Archaeologists have made groundbreaking discoveries at an excavation site in northern China that are dramatically changing our understanding of the deep past in East Asia. Researchers from China, Australia, France, Spain and Germany have been studying artifacts recovered over 50 years ago at the Shiyu site in Shanxi Province.

Using modern dating techniques and multidisciplinary analyses of the stone tools, animal bones, and unusual crafted objects found at the site, the international team of scientists recently published findings that push back the timeline for an advanced culture in this region by thousands of years.

The artifacts excavated from the undisturbed layers at Shiyu date to an astonishing 45,000 years ago, during the Middle Paleolithic period. This discovery sheds light on the ancient migration of Homo sapiens to East Asia some 45,000 years ago, five millennia earlier than previously believed.

Analysis of the lithic assemblage revealed a sophisticated toolkit featuring delicate stone blades crafted using Levallois technology. Projectile points exhibited clear signs of hafting, indicating the production of composite hunting weapons. Animal bones bore cut marks evidencing large game hunting and selective butchery of equids.

Perhaps most remarkably, the microscopic remains of obsidian clearly matched Geological sources hundreds of kilometers away, suggesting well-established long-distance trade networks.

The research team was also puzzled by a small, circular object carved from fine-grained graphite. Radiocarbon dating confirmed it was contemporaneous with the other artifacts at 45,000 years old, making it the earliest example of sophisticated carving or engraving ever found.

Its purpose remains unknown, but it hints at symbolic thought and early artistic expression. When combined with the stone toolkit and emerging evidence of bone tool use, the graphite disk illustrates a level of technological and cultural complexity wholly unexpected for the Paleolithic period.

The Shiyu discoveries offer a paradigm-shifting view of the deep human past in East Asia. Once thought to be occupied by more primitive populations, the region was in fact home to innovative hunter-gatherer groups with long-distance connections, specialized hunting strategies, and symbolic artistic practices comparable to contemporaries in Europe and Africa.

As new ancient DNA and archaeological data emerge across Asia, we are gaining a far richer appreciation of early human cultural diversity and the complex patterns of migration that shaped our shared ancestry.


Sources

Chinese Academy of Sciences | Yang, SX., Zhang, JF., Yue, JP. et al. Initial Upper Palaeolithic material culture by 45,000 years ago at Shiyu in northern China. Nat Ecol Evol (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41559-023-02294-4


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