A Critique of the Chinese `Middle Palaeolithic'

Article excerpt


It has been conventional practice in Old World Palaeolithic archaeology to divide an event or cultural development into three stages: an early, middle, late; or lower, middle, upper. As a result, Early, Middle, and Late Stone Ages developed in Africa, and Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic cultures were devised and applied in the rest of the Old World. These stages were formed for easier classification of artefactual material, representing apparent transitions in human cultural development, from simpler to more complex (Klein 1999; Trigger 1989).

The Chinese three-stage Palaeolithic cultural model was formed in the 1920s and 1930s when western scientists first began carrying out fieldwork there. Accordingly, the Chinese method copied the western model that was based on artefactual material indigenous to the western Old World. However, this implies that the cultural evolutionary trajectory in China was similar to Europe, Africa and the Levant, when in fact few similarities appear to exist (Movius 1944; Ikawa-Smith 1978b; Gao & Olsen 1997). We are interested here in examining the nature of one stage (i.e. Middle Palaeolithic) of the Chinese three-stage cultural model.

Currently, more than 40 archaeological sites in China have been designated Middle Palaeolithic (Zhang 1985; Qiu 1989; Wu & Poirier 1995) (TABLE 1; FIGURE 1). In this paper, a number of questions will be addressed that have arisen over the presence of a distinct Middle Palaeolithic in China. These include: What are the criteria and methods for defining the Middle Palaeolithic development in China? Is there a more accurate way of classifying the large body of Palaeolithic archaeological data in China? Finally, is the term `Middle' applicable and meaningful to the Chinese Palaeolithic? Four changes (raw material procurement, core reduction, retouch and typology), often utilized in western Old World archaeology to distinguish cultural evolution, are analysed for their presence/absence in the Chinese late Middle-early Upper Pleistocene. (1) Finally, a two-stage model of classifying the developmental stages of Palaeolithic cultures in China will be proposed and discussed.


What are the criteria employed for defining a Chinese Middle Palaeolithic?

Considerable efforts have been made to summarize the nature of the Chinese Palaeolithic (e.g. Luchterhand 1978; Aigner 1981; Qiu 1985; 1989; Wu & Olsen 1985; Zhang 1985; 1987; 1990; 1997; Huang 1989; Li 1989; 1993; Olsen & Miller-Antonio 1992; Schick 1994; Lin 1996; Gao 1999; 2000), and from a broader perspective, the eastern Old World (e.g. Movius 1944; 1948; Schick & Dong 1993; Pope & Keates 1994; Gao & Olsen 1997). Traditionally, two criteria have been utilized for defining a distinct Middle Palaeolithic in China:

1 age of site; and

2 association with archaic Homo sapiens remains.

All archaeological material dating between the late Middle-early Upper Pleistocene (c. 140,000-30,000 years ago) are considered Middle Palaeolithic. Several methods have been employed to determine the geologic age and cultural affinity for a site, including associated faunae and hominid fossils, stratigraphic variation and absolute dating.

Association with distinct fauna

Western scholars who conducted the initial Palaeolithic research in China (e.g. Andersson, Licent, Teilhard de Chardin), brought the method of biostratigraphic dating with them. Due to the fact that a number of Chinese Palaeolithic researchers are actually geologists-turned-archaeologists, the use of faunal correlations in China has been long-lasting (Chang 1981; 1986).

A number of Chinese Pleistocene faunal accumulations have been designated type assemblages for certain geological time periods, including Nihewan and Gongwangling for the Lower Pleistocene, Zhoukoudian Locality I for the Middle Pleistocene and Salawusu for the Upper Pleistocene (Pei 1957; Han & Xu 1989; Qi 1989). …