A New Stone Tool Culture Discovered in China
Stone tools or lithics are very important to human origins and evolution. Without our advanced skills and ability to manipulate the world around us with tools, we would not be the dominant species that we are today. In fact, who knows if we would have even survived up until now. Stone tools date back to about 2.5 million years ago, it has long been believed that Homo habilis (The Handy Man) was the first toolmaker. But new dating in Oldupai Gorge in the Great Rift Valley, East Africa, has pushed back the dates of those tools, showing that they may have in fact been made much earlier, and by Australopithecines, before Homo.
Wherever stone tools originated, they completely changed how humans (and I use this term to describe any hominin in the last two million years). They allowed us to do things that were either much harder to do or plain impossible without them, such as cutting and slicing meat, which when added to our diet, changed us in many ways all on its own. Throughout human evolution, there is a clear pattern of stone tool cultures, starting with the Oldowan from the Oldupai Gorge, created and used either by australopiths, or early Homo, then we have the Acheulean, which was created and used by H. erectus the first hominin to have a truly human body to really hunt and cut meat, and a few more industries after that, until we get to the bronze age.
All of these different stone tool industries as they are called served different purposes and were in use for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. As our ancestors evolved, so did their ability to craft stone tools, making them more advanced, and able to suit more of our needs, and wants. Out of all the things in archaeology, we feel we have a pretty good understanding of stone tools, but a recent find may show that we know less than we thought.
This week in China, in the Nijewan Basin, near Xiamabei (which is almost 100 miles from Beijing) we have discovered something new and mysterious. A whole new stone tool culture that we had never seen before. The tools, which were dated to around 40 thousand years ago, were not what was seen around the world at this time in other places, such as Africa and Europe. These tools, called bladelets (little small blades that are hafted onto bone, or wood handles) were found all over the area, in various shapes and sizes.
“The remains seemed to be in their original spots after the site was abandoned by the residents,” co-first author Shixia Yang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told Live Science in an email. “Based on this, we can reveal a vivid picture of how people lived 40,000 years ago in Eastern Asia.” (1)
What makes this special, is that all other stone tool industries, at least at this time, varied greatly from these. They were unlike any that had been seen for this time at any other time. Found at a layer about 8 feet underground, using radiocarbon dating, we found out that these tools, which surrounded a hearth were 40 thousand years old. Thus unlike tools being used elsewhere in the world, these 380 miniature lithics were strewn all over the hearth area that was discovered, along with 430 mammal bones.
380 bladelits were found at the site, and all would have been used for a wide variety of purposes, from creating other tools, cutting textiles, or most likely, cutting up meat to make it easier for consumption.
The other aspect of these tools, that is crucial and hard to understand, is that these are the first stone tools that we observed with the presence of Red Ochre in China. “Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of ochre processing in Africa and Europe, to a lesser extent, dating back to about 300,000 years ago, and there’s evidence of ochre use in Australia starting about 50,000 years ago, d’Errico told Live Science. But prior to the excavation of Xiamabei, “the evidence for ochre use in Asia before [28,000 years ago] was, however, very scant,” he said.”(1) According to an article written in live science, based on this paper.
So what were these tools used for? Well of course, as we all know while bones and stones may fossilize, behavior does not. So we cannot know for sure what these tools were used for, or who made them. While H. sapiens are believed to be the creators, other closely related species may have been in the area at the same time. So it is not impossible to rule out Neanderthals or possibly even Denisovans. The fact that these tools have Red Ochre covering them, gives them a ritual sense, or at least a sense of significance over anything else.
We know Red Ochre has been used for ceremonial purposes all over the world for millennia, and since this is the first finding of it in China, this is a pretty big deal! So while we may not know who did it, or why, we know it was important in the hominin development in China.
While there are still many mysteries to be solved about these new lithics that have been found, we know their general place in human history, for, of course, they would fulfill the same reasons any other human would have made stone tools. The mystery lies with why were these so different than other tools in the world at this time? Why were they covered in Ochre? How did it find its’s way onto these tools? We may never know, but it is very significant in the grand scheme of things, as the “first” for everything is important.
While we may not know exactly what these tools were for, why they were different, or even who made them, it is just another mystery to add to Paleoanthropology, which is an ever-growing field of questions, and I would not have it any other way!