December 14, 2012

The Paleolithic of the Three Gorges region of China

The controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam served at least to make some extensive and intensive archaeological research in the area, evidencing human presence in much of the last million years. 

Pei Shuwen et al., Middle to Late Pleistocene hominin occupation in the Three Gorges region, South China. Quaternary International (2012). Pre-publication free accessLINK (PDF) [doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2012.04.016]

Abstract

The contributions of the Chinese Paleolithic record to broader ranging paleoanthropological debates have long been difficult to decipher. The primary problem that hinders many contributions that include or focus on the Chinese record is that relatively few regions outside of the main flagship sites/basins (e.g., Zhoukoudian, Nihewan Basin, Bose Basin) have been intensively researched. Fortunately, systematic archaeological survey and excavations in the Three Gorges region, South China over the past two decades has led to the discovery of a number of important hominin fossils and Paleolithic stone artifact assemblages that have contributed to rethinking of ideas about hominin adaptations in Pleistocene China. This paper provides a detailed review of the results of recent paleoanthropological, particularly Paleolithic archaeological, research from this region.

The Three Gorges region is located in the transitional zone between the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River (Changjiang River). Vertebrate paleontological studies indicate that the faunas from this region belong primarily to the AiluropodaeStegodon faunal complex, a group of taxa representative of a subtropical forest environment. Systematic field surveys identified sixteen Paleolithic sites in caves and along the fluvial terraces of the Yangtze River. Based on geomorphology, biostratigraphy, and geochronology studies, these sites were formed during the Middle to Late Pleistocene. Follow up excavations at these sites led to the discovery of a large number of Paleolithic stone artifacts, Pleistocene mammal fossils, as well as some hominin fossils. Analysis of these materials has provided the opportunity to reconstruct hominin technological and mobility patterning in a restricted spatial point. The Paleolithic technology from the Three Gorges region is essentially an Oldowan-like industry (i.e., Mode 1 core and flake technologies) comprised of casual cores, whole flakes, fragments, and chunks as well as a low percentage of retouched pieces. The utilized stone raw material is primarily high sphericity cobbles and limestone, which were locally available along the ancient river bed and surrounding terraces. Most of the artifacts are fairly large in size. All flaking is by direct hard hammer in a single direction without core preparation. Unifacial choppers are the predominant core category, with fewer bifacial choppers, sporadic discoids, polyhedrons, and bifaces. The flake types demonstrate that the first stage of core reduction is represented by a low percentage of Type III and VI flakes. Some flakes are retouched unifacially by direct hard hammer percussion on the dorsal surface of the blanks. Archaic Homo sapiens and modern H. sapiens identified from some of the cave deposits are likely the hominins responsible for the production of the stone artifacts. Implications for Oldowan-like technological patterning in South China are discussed.

There is rather high detail in this paper in spite of the stone tools of East Asia tending almost invariably to simple flake forms hard to classify, arguably caused by the lack of good quality materials. But I guess that the most relevant of all is this chronology:


Of great interest are no doubt the human (or hominin) fossils found in these and previous digs. If my recollection is correct these are:
  • Xinlong cave (Wushan Co., c. 118-154 Ka): Four hominin permanent teeth were recovered during the 2001 excavation field season (Fig. 2). These hominin fossils have been tentatively assigned to archaic H. sapiens, though more detailed morphometric analysis is warranted.
  • Leiping cave (Wushan Co., middle or late Pleistocene): Hominin fossils including one occipital, some fragments of skull, and a frontal bone of one juvenile, and one upper incisor were collected from the sediments and tentatively assigned to archaic H. sapiens...
  • Migong cave (Wushan Co., c. 13,100 BP): The hominin fossils are two fragments of parietal bones which belong to one individual (Fig. 2) and can be assigned to modern H. sapiens.
  • An archaic jaw bone was also found in the 1950s without context.

It is not clear if by archaic Homo sapiens the authors mean Homo sapiens with debatable archaic features or, using obsolete terminology, other species of Homo such as Homo erectus. I'm guessing that the latter but no idea.


