March 2, 2022
A 40,000-year-old archaeological site in northern China has unearthed the earliest evidence of ochre processing in east Asia, researchers say.
The site was discovered at Xiamabei in the Nihewan Basin, in the northern Chinese province of Hebei.
Ochre pieces and tools found in the area suggest that the clay earth pigment was processed there, via grinding and pounding, to produce powders of different colours and grain sizes.
Near lumps of ochre, archaeologists unearthed a hammer stone as well as a flat limestone slab that showed signs of battering.
In a study published in the journal Nature, the team has dated the artefacts between 39,000 and 41,000 years old.
Prof Michael Petraglia of Griffith University, a co-author of the study, said the site was unlike anything uncovered in east Asia. “This site doesn’t fit with anything we know,” he said. “It’s got unique cultural characteristics to it.”
The site also contained 382 stone tool artefacts, mainly made of chert and quartz. Petraglia said the artefacts appeared to have been created by striking flakes off small pebbles, resulting in blade-like tools. They predate microlith technology—specialised stone blades that have been found in northern China, Russia and Japan—by 10,000 years.
The researchers believe the site was most likely inhabited by Homo sapiens, but don’t rule out possibility of occupation by other hominins such as Denisovans or Neanderthals.
“There could have been a lot of interbreeding, and therefore we’re dealing with populations that are different both biologically and culturally at 40,000 years ago,” Petraglia said.
Ochre has previously been found in sites associated with Homo sapiens in Africa. A 100,000-year-old processing workshop was discovered in a cave in South Africa in 2008.
“Our species seems to be engaging with this material a lot,” Petraglia said. The researchers believe the ochre could have been used for symbolic purposes, such as for body adornment, or as a binding agent in adhesives.
Petraglia described the Xiamabei discovery as “a potential signpost of a migration event of our species”.
Evidence has previously suggested that modern humans first migrated from Africa into Eurasia about 60,000 years ago. However, a discovery of human remains in southern China, dated at between 80,000 to 120,000 years old, has recently thrown this timeline into debate.
The Xiamabei discovery adds to the archaeological significance of the Nihewan Basin. Archaeologists and palaeontologists are able to study rock layers there that date from the present day to almost 200m years ago.
“This is a very unique place in Asia,” Petraglia said. “We’ve identified, in a sense, a new culture coming out of there.”
Questions Using Close Reading and Critical Thinking:
- The first section of an article should answer the questions “Who?” “What?” “When?” and “Where?” Identify the four W’s of this article. NOTE: The rest of the article provides details on the why and/or how.
- Does this article have any bias? Why or why not?
- What is ochre? According to the article, how might it have been used?
- What kinds of artifacts did archaeologists discover at the Xiamabei site?
- What date range is given for the artifacts?
- What was found at Xiamabei that makes it so unique?
- What groups may have occupied the Xiamabei site?
- How old is the ochre processing workshop found in South Africa in 2008?
- When were humans believed to have first migrated from Africa to Eurasia? How do the findings at Xiamabei affect this theory?
- How does studying ancient civilizations help us understand the world we live in today? What do we have in common with the people at Xiamabei?