September 11, 2012

43,000 years old advanced flake industry from Northern China

The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences continues producing interesting news: a rich flake industry from Xujiacheng (Zhuanglang County, Gansu Province).

Nine stratigraphic layers were identified, the main bloc of which has been estimated to be 43-36,000 years old.

The stone tool assemblage of this site shows close ties with the Flake Tool Industry (Main Industry) of North China. It provides new materials to discuss human adaptive behavior, migration, and interaction with environment in this area”, said first author LI Feng of the IVPP.

This industry is probably the indication of colonization of this region by Homo sapiens. Unlike in referential West Eurasia, where the main industry (Aurignacoid) is based on blades and was once thought to define the Upper Paleolithic, in East Asia for whichever reasons blade technology only arrived later and our kin used instead a flake based industry. However a quick look at the resulting tools shows that it has not much to envy to the Western blade fashion:

Fig.1 Cores from cultural layer 4B at the Xujiacheng site.
(Image by LI Feng)
Fig.2 Flakes from cultural layer 4B at the Xujiacheng site.
(Image by LI Feng)
Fig.3 Retouched tools from cultural layer 4B at the Xujiacheng site.
1-7, Sidescrapers;8, Denticulate;9, Notch;10, Point;11-14, Drills;15, Chopper.
(Image by LI Feng)
Source: Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (h/t Pileta).


  1. At first sight, i'll say a pair of things:

    Can't see there symptoms of "modernity" (in the sense of "UP-style modernity"). In fact, at first sigyht i fail to distinguish any trait on those lithic implemenes that were not present on Middle Paleolithic industries.

    I think that a quite typical raw-material-constraint-on-techniques is a basic trait here. It seems all objects pictured are made on sandstone, quarzt, quarzite and similar materials, difficult to knapp, produce more "irregular" shapes, and typically reduce the scope of potential blanks.

    1. Surely you know better than I do but something is clear:

      1. It's not the Acheulean proper of the region (H. erectus) before the arrival of H. sapiens.

      2. It's not Mousterian either, proper of Neanderthals.

      But you probably have a point if we compare with South Asian or African MP techs, which were made by our kin most probably.

      As you say, they may be material constraints (a classical explanation for the "Movius Line" phenomenon) but I think that there was some study recently debunking this idea, after all East Asia, like other large regions, has a diversified geology and hence raw materials. It is a fact that blade-based technologies existed in East Asia later on (and not far from this site incidentally), so material constrictions seem a dubious reason.

      A more likely cause, in my opinion, would be cultural: the peoples who migrated into SE Asia from South Asia c. 60 Ka ago or maybe even earlier carried MP flake techs and they did not change them until a new cultural flow arrived (probably the proto-Amerindians journeying from Altai to Beringia).

      But certainly I did not mean blade-like technology just conceptually comparable because it is the technology that our Oriental kin used back in the day.

    2. Also, when I say it does not have much to envy to Western techs, I mean that, when compared with Aurignacian and such the final repertory of tools is very similar, at least on first sight. Although I do miss some points in the Oriental kit, and also bone implements, it is clear that they made all they needed very effectively with their flake tradition, right?

  2. >Maju>>>>> 2. It's not Mousterian either, proper of Neanderthals.

    Well, but it really looks MP-like (and , again, what happens then with the Mousterian of Marroc, or the Mousterian associated to AMH in Palestine?? They're not Neandertal-related).

    As you know, a rigid association of periods or human taxons with lithics can be deceptive. Those associations might be true on a general basis, but you can find all kind of exceptions and diversifications.

    For the raw material issue, you also have to take into account not only the macro-regional and continental scales, but also the micro-regional and local scale and the subsistence/production patterns.

    Maybe the group that knapped those tools had a mobility system that did not include the transport of high quality raw materials to _that_ specific site or that _kind_ of sites.

    Or in that specific micro-region there was a specific tradicion...

    Anyway, in those cases it could've happen that tasks were performed using the local raw materials, which -using pictures as reference- I think that wont allow a very different development (well, except for something in the mood of chopper-based of biface-based industry, with no flake production).

    1. I humbly accept all your criticisms as those from IMF. I know that you are much more knowledgeable than I am. But...

      IMF's argument was in the line of lack of Aurignacoid tech (or the so-called UP techs, although for me UP is more a chronological period than a technology, which is better described as "mode 4" or "blade based") in East Asia and Australasia, which has been argued to be caused for lack of adequate stone types, which is not what I think.

      I think that Acheulean persistence in that area was caused by H. erectus or similar continuity, by lack of new waves of humans with new techs.

