Rewriting Prehistory: Shiyu Site Unveils 45,000-Year-Old Technological Wonders

Shiyu “Horse-Hunters” Reconstruction

Reconstruction of Shiyu “horse-hunters.” Credit: Xiaocong Guo

Researchers uncover evidence of advanced material culture from 45,000 years ago in East Asia, highlighting sophisticated toolmaking and cultural practices of early Homo sapiens.

A team of researchers from China, Australia, France, Spain, and Germany has revealed advanced material culture in East Asia by 45,000 years ago.

The new study will be published today (January 18) in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The researchers examined a previously excavated archaeological collection from the Shiyu site, located in Shanxi Province.

Discoveries at Shiyu Site

“Our new study identified an Initial Upper Palaeolithic archaeological assemblage from the Shiyu site of North China dating to 45,000 years ago that includes blade technology, tanged and hafted projectile points, long-distance obsidian transfer, and the use of a perforated graphite disk,” said associate Prof. Shixia Yang, first and corresponding author of the study and a researcher at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Shiyu Initial Upper Paleolithic Artifacts

a) Levallois points (1–3); b) other tool types including denticulate on blade (1, 2), denticulate on flake (3), and end scraper (4); c) tanged tools showing the locations of notched retouching (red) and thinning of the tangs (light blue). Credit: IVPP

This discovery uncovered a treasure trove of cultural and technological innovations. Together with the recovery of a now-lost human cranial bone, it sheds light on the ancient migration of Homo sapiens into East Asia around 45,000 years ago.

The researchers dated three animal bone samples recovered during the original 1963 excavation, and these were shown to be humanly modified as indicated by cut marks. Radiocarbon methods precisely dated the main cultural layer of Shiyu to between 45,800 and 43,200 years ago.

Long-distance Transferred Obsidian

a) scatterplot of Rb, Sr, and Zr measurements for the Shiyu obsidian artifacts and obsidian sources across East Asia; b) the four obsidian lithics from Shiyu; c) SY20-314 endscraper on obsidian. 1–2, transport wear observed at 200x and 100x magnification. Credit: IVPP

Advanced Toolmaking and Cultural Implications

Integrated scientific studies on the archaeological findings at Shiyu revealed an advanced material culture dating to 45,000 years ago. This includes Levallois points, tanged and hafted projectile points with evidence of impact fractures, long-distance transfers of obsidian from sources hundreds of kilometers away, a perforated graphite disk, and well-shaped bone points.

The results of the taphonomic analysis of the mammal fossils, combined with use-wear analysis of the stone tools, indicated that the Shiyu inhabitants were “horse hunters” equipped with tanged and hafted projectile points, thus having the ability to hunt and selectively cull adult equids.

Graphite Disc and Bone Tool

Graphite disc and bone tool. IVPP

Shiyu provides us with an opportunity to look into the life of the skillful hunters from northern China 45,000 years ago. The people inhabiting the region had a remarkably advanced toolkit, with a range of innovative tools from the Upper Palaeolithic, including end-scrapers, awls, and tools of former times, including Middle Palaeolithic Levallois points, various tanged tools, denticulates, and borers.

The unique set of stone tool artifacts, in combination with the shaped graphite disc and bone tools, shows that early peoples had a rich culture. The long-distance transport of obsidian from sources hundreds of kilometers away also indicates advanced and long-distance resource procurement strategies and migration abilities.

Shiyu reflects a process of cultural creolization—through contact between societies and relocated peoples—whereby inherited traits blended with novel innovations, thus complicating the traditional understanding of Homo sapiens‘ global expansion.

Reference: “Initial Upper Palaeolithic material culture by 45,000 years ago at Shiyu in northern China” by Shi-Xia Yang, Jia-Fu Zhang, Jian-Ping Yue, Rachel Wood, Yu-Jie Guo, Han Wang, Wu-Gan Luo, Yue Zhang, Emeline Raguin, Ke-Liang Zhao, Yu-Xiu Zhang, Fa-Xiang Huan, Ya-Mei Hou, Wei-Wen Huang, Yi-Ren Wang, Jin-Ming Shi, Bao-Yin Yuan, Andreu Ollé, Alain Queffelec, Li-Ping Zhou, Cheng-Long Deng, Francesco d’Errico and Michael Petraglia, 18 January 2024, Nature Ecology & Evolution.
DOI: 10.1038/s41559-023-02294-4

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