22 comments:

  1. "It is not clear if by archaic Homo sapiens the authors mean Homo sapiens with debatable archaic features or, using obsolete terminology, other species of Homo such as Homo erectus. I'm guessing that the latter but no idea".

    They do actually say:

    "Archaic Homo sapiens and modern H. sapiens identified from some of the cave deposits are likely the hominins responsible for the production of the stone artifacts".

    So they are prepared to accept that H. sapiens is involved in at least some of the cave deposits. They also write:

    "Unifacial choppers are the predominant core category, with fewer bifacial choppers, sporadic discoids, polyhedrons, and bifaces. The flake types demonstrate that the first stage of core reduction is represented by a low percentage of Type III and VI flakes. Some flakes are retouched unifacially by direct hard hammer percussion on the dorsal surface of the blanks".

    So they're also prepared to accept that H. sapiens may not have entered China with a fully-formed Upper Paleolithic. They also mention:

    "Vertebrate paleontological studies indicate that the faunas from this region belong primarily to the AiluropodaeStegodon faunal complex, a group of taxa representative of a subtropical forest environment".

    So the climate was mostly warmer than it is today as, presumably, it would have been in Siberia at the time.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I don't think that your "explanations" (first two points) were necessary at all. At least I understood all that very well. But I still don't know what is "archaic Homo sapiens" for them.

      As for the last point, you should read the climate section in detail: they argue for a subtropical climate most of the time but with some colder and drier periods. Notice that the chronology is of more than 1 million years and no precisions are given beyond that.

      Whatever the case, if you looked at previous entries on Chinese paleoclimate (or any other region's), you should be able to appreciate that, as you move towards the equator the influence of the ice age is diffused. This region is 30ºN, what is as good as Cairo, in the southern half of the Northern Subtropics, so we should expect it to retain a subtropical climate for most of the Ice Age (with some exceptions), as described in the paper.

      Delete
  2. "As for the last point, you should read the climate section in detail: they argue for a subtropical climate most of the time but with some colder and drier periods".

    Maju, do you not realise that major changes of human distribution (or any other species for that matter) is possible with just a few seasons of warmer than usual climate. Such has happened even during historical times.

    "I don't think that your 'explanations' (first two points) were necessary at all".

    I'm afraid I disagree. You have consistently insisted that H. sapiens can only be present if the lithic technology is Upper Paleolithic. We see clearly here that such an assumption is incorrect.

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    1. "You have consistently insisted that H. sapiens can only be present if the lithic technology is Upper Paleolithic"...

      Absolutely false.

      Delete
  3. "Absolutely false".

    No it's not. You have consistently claimed that the absence of Upper Paleolithic in the Altai and Central Asia 'proves' that H. sapiens cannot have reached there until quite recently. I have consistently tried to point out that it proves nothing of the kind.

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    1. Aaahh! In Altai specifically, how different it sounds now. Also don't forget that the previous layers are Mousterian (not undefined flake industry) and that remains of various Homo species are known in Altai, yielding consistent references for each type of industry.

      That is very different from your generic global claim.

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  4. If there is anything of substantance in the nature of the relics recovered to the t2 v. t3 distinction in the time line data, then it would suggest that t2 marks modern humans in the Yangze River area ca. 69kya to 81kya. This would be consistent with the oldest SE Asian specimen and would fit a migration from India to SE Asia and East Asia coinciding with the Toba erruption. It would also suggest a relatively clean demarkation (at least locally in that region) between an archaic homo era and a modern human era.

    The problem in understanding the chronology of events in Asia has been a like of sufficient fine date resolution for evidence of hominin presence in the critical period from Out of Africa (ca. 100-130 kya) and definitive evidence of modern humans in Asia due to their presence in Australia and Papua New Guinea (ca. 45 kya). We know that modern humans were in Southern India pre-Toba, but have no definitively pre-Toba evideence of modern humans in SE Asia or East Asia pre-Toba.