      And I think that flake (MP-like) tech in that area in the period in which most think should be already colonized by our species, H. sapiens, is caused by a cultural founder effect, at least mostly so.

      The answer is not so much in East Asia but in South and West Eurasia, where the mode 4 coalesced and probably helped to push the colonization of most of West Eurasia (the "Neanderlands") by our species. If not clear cause at least the correlation is clear, isn't it?

      Later it arrived to East Asia in a process that seems to begin c. 30 Ka and stem from Altai, where is clearly older, and which I understand it is related to the migration of some of the ancestors of Amerindians (Y-DNA Q, original from Iran probably) through NE Asia towards eventually Beringia and America, where they arrived not later than 17 Ka ago.

      Whatever the case the mode 4 techs did spread through East Asia eventually showing that there was no absolute minerological barrier to their use. Culture is the key concept here: culture makes us do things as our parents and parental community did, generation after generation with few changes, discouraging them in general. Of course change does happen eventually but there is a tendency against innovation that tends to delay it.

      Before someone arrived with mode 4 tools, as said proto-Amerindians maybe, those peoples had no reason to even conceive them probably. The issue is rather why would some people in South or West Asia (?) innovate and invent mode 4? Why innovate when you can just repeat the old well tested technologies?

      Note: in any case I don't think that your examples of Mousterian in contact zones with H. sapiens change much the general outline of my previous comment. They are not even close to East Asia!

    2. Oh, damm sorry, IMF was me using institutional profile. I did not even noticed i was not signed as Millan Mozota.
      My apologies

    3. I suspected it for a moment but maybe not then... in any case the profile almost presents "him" as an expert in knapping, so I understood I was before an expert. I was not too wrong, was I?

  3. I consider myself "kinda expert" on prehistoric tools in general (bone, stone, antler...). Yet, i'm not as good as a "i-like-only-stones" technologist.
    Anyway, maybe I'm not an ubber-flint-knapper but i have the basis.
    About the profile: "IMF-tecnologia prehistorica" is just our institutional profile to manage our Prehistoric Technology Lab activities. And, basically, it is "me".

  4. Incidentally all this discussion reminded me of the discovery in Sunabara, Western Japan, a few years ago, of some 20 tools which seem to be the oldest known human occupation of Japan, initially dated to c. 120 Ka but later re-dated to 70 Ka. ago (a plausible date for the arrival of the first H. sapiens to the area).

    I could not find many images but at least three of the tools are shown in this entry of a Japan anthropology blog in English language (otherwise also interesting).

    It's difficult to judge with only three tools shown but they do resemble some of the ones shown here in the first panel. I'd appreciate your opinion, if any, Millán.

  5. Japanese Paleolithic is unfortunately under heavy skepticism for the reasons that the article mentions (the XX century hoaxes).
    In this case, at least from that picture, they dont look very promising. It is not difficult to find "tectoclasts" (naturally broken stones) resembling archaic industries if you carefully search natural stone accumulations -as riversides, etc...

    To differentiate natural, accidentally knapped tools from antropic ones, researchers use criteria as overcomplexity (i.e. bifaces), repetition of very same shapes (say, 20 o 30 transversal-edge chopping axes) at the same area, overabundance of artifacts on spot, or microscopic use-wear on active edges of tools.

    Those 3 items on the picture seems to be lacking the above mentioned traits, so.. its imposible for me to even assess if they are "tectoclasts" or real knapped tools.

    Ayway, where they stone tools, they look quite archaic to me. On the broader vhronology, my guess will be more of a very old thing ¿1-0,5 million years erectus?
    Yet, 2 problems for that idea:
    - 1st Typically, MUCH younger stone tools can sometimes be described as archaic (i've seen Azilian, Asturian, Macrolithic-Mesolitic, or Neolithic tools that, aisled from context, will be considered Lower PAleolithic).
    - 2nd: My references are European and African archaeological registries, so (in part) i'm for sure applying my own western pre-conceived schemes to your question.

    1. Alright, thanks for your reply. Much more extensive than I expected considering the limited available data. Just something that has been bugging me, in relation with other findings in southern NE Asia like the Zhirendong jaw or these tools (or the various dates and findings reviewed at the end of this blogpost). But well... the puzzle of East Asian colonization by H. sapiens (MP and later UP also) from the viewpoint of archaeology is still incomplete.

      "My references are European and African archaeological registries, so (in part) i'm for sure applying my own western pre-conceived schemes to your question".

