Dating Shuidonggou and the Upper Palaeolithic Blade Industry in North China

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Shuidonggou, located in North China ~10 km east of the Yellow River on the margins of the Ordos Desert (FIGURE 1), was first identified and excavated by Emile Licent and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1923 (Licent & Teilhard de Chardin 1925; see also Boule et al. 1928). It was re-excavated in the 1960s and again in 1980 (e.g. Jia et al. 1964; Ningxia Museum 1987), and has been the focus of numerous ancillary studies (Chen & Yuan 1988; Chen et al. 1984; Geng & Dan 1992; Sun et al. 1991; Zhou & Hu 1988). There have also been a number of re-analyses of this excavated material (e.g. Brantingham 1999; Kozlowski 1971; Yamanaka 1995), as well as a variety of attempts to fit the site within the general Eurasian Palaeolithic sequence (e.g. Bordes 1968; Li 1993; Lin 1996; Movius 1948).


This continued focus is the result of Shuidonggou's unique position within the Chinese Upper Palaeolithic sequence. Initially, Licent & Teilhard de Chardin (1925) considered Shuidonggou to be an evolved Mousterian with Upper Palaeolithic features, a classification supported by Bordes (1968). Early Chinese scholars (e.g. Pei 1937) also thought the site contained aspects of Middle Palaeolithic technology, but later work has placed the site firmly within the Chinese Upper Palaeolithic (e.g. Jia et al. 1964; Li 1993; Lin 1996). However, the occurrence of early Upper Palaeolithic sites in China is extremely limited (Gao 1999; Lin 1996), since only a handful of sites in China contain evidence for the use of large blade technologies, and only a few equivocal specimens were recovered from these sites (e.g. Li 1993; Miller-Antonio 1992). Shuidonggou is one of the few sites in North China that exhibits a systematic Initial Upper Palaeolithic core-and-blade technology similar to that found farther north in Mongolia and Siberia (e.g. Bar-Yosef & Kuhn 1999; Brantingham 1999; Brantingham et al. in press).

Due to the unique position of Shuidonggou, dating of the depositional sequence at the site has received considerable attention. At Locality (FIGURE 2), there are two finite radiocarbon dates of 17,250 [+ or -] 210 BP and 25,450+800 BP from the late Pleistocene strata containing the Upper Palaeolithic materials (CQRC 1987: 37). The first of these is a collagen date from what is likely a redeposited bone, while the second is on a carbonate nodule. Though potentially accurate, these dates are more safely assumed to be minimum ages due to potential problems with radiocarbon assays of bone collagen and carbonate (Pendall et al. 1994; Stafford et al. 1991). A third infinite radiocarbon date, on unknown material underlying the archaeological horizons (Geng & Dan 1992: 49), is difficult to evaluate. Chen et al. (1984) report on bone-derived U-Th ages from the `Lower Cultural Level' at Shuidonggou. These are given as 40,000-32,000 BP (see also Chen & Yuan 1988). Though not unreasonable given the character of the Shuidonggou industry, U-Th dating of bone has to be treated with extreme caution because of the uncertainty surrounding the mechanisms of uranium uptake and loss from bone tissues (Bischoff et al. 1988). In contrast, palynological evidence suggests that the late Pleistocene deposits at Shuidonggou accumulated under generally cold and dry conditions (Zhou & Hu 1988: 268). For this reason, Zhou & Hu favour a literal interpretation of the younger radiocarbon dates and suggest the Shuidonggou industry dates to the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 radiocarbon years ago.


This wide array of age estimates leaves the core-and-blade industry at Shuidonggou in chronological limbo, making it difficult to understand how it fits within the Chinese and greater Eurasian Palaeolithic sequences. During the last decade in an attempt to resolve this temporal confusion by examining exposed loess profiles along the Border River bisecting Shuidonggou (e. …