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    1. Almost exactly my thoughts.

      It'd be nice if, as in other contexts we could say based on industry typology "this is surely product of Homo sapiens, this is probably made by Homo erectus..." But nothing in the poorly researched and stubbornly flake-based East Asian archaeology tells us that, at least that I can discern.

      I'm inclined to imagine the arrival of our species either at the base of geomorphological unit T2 (near Toba) or in the chronological hiatus in the middle of T3 (long before Toba but earlier than we can confirm for South Asia, unless we reinterpret the data). But nothing consistent before some time later.

      Anyhow, let me recall the fossil evidence for more or less clear H. sapiens in East Asia:

      → since c. 125 Ka BP Homo sapiens in Arabia and Palestine
      → c. 110 Ka BP Zhirendong jaw (not 100% conclusive but suggestive of a very early colonization of much of Eurasia by H. sapiens)
      139-68 Ka BP (??) Liujiang skull, a clear specimen of Homo sapiens
      → 80 Ka BP Indian MSA-like techno-complex
      → 70 Ka BP intriguing stone tools from Japan (made by...?)
      → before 67,000 BP: Callao metatarsal (human but unclear species, only size is known: very short)
      → 63-46 Ka BP: Tam Pa Ling skull (Laos, 100% certain modern H. sapiens, well dated)
      → 49,000 BP stone tools from Papuan Highlands (must be H. sapiens)
      → etc.

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    2. The dating of the Zhirendong jaw and Liujiang skull seem quite problematic, in part because people at the time they were found didn't have the methodology to establish dates from the context they were found in reliably. I am more inclined to believe that they are H. Sapiens than that they are really that old. The dating on the Leiping cave also seems quite unclear from the text of the article.

      Clearly these are quite old, but their outlier status if one assumes the older end of the possible date range for these specimens, and the lack of intervening specimens, makes the details suspect. If it were really H. Sapiens I'd expect a continuous and vigoruous presence from then until the present and we don't see that.

      As you note, the transition in tool type seems to come very late, almost surely long after modern humans had displaced or absorbed archaic hominins in the region.

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    3. A 2010 review of the evidence can be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21086528

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    4. Liujiang is a recent date from nearby sediment. It's as good as it gets. But I understand that if you come from an skeptic viewpoint about an early colonization of Asia, you find such dates suspicious. I think that the min. 68 Ka is almost certainly accurate. After all if H. sapiens was at c. 80 Ka in India, how much it could take them to reach SE Asia? More so as many East Asian mtDNA clades are just one or two mutations apart from the root of M (M7, M9, M12'G, etc.)

      Zhirendong is a recent discovery (2007) and therefore the dating should be good. I'd like to know why you think otherwise. Another thing is if a mere lower jaw is solid enough evidence to describe the specimen as Homo sapiens (or hybrid H. sapiens, as they also suggested) but that's what experts (incl. Trinkaus) seem to think and who am I to challenge them?

      "As you note, the transition in tool type seems to come very late, almost surely long after modern humans had displaced or absorbed archaic hominins in the region".

      I suspect that there must be another transition, like from pre-Levallois to Levallois or whatever and that's one reason why I complain of relatively low level of research: there cannot be a million years' old sequence and all be "the same".

      Finally, the study you mention, on first sight, is almost all about fossils dated before 200 Ka, which are all H. erectus. However there are number of sites in Korea I was not familiar with, which seem "modern". I'll make a search.

      Delete
    5. According to your linked paper are some other fragments but the most important, landmark, Korean Paleolithic finding of human remains is Ryonggok (North Korea), which yielded five complete unmistakably large-brained Homo sapiens skulls (cf. http://www.originsnet.org/southernrt.pdf) The findings are reported in Norton 2000 but it is PPV (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10835263).

