Was the Emergence of Home Bases and Domestic Fire a Punctuated Event? A Review of the Middle Pleistocene Record in Eurasia

By Rolland, Nicolas | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Was the Emergence of Home Bases and Domestic Fire a Punctuated Event? A Review of the Middle Pleistocene Record in Eurasia


Rolland, Nicolas, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


THIS SURVEY OF THE EVIDENCE FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF DOMESTIC FIRE and home bases integrates naturalistic factors and culture historical stages and processes into an anthropological theoretical framework. The main focus will be to review fire technology in terms of (1) its characteristics in prehistoric times and its earliest established evidence; (2) the role it played, among other factors, in the appearance of ancient hominid home bases sensu stricto, as part of a key formative stage during the transition from Lower to Middle Paleolithic; and (3) current findings and debates relating to the role of anthropogenic fire and the evidence of a home base occupation at Zhoukoudian (ZKD) Locality 1 in China. It is concluded that, despite complex site formation processes and postdepositional disturbances, the sum of direct evidence and off-site context at Zhoukoudian constitutes a record sufficiently compelling for continuing to regard it as a key early hominid home base occurrence in East Asia. This revised verdict has important implications for evaluating and comparing Middle Pleistocene biocultural evolution and developments.

This analysis seeks to avoid both excessive biological or environmental reductionism, and treating "cultural" behavior as entirely emergent without reference to its natural historical antecedents. Hominids retained a primate omnivorous diet, but added a meat-eating and meat-procurement component that moved them up the trophic pyramid to compete with other carnivores. Ground-living hominids also preserved the primate system of living in large local groups for safety and a diurnal lifestyle. They acquired thereby some competitive advantages against other carnivores (Eaton 1994) besides improved safety from predation. Mobile ancient foragers, intimately tied to their natural habitats, remained largely one of the ecosystem's components. This was closely adjusted to yearly seasonal rhythms and modified in response to long-term bioclimatic fluctuation cycles that could last from years to centuries or more. On the other hand, early humans combined these evolutionary shifts with socially acquired behavioral modifications that opened under-exploited niches, with long-term consequences. After the appearance of early Homo around 2.5 mya, these new behaviors included manipulative skills used in regular tool making that were linked with changes in hominid hands and combined power and precision grips. Extracting and processing large animal carcasses or other commodities using tools, removing tree barks, and modifying other plants for various purposes all mark the onset of a hominid trend of conquering the environment. How far back this phenomenon can be traced remains a fundamental issue incumbent on Paleolithic research.

Ethnographic evidence of symbolic or complex social behavior, not necessarily expressed as material culture, shows considerable variability between societies. These practical difficulties make it plausible to perceive culture historical processes by reference to differing levels of intensity, without introducing ad hoc symbolic or linguistic "Big Bang" causal capabilities. These questions bear on debates about the Paleolithic succession in East and Southeast Asia or the so-called "Movius Line" hypothesis. To many researchers, Paleolithic repertoires in this vast region allegedly reflect long-lasting cultural isolation, stagnation, and even human biological endemism as shown by morphologically unstandardized lithic assemblages. Oversimplified aspects of this reasoning (Pope and Keates 1994; Wang 1998) make it preferable to interpret "Movius Line" characteristics as configurations of an original, internally variable, "technocomplex." Although use of the "Movius Line" term and concept persists, it becomes preferable to put both to rest in view of the model's biocultural evolutionary implications, and to rename this entity "The East and Southeast Asia Paleolithic Co-Tradition" to stress its combined archeological, human biogeographic, and ecological specificities (Rolland 2001 : 83-84).

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