New Dates for the North China Mesolithic

By Elston, Robert G.; Cheng, Xu et al. | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

New Dates for the North China Mesolithic


Elston, Robert G., Cheng, Xu, Madsen, David B., Kan, Zhong, Bettinger, Robert L., Jingzen, Li, Brantingham, Paul J., Huiming, Wang, Jun, Yu, Antiquity


The Mesolithic - as the 'time in between' - raises issues of definition, the more so as chronology is refined and the abruptness of environmental change at the end of the glaciation becomes clearer. This clarification of an unusual regional sequence is an instance.

The profound world-wide environmental and human adaptive change at the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary (Allen & O'Connell 1995; Flannery 1969; De Tapia 1992) has not been much studied in northern China (Crawford 1992: 13). Our research in Ningxia focuses on the human and environmental changes contributing to more intensive subsistence strategies and the eventual development of agriculture in China from an indigenous hunting and gathering base (Bettinger et al. 1994; Madsen et al. 1996; Wang & Yu 1996).

Before about 18,000 years ago, hunters and gatherers in northern China occupied a variety of habitats; fairly mobile, they pursued an array of large (especially Gazella and Equus) to small game, fish and shellfish; they employed blade and flake lithic technologies, and had no permanent shelters or storage facilities (Jia & Huang 1985: 220-21; Olsen 1990). Somewhat later, microlithic technology was added to the tool kit (Chen & Wang 1989), then ground stone, increased sedentism and, finally, agriculture. These shifts are apparent in the contrast between Late Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic sites around the margins of the Helan Mountains of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia (Madsen et al. 1996). Late Palaeolithic sites are less frequent, assemblages are small and relatively uniform. Early Neolithic sites are more abundant; larger, more diverse Early Neolithic assemblages suggest long-term residential bases, while smaller assemblages without microliths indicate short-term camps and specialized resource processing locations. Similar contrasts occur over a large region [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] in arid northern China and Mongolia (Bettinger et al. 1994; Fairservis 1993; Maringer 1950).

Nevertheless, because relatively few radiocarbon dates from north China refer to the critical transitional period 20,000-10,000 b.p. (cf. Tang & Gai 1986), it is difficult to tell when various technologies (e.g. blades, microlithics, grinding stones, ceramics, ground stone celts, etc.) were added to or lost from tool kits. Dating the introduction of microlithic technology, a key element of the later Upper Palaeolithic (Chen 1984; Chen & Wang 1989; Gai 1985), remains controversial: Tang & Gai (1986) believe that microlithics are present in the Shiyu, Shanxi site (28,945[+ or -]1375 b.p), but others (Miller-Antonio 1991; Yamanaka 1993) see no evidence of microliths in Shiyu, Salawusu, Inner Mongolia (35,340 b.p.), or late Palaeolithic strata of Locality 1, Shuidonggou, Ningxia (26,230[+ or -]800-17,250[+ or -]250 b.p.). Dates for the best known microlithic sites in north China (Xiachuan, 23,900[+ or -]1000-13,900-[+ or -]300 b.p., Xueguan 13,550[+ or -]100 b.p., Hutouliang 11,000[+ or -]100 b.p.) are problematic as they rely on bone or poor stratigraphic control (An 1983; Chen & Wang 1989; Wu & Wang 1985). The introduction of milling stones and stone axes, both reported from Xiachuan (Chen 1984; Jia & Huang 1985), are in similar temporal limbo.

Understanding the adaptive changes leading from Late Palaeolithic hunting and gathering to Neolithic agriculture depends on a firm chronology of technological change. To this end, we report a dated stratigraphic sequence from the Four Springs site (QG3) in Pigeon Mountain Basin, Ningxia. The Four Springs test excavations were part of research conducted in 1995 and 1996, including an archaeological reconnaissance of Pigeon Mountain Basin, and systematic surface collections and test excavations at several sites.

Pigeon Mountain basin

The Four Springs site is located in Pigeon Mountain basin [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], a shallow drainage basin heading in the foothills of the Helan Shan; elevation is about 1200 m asl and annual precipitation is less than 150 mm/year. …

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