      It's dated however to 46-48 Ka ago, so it's not too informative for first arrivals in the overall region. However there is an open air site in South Korea (Dosan) with dates of c. 61 Ka. (http://www.anthropology.hawaii.edu/people/faculty/Bae/pdfs/CJ%20Bae%20and%20KD%20Bae_In%20Press_QI.pdf).

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    6. Erratum: maybe five specimens but only one skull?

      Delete
  5. "Aaahh! In Altai specifically, how different it sounds now".

    OK, Central Siberia then.

    "remains of various Homo species are known in Altai, yielding consistent references for each type of industry".

    Not so. Very few human remins have been discovered in any context through the region, merely their tools.

    "it would suggest that t2 marks modern humans in the Yangze River area ca. 69kya to 81kya. This would be consistent with the oldest SE Asian specimen"

    As far as I'm aware the authors make no comparison the any South Asian tool industry so it is unclear by what direction the modern humans first arrived in the Yangtze region. In fact:

    "It has been suggested that a marked division of technological
    industries may exist between eastern Asia and large portions of the
    western Old World (Movius, 1944; Schick and Dong, 1993; Gao and
    Norton, 2002; Norton et al., 2006; Norton and Bae, 2009; Lycett and
    Bae, 2010; Lycett and Norton, 2010, among many others). Most
    notably, a low degree of standardization and lack of typical
    Acheulean (or ‘Mode 2’) handaxe technologies and Middle Paleolithic
    prepared core (i.e., ‘Levallois’ or ‘Mode 3’) industries is evidenced
    in eastern Asia (Movius, 1944). This geographic line of
    technological demarcation subsequently became known as the
    ‘Movius Line’ (Swartz, 1980)".

    South Asia is west of the Movius Line and so the connection between China and South Asia is tenuous to say the least. And:

    "It is generally accepted that there are two Paleolithic traditions
    in China. The first, a small, flake toolkit composed of microblades,
    a number of formal tools, and a bone industry, is recognized as the
    Flake Tool Tradition in northern China ... The second
    tradition, occurring in southern China, continues the informal
    flake/core/chopper tradition made on cobbles. This technocomplex
    is referred to as the Pebble Tool Tradition ... with no noticeable changes until the Terminal Pleistocene"

    So the development of smaller tools may be a product of southward movement within China.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. "Central Siberia then".

      Wordplay? What's the difference in Archaeological terms, discussing the Paleolithic, between Central Siberia and Altai? None.

      Your wordplay is so confused that you eventually know not anymore what you're talking about:

      Someone (Andrew?) said: "it would suggest that t2 marks modern humans in the Yangze River area ca. 69kya to 81kya. This would be consistent with the oldest SE Asian specimen".

      To which you (Terry) replied with funny insistence: ... "South Asian"..., ..."South Asia is west of the Movius Line"...

      He said "SE Asia"!!!

      Then you conclude oddly enough: "So the development of smaller tools may be a product of southward movement within China".

      Not "smaller tools" but a microblade industry similar to that of West Eurasia (and from some point onwards also of South Asia). It is what we call "mode 4", which arrived to East Asia as influence from Altai (probably caused by the proto-Amerindian migration towards the East), while the original toolkit of the original Homo sapiens settlers was essentially a "mode 3" (or even "mode 2" flake industry.

      That unless you imagine all East Asians carrying Y-DNA Q and mtDNA X. Never mind Autralasian Aborigines who are even more impossible to fit with a "mode 4" that never reached the southern continent, at least not in Pleistocene.

      Never mind that we have unmistakable evidence of Homo sapiens in East Asia and Australasia clearly before the 30-20 Ka line.

      If you wish to force-feed the colonization of East Asia (and Australasia) into the arrival of "mode 4" tech from Altai... you run into a zillion problems and provide no valid answer.

      Think again.

      Delete
  6. "But nothing in the poorly researched and stubbornly flake-based East Asian archaeology tells us that, at least that I can discern".

