the visitors to Xiambei were probably Homo sapiens, although genetic and cultural exchanges with archaic groups of Denisovans or Neanderthals are not excluded.

According to the scientists, the different types of ochre found at this site were brought to Xiambei and processed through pounding and abrasion to produce powders of different color and consistency. Some of the blade-like stone tools showed clear evidence of hafting to a handle, with functional and residue analysis suggesting that they were used for boring, hide scraping, whittling plant material, and cutting soft animal matter. These hafted, multipurpose tools are evidence of a complex technical system for transforming raw materials not seen at older or slightly younger archeological sites.

“The ability of hominins to live in northern latitudes, with cold and highly seasonal environments, was likely facilitated by the evolution of culture in the form of economic, social, and symbolic adaptations,” said Dr. Yang. “The finds at Xiamabei are helping us to understand these adaptations and their potential role in human migration.”

According to Dr. Yang and her colleagues, the record emerging from Eastern Asia shows that a variety of adaptations were taking place as modern humans entered the region 40,000 years ago that challenge previous ideas of continuous cultural innovation and the existence of a fully formed set of adaptations that enabled early humans to expand from Africa all over the globe.

“Our findings show that current evolutionary scenarios are too simple,” said study co-author Michael Petraglia, a professor of Human Evolution and Prehistory at the Max Planck Institute. “Modern humans, and our culture, emerged through repeated but differing episodes of genetic and social exchanges over large geographic areas, rather than as a single, rapid dispersal wave across Asia,” he concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature.  

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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