The Middle Palaeolithic in China: A Review of Current Interpretations

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Introduction

It has long been the tradition in European archaeological research to divide the Palaeolithic period into three periods: Early, Middle and Upper. Since the study of Chinese Palaeolithic archaeology was largely a creation of visiting European prehistorians (such as Teilhard de Chardin, E. Licent and H. Breuil), this model was imported into China when they began work in the 1920s. In addition, the renowned Professor Pei Wenzhong, who was amongst the first generation of Chinese archaeologists, received his professional training in France. This meant that these western archaeological concepts formed part of his work, and he was the first to use the term 'Middle Palaeolithic' in China (Zhang 1985).

In recent decades, however, the use of the term 'Middle Palaeolithic' in China has been questioned, and some have even suggested that it should be abandoned and replaced by two periods: the Early and Late Palaeolithic (Gao & Norton 2002: 410). China is certainly not the only country where this problem has been raised. The British Middle Palaeolithic was considered by Roe to be "discovered too early for its own good" and that "the scattered, biased and partial record of the early excavations" had caused problems in interpreting the period (White & Pettitt 2011: 88). Clark (2002: 50) thinks that the controversy denotes that archaeologists are not communicating and "there was literally no common basis for discussion". It reflects a common archaeological tendency "to begin defining and naming things rather than beginning with, and naming, defined basic analytic content units" (citing Kleindienst 2006: 13).

This paper aims to review the interpretations of the Middle Palaeolithic period in China. A particular focus will be placed on evaluating the four criteria used by Gao and Norton in their suggestion of abandoning this period in China. It is hoped that the discussion can help shed light on future definitions and studies of this period.

Background to the argument

In China, all archaeological materials dating between the late Middle and early Upper Pleistocene (c. 140-30 kya) are considered Middle Palaeolithic (Gao & Norton 2002: 401). Researchers generally see the period as a development out of the Early Palaeolithic, but vary in their estimates of the innovation achieved. For example, Wang (2005: 146) accepts that when the Upper Pleistocene began, most cultural features were inherited from the Lower and Middle Pleistocene, but certain changes can still be noticed. But it is exactly these changes that laid the foundation for the later development. Hence, the early and middle phases of the Upper Pleistocene can still be seen as an important transition period, irrespective of whether a Middle Palaeolithic culture existed or not. Zhang (1990) also suggests that the lithic industries are inherited from the former period, but there are features showing that they are in a preparatory stage of the next period; progress was definitely made, if little and slow. Du (2006) also suggests that this period shows a certain degree of progress when compared to the Early Palaeolithic, because of the first appearance of new tool types and a 'mind template' resulting from the cultural development and evolution of ancient hominids, while the varieties in lithic assemblage among different sites were due to the difference in raw materials and local geographic conditions.

Qiu (2009) agrees that Chinese Middle Palaeolithic cultures developed directly out of the indigenous Early Palaeolithic, but, rather than being considered as a homogeneous entity, constituted an important link between the relatively uniform Early Palaeolithic cultures and their highly diversified Late Palaeolithic descendants. Meanwhile Wu (1997: 289) suggests that the Late Palaeolithic of China shows clear evidence of continuity with the Middle Palaeolithic without any indications of either accelerated change or disjuncture corresponding to the transition interval. …