The Microblade Tradition in China: Regional Chronologies and Significance in the Transition to Neolithic

Article excerpt

The microblade tradition in China has been considered by Smith (1974) to be a part of his Northeast Asian-Northwest American Microblade Tradition. Within China, assemblages of this tradition were first discovered in the 1920s in the northern, northwestern, and northeastern regions of the country (Chun Chen 1984; Chen and Wang 1989), and numerous archaeological sites with microblades have been found since the 1950s. To date, over two hundred archaeological assemblages and find spots with microblades have been located in China, mainly in areas of middle to high latitudes (Bettinger et al. 1994; Tong 1979; Wu 1987; Yang 1987) (Fig. 1).

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The accumulation of discoveries during the past forty years has provided new information for a better understanding of this lithic tradition. We now know that it was more expansive geographically than previously thought, with sites located not only in northern and central China but also in the south and southwest. The time span of the tradition is now known to have extended from the late Pleistocene into the mid-Holocene; in part of the northern areas this tradition lasted into the historical period.

During the past four decades, studies of this topic have been conducted by Chinese scholars, and the achievements are significant. Jia (1978:138) has claimed that a set of implements, including wedge-shaped, conical, prismatic, cylindrical, and boat-shaped microcores as well as microblades, is typical of the tradition. Some scholars have proposed central China as the original region for the tradition (An 1992; Gal 1985, 1991; Jia et al. 1972; Yang 1987). It has also been claimed that the tradition extended to other regions of East Asia (An 1992; Chen 1983; Gal 1985; Jia 1978). A general hypothesis of three phases in the evolution of microblades--early (Upper Paleolithic), middle (Mesolithic) and later (Neolithic)--has been proposed (Gal 1985; Ge 1985). More detailed studies focused on microcore preparation have led to another hypothesis of two phases of microblade technology within the Upper Paleolithic (Chen and Wang 1989).

The early stage, represented by Xiachuan, was characterized by conical cores and small boat-shaped cores; wedge-shaped cores were rare and the technique for platform preparation was simple (Chen and Wang 1989). The later stage, represented by Xueguan and Hutouliang, was characterized by the increasing dominance of wedge-shaped cores and the more sophisticated techniques of platform preparation (Chen and Wang 1989). Regional aspects of the tradition in central China and Xinjiang have also been synthesized (Wu 1987; Yang 1987), and the significance of microblades in the overall history of lithic technology has recently been discussed (Yu 1995). Some questions related to the microblade tradition have not yet been fully explored, however. First and foremost, the concept of this lithic tradition in China, commonly called "microlithic," is still ambiguous. Second, although archaeological discoveries have documented that the microblade tradition in China existed for more than 20,000 years, co-existing with various other lithic technologies (An 1981; Gai 1985), the temporal variations within this tradition and the interrelationships of microblade and nonmicroblade traditions (including ground stone tools) have received little attention. Major investigations seem to have concentrated on the techno-typological aspects of microcores. Finally, the significance of the occurrence of microblades in association with nonmicroblade lithic assemblages in the transitional period from hunting and gathering to cultivation in the early Holocene seems insufficiently stressed.

In this paper, existing definitions of the microblade tradition will be discussed and clarified. Major microblade assemblages in different regions, together with temporal variations and associations with other nonmicroblade traditions, will be discussed. …