A 40,000-year-old archaeological site in northern China has unearthed the earliest evidence of ocher processing in East Asia, researchers say.
The site was discovered in Xiamabei in the Nihewan Basin in Hebei Province, northern China.
Ocher pieces and tools found in the area suggest that the clay earth pigment was processed there, by grinding and pounding, to produce powders of various colors and grain sizes.
Near the ocher blocks, archaeologists unearthed a hammered stone as well as a flat slab of limestone that showed signs of beatings.
In a study published in the journal Nature, the team dated the artifacts to between 39,000 and 41,000 years old.
Professor Michael Petraglia of Griffith University, co-author of the study, said the site was unlike anything discovered in East Asia. “This site doesn’t match anything we know,” he said. “It has unique cultural characteristics.”
The site also contained 382 stone tool artefacts, mostly chert and quartz. Petraglia said the artifacts appear to have been created by hitting shards on small pebbles, resulting in blade-like tools. They predate the technology of microliths – specialized stone blades found in northern China, Russia and Japan – by 10,000 years.
Researchers believe the site was most likely inhabited by Homo sapiensbut do not exclude the possibility of occupation by other hominids such as Denisovans or Neanderthals.
“There could have been a lot of interbreeding, and so we’re dealing with populations that are both biologically and culturally different 40,000 years ago,” Petraglia said.
Ocher has already been found in sites associated with Homo sapiens in Africa. A 100,000-year-old processing workshop was discovered in a cave in South Africa in 2008.
“Our species seems to be very interested in this material,” Petraglia said. The researchers believe that the ocher could have been used for symbolic purposes, as body adornment, or as a binder in adhesives.
Petraglia described the discovery of Xiamabei as “a potential sign of a migratory event of our species”.
Evidence has already suggested that modern humans first migrated from Africa to Eurasia around 60,000 years ago. However, a discovery of human remains in southern China, dated to between 80,000 and 120,000 years old, has recently sparked debate over this timeline.
The discovery of Xiamabei adds to the archaeological significance of the Nihewan Basin. Archaeologists and paleontologists can study rock layers here dating from today to almost 200 million years ago.
“It’s a very unique place in Asia,” Petraglia said. “We identified, in a sense, a new culture coming out of it.”