      There are correlations, after all, ultimately, all Oriental technologies derive from African and South Asian ones. AFAIK, however, East Asian first Sapiens technologies were flake industries that would be considered Middle Paleolithic by Western standards. This is an important difference and I have already explained why: the mode 4 was not yet (fully) developed when our kin arrived to East Asia first.

  6. "1. It's not the Acheulean proper of the region (H. erectus) before the arrival of H. sapiens".

    Must I say it again? The Acheulean never arrived in either East or Southeast Asia.

    "2. It's not Mousterian either, proper of Neanderthals".

    Nor did the Mousterian arrive in either region.

    "As you know, a rigid association of periods or human taxons with lithics can be deceptive".

    Millan, you're wasting your time. I've been trying to tell him that for years.

    "Whatever the case the mode 4 techs did spread through East Asia eventually"

    But that spread took place long after everyone accepts modern humans had already been in the region for a considerable period.

    1. "The Acheulean never arrived in either East or Southeast Asia".

      You are essentially right in this (there's one exception in SE Asia but not really important). My partial error. Olduwayan, not Acheulean.

      "Nor did the Mousterian arrive in either region".

      Nor did I meant to imply that.

      "But that spread took place long after everyone accepts modern humans had already been in the region for a considerable period".

      I know that. I'm all the time implying that.

    2. I'd like to specify something: In my view mode 4 is not a real novelty but an accumulation of technical procceses and tools that became the "typical" Upper Paleolithoc toolkit.

      BUT most of individual "items" on the mode 4 "checklist" were, in my view, invented long before "mode 4" apperance. I believe that a highly standarized bone/antler industry is present in some regions of central and south africa probably as soon as 90 ka bp. I know, also, that different iterations of "UP-style" blade technology is present both in Africa (North, South), Levant and N-W of continental Europe. I also know positively that simbolic representations are present in africa in 70 ka bp archaeological sites, and i strongly suspect that (a different kind of) simbolic, representative behaviour is also present on European MP. So, in my view, the essence of this concept of "mode 4" is just an specific combination or agregattion of many different, typically much older, techniques, cognitive developments, and tools.

    3. I can agree with you, Millán, in that "mode 4" is overrated but, on the other hand, it also has some peculiarities, notably the work with "true blades" (i.e. not Levallois flake-blades sometimes found in other contexts). As such it is indicator in West Eurasia of a new period which we call the Upper Paleolithic, which is tightly related to the final colonization of "the Neanderlands" by our kin (even if it took many thousand years, it is an specific process in that period related to mode 4, even if we do not understand if this relation is mere coincidence or has some importance of its own).

      I don't think it has any relation with the speculation on the so-called modern or symbolic behavior. Each time I hear that phrase I hear "God" or "religion" right afterwards, so I strongly suspect it is a fantasy of people with strong Judeo-Christian beliefs. Whatever the case, symbolic behavior must have been widespread and very old. We have some evidence for that but even where we do not, it means nothing, because dance, music, chatter or body paint, for example, leave no trace.

  7. I can agree on the terms that what you call mode 4 is an specific toolkit (including both techniques and tools in a variety of raw materials) that is a reasobale proxy "in West Eurasia of a new period which we call the Upper Paleolithic, which is tightly related to the final colonization of "the Neanderlands" by our kin"

    Another point: i've explained the blade issue here before, but i dont care to do it again :)

    When i talk about UP-style blade technology on European Middle Paleolitic of NW Europe, i dont talk about Levallois blade productions (which also exist ofc).

    I talk about a completely developed volumetric blade flaking: what you call mode 4 or UP blades -like the aurignacian ones, for example.

    Those "real UP-ish stuff" blade industries are typical of [Northern france and Belgium-Netherlands Middle Paleolithic] around 200 ka BP, and also between 90 ka BP and 70 ka BP; and (an interesting point) they dissapear afterwards.

    Here you can see some extra info:

    In this post of my spanish blog, there are some paragraphs about blade technology (UP-style) on European Middle Paleolithic:

    This figure from M. Otte in the same post:

    You can algo check:

    This french paper from Slimak

    This paper (also in french) from a belgium site:

    Also this syntesis paper (unfortunately paywalled) includes UP-style blade protuction within MP lithic systems:

    I could throw an extra handful of references, but they'll be on the same mood :)

    Finally, there seem to actually be a pair of differences between those blades and, for example, the Gravetian blades. Yet, they are not within the technological or concepual fields.

    Today seems that only differences can be found on:
    - The more usual recourse to soft hammers (antler) on upper paleolithic.
    - Most of blades from MP sites are NOT retouched, which is quite opossite to typical Early Uper Paleolithic blade assemblages.

