The Development of Upper Palaeolithic China: New Results from the Shuidonggou Site

By Li, Feng; Gao, Xing et al. | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Development of Upper Palaeolithic China: New Results from the Shuidonggou Site


Li, Feng, Gao, Xing, Chen, Fuyou, Pei, Shuwen, Zhang, Yue, Zhang, Xiaoling, Liu, Decheng, Zhang, Shuangquan, Guan, Ying, Wang, Huimin, Kuhn, Steven L., Antiquity


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Introduction

The replacement of archaic populations by anatomically modern humans, and the process of the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition in Eurasia during Oxygen Isotope Stage 3 (OIS 3) are heavily debated in the scientific community (e.g. Mellars 1990; Bar-Yosef & Pilbeam 2000; Mellars et al. 2007). Much discussion focuses on the age of blade technology, which is considered by many as a marker of modern humans, and its diffusion across Eurasia.

Shuidonggou Locality 1, located in northern China, has yielded what has been described as an initial Upper Palaeolithic assemblage with large blades produced by Levallois-like technology (Brantingham 1999; Brantingham et al. 2001). This site occupies a unique position in early prehistoric China (e.g. Jia et al. 1964; Zhang 1990, 1999a; Li 1993; Lin 1996; Gao et al. 2002, 2004) and historically has been aligned with the Eurasian Palaeolithic (Boule et al. 1928; Bordes 1968; Brantingham 1999; Brantingham et al. 2001). Given that there are few other well-studied, securely dated assemblages in China that resemble the early Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic (Lin 1996; Gao 1999), Shuidonggou plays an essential role in discussions of the diffusion of blade technology and even population migration across Eurasia from west to east.

The phase of research at Shuidonggou that began in 2003 focuses on the dating, depositional context, lithic industries, and behaviour patterns of several localities in the Shuidonggou Basin. Shuidonggou Locality 2, the subject of this paper, is significant for its unusually long sequence of seven distinct, well-stratified Palaeolithic layers and an abundance of archaeological material. The results from the investigation provide a new perspective on the origins and age of macroblade industries in the region.

The site

The Shuidonggou Basin is located in northern China, 18km east of the Yellow River on the margins of the Ordos Desert (Figure 1). It lies in an arid to semi-arid transition zone which is strongly seasonal and has a continental climate, dominated by the winter monsoon. The site cluster at Shuidonggou was first located and investigated by Emile Licent and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1923 (Licent & Teilhard de Chardin 1925). Teilhard de Chardin initially noted five distinct localities in the Shuidonggou Basin. In the course of subsequent studies, another seven Palaeolithic localities have been identified (Zhang 1999b; Gao et al. 2004, 2009; Liu et al. 2008).

The Palaeolithic deposits in this area cover a time span of roughly 41-10 ka cal BP (Table 1). Several technological complexes have been identified, marked by the presence of large blade technology, simple core-flake technology and microblade technology. More specifically, Localities 1 and 9 and the earliest layers at Locality 2 yield assemblages with large blade production incorporating aspects of Levallois technology, for which Shuidonggou is best known. Most of the layers at Localities 2, 7 and 8 contain assemblages with simple core-flake technology. Evidence of microblade technology was discovered at Locality 12 (Liu et al. 2008; Gao et al. 2009), where it is dated to 11 ka by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating (Liu et al. 2008). Microblades and cores were also found at the surface of Locality 6 (Zhang 1999b). To date, the assemblages from other localities are either small or difficult to classify.

Shuidonggou Locality 2 was one of the five localities originally identified in 1923 by Licent and Teilhard de Chardin (1925). Madsen et al. (2001) and Gao et al. (2002) conducted some radiocarbon (AMS [sup.14]C) dating work in 1999 and 2000 based on samples from around hearths exposed in the natural profile (Madsen et al. 2001; Gao et al. 2002). They placed the occurrence of blade technology in this area at an age of between 29 ka and 24 ka ([sup.14]C BP) based on the dates from Locality 2, and suggested that large blade technology spread from north to south during the Upper Palaeolithic.

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