    I wouldn't say 'poorly researched' exactly. However I agree with 'stubbornly flake-based East Asian archaeology'. That is because the first modern humans who reached East Asia from Africa did not possess anything like what you consider to be a marker for modernity in their tool culture. They used the same technology as their Archaic neighbours. I've been trying to get that through to you since we first made contact but you are so sure of your 'complete replacement' model that you have refused to see it.

    "→ 80 Ka BP Indian MSA-like techno-complex"

    Where did you get that information from?

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    1. "I wouldn't say 'poorly researched' exactly".

      There are no many researched sites and it's not well understood as global process. If you confuse the tools made by Homo erectus a million years ago with those made by Homo sapiens 60 or 40 Ka ago, it means that not much effort has been put into systematic classification (and that data is sparse).

      It's improving, I guess, but much needs to be done.

      "Where did you get that information from?"

      Petraglia 2007. It's pay per view and I don't have a copy but I used to read it online (many times I did) in the past before someone in Elsevier decided to make it PPV long after publication. It is a critical piece of our understanding of the OoA.

      Delete
  7. "I suspect that there must be another transition, like from pre-Levallois to Levallois or whatever"

    On what grounds do you suspect that, or is it just your wishing getting in the way again?

    "If you confuse the tools made by Homo erectus a million years ago with those made by Homo sapiens 60 or 40 Ka ago, it means that not much effort has been put into systematic classification (and that data is sparse)".

    No researcher in East Asia has ever discovered otherwise. Your wish again?

    "there cannot be a million years' old sequence and all be 'the same'".

    Why not?

    "To which you (Terry) replied with funny insistence: ... 'South Asian'..., ...'South Asia is west of the Movius Line'..."

    Which, of course, it is. Another problem for Paleolithic genetic or technological connection between South And East Asia is the fact that there is a steep cline between the 'South Asian' and the 'Mongoloid' phenotype, and it is basically unidirectional from the Mongoloid side. The cline does become a little less steep as we move south from Zomia through the lower countries of Thailand and Cambodia though. On the other hand to the north the cline between the Mongoloid phenotype and the West Earasian phenotype is remarkably gradual. And genetic exchange across the region has been relatively bidirectional. That region has not always been the formidable barrier you envisage, Maju. And Zomia has usually been a far more effective barrier than you believe it to have been.

    "What's the difference in Archaeological terms, discussing the Paleolithic, between Central Siberia and Altai? None".

    And the same 'archaeology' reaches northern China. It would be a mistake to imagine that Homo sapiens spread evenly all the way through China in a single movement. Most Paleolithic discoveries in China have been made in the hill country that stretches from Laos to Zhoukoudian. I accept that traces of sapiens on the China plain may have been obliterated but it's possible the plain was largely unhihabited for many years. Even the Three Gorges is where the Yangtze cuts through a mountainous region.

    The first people into China had adapted to living in hill country, whether thay had entered from Zomia or from the Tibet/Mongolia highlands. Interestingly Y-DNA D is primarily confined to the arc of high country with outl;iers on the Andaman Islands in the south and Japan in the north, but is almost unknown in China itself.

    However the Tsin-Ling Mountains seem to have been a fairly constant barrier over much of Chinese prehistory. Even today many scientists claim the mountains mark a distinct boundary between north and south although haplogroups are evenly distributed through both regions. This 'fact' is very suggestive that migrations into China have two sources, a northern and a southern one.

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    1. "On what grounds do you suspect that, or is it just your wishing getting in the way again?"

      Whatever. Do you find reasonable that there would be no noticeable change in one million years? That's lack of analysis for sure.

      "Why not?"

      It happens nowhere else. If it'd be the case it'd be most exceptional. So my skepticism is very much founded (on extrapolation from elsewhere and on the fact that only limited research exists on East and SE Asian Paleolithic).

      "... the hill country that stretches from Laos to Zhoukoudian"...

      Zhoukoudian is in the outskirts of Beijing and Beijing lays in quite flat lands: the extreme of the North China Plain, the mountains there are unrelated to those from Laos. What are you talking about?