    1. (Sorry, for some non-reason Blogger Spam Filter attacked your comment).

      I appreciate your review of the techniques but aren't you being a bit nit-picky about the use of "mode 4" when you just call it by another name "laminar" or "laminar volumetric" method?

      I also appreciate that you mention some Neanderthal/Mousterian instances in which this method appears "prematurely". I knew of the Palestinian case from older materials but then I thought it was reassigned to the H. sapiens occupation in fact. I did not know of the Occitan case however.

      But they don't change things too much. It's even plausible to imagine that our ancestors adopted the mode 4 (or laminar-volumetric techno-fashion if you wish) from Neanderthals or related hominins (Hathnora?) but in the end it does not matter much, does it?

      It matters maybe if your concern is to "prove" that Neanderthals were as smart as us. Personally I do not think that Neanderthals have to prove anything to anybody nor that doing that will help to reverse their extinction even symbolically. It's not my obsession to "prove" or remind people that Neanderthals were big brained smart stylish guys who performed the tea ceremony with such a style and class that would be the envy of the majordomo of the Royal House of Japan.

      And of course they were able to knap like the best one and they did indeed use mode 4 also. And if it would not have been for our forefathers, they'd be probably discussing over the Internet today about whether the Sapiens were this or that and how long will it take to Neanderkind to colonize Mars.

      So what?

      I have to tell you one thing, Millán: for some time I did not include your blog in my blogroll because I did not like the title: "The Dumb Nenanderthal, what a Scam!" seemed to me like trying to do things in reverse, as reaction to some very specific people whose arguments are already more than obsolete. Why not to title it more positively "Dr. Neanderthal", "The Neanderthal Genius" or just "The Real Neanderthal".

      Of course, in due time I had to recognize that the content was (and is) prime quality, so the title did not matter that much. But at first I did not like it at all, in fact I still do not like the title nor the attitude, the almost fanatic fight against a ghost that is already vanishing, that it seems to imply.

      Not meaning to offend but I feel that sometimes you twist things one or two twists too much. Ok?

  8. No ofense taken :) I do like my blog's name :)

    Anyway, some explanations might be worth it. Here:

    1. breaking the paradigm of dumb neandertals in our tiny research world has not been automatic or easy task, in fact. We did it with an huge effort. We've been patiently and serioulsy working on it for many years (in my case) or some decades (in many other cases).

    The blade assemblages of my last comment are a fantastic example of it: They're known since the eighties and have been seriously studied since nineties... but a section of the research community has systematically failed to bring those assembalges into their models and explanations... for 3 decades!

    2. I also believe that there's nothing wrong on frontally point out specific and big failures, preconceptions, false topics or misconceptions on our (or any given) scientific field.

    3. There are some researchers (which i find sightly "out of the real world", and really besieged by evidence) that they still can't deal with "human" neandertal populations... and they keep trapped on the idea of the neandertal incapacities. They keep building oversimplistic evolutive-competitive-epic-fantasy models wich i think are more "stubborn resistance stuff" that "worth-it" apportations to our knowledge of prehistory.

    4. Some typical constructions that sustained the paradigm of neandertal cognitive dissabilities still thrive in many high profile papers about neandertals, like the "double-standards" : i.e. one protocol applies to study an AHM or UP feature, and a completely different one, typically much more restrictive, applies to the same feature on Nendertals and MP.

    4. If we move out of our tiny, specialized research world, in the real world out there, the idea that "Neandertal = dumb, violent, undeveloped" still permeates every social or cultural strata. It is everywere! It still is one of the strongest false/wrong topics that western societies have about the past. You just have to search "Neandertal" or "Neanderthal" on a social network like twitter, to see that an appaling majority of people uses it as an insult or denigration.

    Finally, about the Mode 4 (modes classification in general), i dont like:

    - the implicit linear evolutive weight of the denomination and its components. This idea, actually, falls apart when you analyze every component and discover that they appear and dissapear from african and european archaeological registry, many times.

    - the fact that, actually, it puddles an specific lithic technology trait (blade production) with many other cognitive, symbolic and social questions.

    - The (typically unkown) fact that the modes classification spawns from a strict marxist aproximation to "primitive" production modes, known as the "Logic-analitic system", born in catalonian 80-90's marxist archaeologic school, which is btw ultimately based on Laplace lithic sistematics.
    That specific origin of the modes won't be (in my opinion) so wrong or counterproductive if it were not typically used in the form of acritical mishmashes with functional-adaptationist and processual approches, because those approaches are highly incompatible, in fact, with both logical analytical system and Laplace systematics.


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