Scientists have discovered remnants of a Stone Age culture less than 100 miles west of Beijing where ancient hominids used a reddish pigment called ocher and made tiny blade-like tools out of rock.
The archaeological site, called Xiamabei, offers a rare glimpse into the lives of now-extinct Homo sapiens and human relatives who inhabited the area around 40,000 years ago.
The newly excavated site is in the Nihewan Basin, a depression in a mountainous region in northern China. The excavation team found evidence of the culture about 2.5 meters underground, when they spotted a layer of dark loamy sediment dating to between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating and other analyses.
This Stone Age sediment contained a treasure trove of artifacts and animal remains, including over 430 mammalian bones; a home; physical evidence of ocher use and processing; a bone tool; and over 380 miniaturized lithics, or small cut or ground stone tools and artifacts.
“The remains appeared to be in their original location after the site was abandoned by locals,” co-first author Shixia Yang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute, told Live Science. for the science of human history. in an email.
“Based on this, we can reveal a vivid picture of how people lived 40,000 years ago in East Asia.”
Related: Back to the Stone Age: 17 Key Stages of Paleolithic Life
The identification of a 40,000-year-old sediment layer dotted with such artifacts was “a surprise”, said co-author Francesco d’Errico, CNRS research director at the University of Bordeaux and professor at the University of Bergen, to Live Science in an email.
Notably, “this is the oldest known ocher workshop for East Asia”, and the collection of tiny stone tools suggests that the makers probably produced and used specialist tool kits, a he declared.
Series of close-up images of Stone Age lamellae
(Andreu Ollé/Wang et al., Nature 2022)
Above: Slat-shaped stones found in Xiamabei bear microscopic evidence of having been attached to a bone handle with plant fibers.
Yang, d’Errico and their colleagues published a report on the site and the artifacts Wednesday, March 2 in the journal Nature.
Evidence of ocher processing at Xiamabei includes two pieces of ocher with slightly different mineral compositions, as well as an elongated limestone slab with smoothed areas stained with the crimson pigment. The team found these artifacts in close proximity to each other, resting on an area of reddened sediment.
“I don’t think anyone should find it shocking that the people of what is now northern China [40,000 years ago] collected and used ochre,” because, in general, humans and their relatives had been using the pigment for many years at this point, said Andrew M. Zipkin, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a research associate at Eurofins EAG Laboratories, who did not participated in the study.
“The ocher artifacts in this study are quite limited in number, but I would love to see follow-up work on them that seeks to identify where the ocher was collected,” Zipkin told Live Science in an e‑mail. mail.
Regarding the new study, “for me, the important element here is not the ocher per se, but its presence as part of a suite of technologies and behaviors,” he said.