      "I accept that traces of sapiens on the China plain may have been obliterated but it's possible the plain was largely unhihabited for many years".

      I can't take that claim even half-seriously. Not with the density of Paleolithic surveying in the country. Europe is pretty much well combed and there are still many surprises. East Asia is not even badly combed in archaeological terms, just scattered semi-random sites.

      Simply put: caves do not happen in plains and caves are a first place to look at by archaeologists because, unlike what happens in the open, the chances of "hitting gold" are huge. Most of these findings are from cave sites but that is a "sampling bias".

      Delete
  8. "Petraglia 2007. It's pay per view and I don't have a copy"

    Thanks, but if correct note:

    "→ since c. 125 Ka BP Homo sapiens in Arabia and Palestine
    → c. 110 Ka BP Zhirendong jaw (not 100% conclusive but suggestive of a very early colonization of much of Eurasia by H. sapiens)
    → 139-68 Ka BP (??) Liujiang skull, a clear specimen of Homo sapiens
    → 80 Ka BP Indian MSA-like techno-complex"

    So Homo sapiens was already present in China by the time of any connection with India.

    "After all if H. sapiens was at c. 80 Ka in India, how much it could take them to reach SE Asia? More so as many East Asian mtDNA clades are just one or two mutations apart from the root of M (M7, M9, M12'G, etc.)"

    Well, the above would give us quite a good estimate of when mt-DNA M began its spread into China. But someone was already there.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. "So Homo sapiens was already present in China by the time of any connection with India".

      By the time of the Jurreru Valley deepest findings, assuming we do accept that Zhirendong is H. sapiens and the dating is correct. All very unclear as of now.

      Critically we do not know either if older archaeological layers like some mention of "blade and flake-blade cores" in Narmada Valley c. 103 Ka (Harrod seems to think they could be Homo sapiens) could also be presence of H. sapiens. We just do not know because the fossil record is not clear enough in either region.

      Let's just say that there is some chance that the Eurasian colonization (or a preliminary pioneer phase of it) is even older than 80 Ka., c. 110 Ka maybe.

      Also may I remind you that Zhirendong is SE Asian, barely even in China at all (not China proper but Guangxi, surely the most SE Asian province of all the territory under modern Chinese jurisdiction: China is a polity not a natural region).

      Delete
  9. "It happens nowhere else. If it'd be the case it'd be most exceptional. So my skepticism is very much founded"

    You will find that everyone who has done research in East Asia remarks on the fact of minimal change over an extremely long period. I doubt that more 'on East and SE Asian Paleolithic' will alter that perception in any meaningful manner.

    "Zhoukoudian is in the outskirts of Beijing and Beijing lays in quite flat lands"

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhoukoudian

    Quote:

    "Zhoukoudian or Choukoutien (Chinese: 周口店; pinyin: Zhōukǒudiàn, IPA: [tʂóʊkʰòʊtjɛ̂n]) is a cave system in Beijing, China ... Fissures in the limestone containing middle Pleistocene deposits".

    You don't get 'caves' on flat land. Even you agree with that: 'Simply put: caves do not happen in plains'. Zhoukoudian is 50 km southwest of beijing according to another link:

    http://www.unesco.org/ext/field/beijing/whc/pkm-site.htm

    Quote:

    "Zhoukoudian is a small village situated about 50 km southwest of Beijing. Embraced by a chain of mountains from the northwest and rolling hills from the northeast, the village opens to the vast Huabei plains".

    "the mountains there are unrelated to those from Laos. What are you talking about?"

    The two regions are totally connected by mountains of much the same altitude. There is certainly an ecological connection. The Three Gorges lies on the same line of mountains. Try looking at a map before you make stupid comments.

    "Let's just say that there is some chance that the Eurasian colonization (or a preliminary pioneer phase of it) is even older than 80 Ka., c. 110 Ka maybe".

    More than just a 'chance' I'd say. And don't forget that from 120,000 years ago the earth was emerging from a period much warmer than at present.

    ReplyDelete

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