Describing their discovery in the journal Nature, researchers say that the recovered artifacts provide new insights into how human culture and technology spread across the globe as Homo sapiens populations expanded out of Africa.
The findings came from the Xiamabei archaeological site in China’s Nihewan Basin, renowned for its rich paleolithic heritage. Within a band of sediment dated between 39,000 and 41,000 years old, researchers found several pieces of ochre with different mineral compositions, indicating that the natural pigment may have been brought to the site for processing.
“Although the purpose of such an activity cannot be established (for example, the production of paint for coloring objects or decorating bodies, tanning of hides or use of ochre as a loading agent for adhesives), the quantity of ochre powder produced was large enough for the leftover material to permanently impregnate the sediment of the area on which tasks took place,” write the researchers.
“This work area, which represents the earliest known instance of ochre processing in Eastern Asia, indicates that the use of this material was part of the behavioral repertoire of regional populations by about 40?ka [40,000 years ago].”
They also discovered 382 tools significantly more complex than those found at any neighboring site. Produced using two different knapping techniques, these multipurpose implements are described as being “miniaturized,” with over half measuring less than 20 millimeters (0.8 inches).
Many were also hafted onto handles, and an analysis of residues found on these tools suggests that they were used for boring, whittling, cutting animals' flesh, and scraping animal hides.
“Such a technical system, not identified at older and penecontemporaneous sites, gives the Xiamabei assemblage an original character,” explain the researchers.
Commenting on the significance of these findings, study author Dr Shixia Yang explained in a statement that “the ability of hominins to live in northern latitudes, with cold and highly seasonal environments, was likely facilitated by the evolution of culture in the form of economic, social and symbolic adaptations.”
“The finds at Xiamabei are helping us to understand these adaptations and their potential role in human migration.”
Despite the fact that no actual hominin remains were found at Xiamabei, the presence of Homo sapiens fossils at nearby sites leads the authors to conclude that these innovations were the work of Homo sapiens.
In their write-up, they explain that modern humans are believed to have arrived in the region around 40,000 years ago, although the nature of their interactions with other local hominins – such as Neanderthals and Denisovans – remains a mystery.
Existing evolutionary models imply that Homo sapiens rapidly spread across Eurasia in a single wave, although the study authors say that this theory now seems overly simplistic in light of their findings. For instance, the fact that the inhabitants of Xiamabei possessed certain technological and cultural traditions but lacked others – such as formal bone tools and ornaments – “may reflect a first colonization by modern humans, potentially involving cultural and genetic mixing with local Denisovans, and perhaps replaced by a later second arrival.”
Therefore, they speculate that modern humans may have colonized the area in a “mosaic pattern,” characterized by a patchy spread of innovations across the region and the uneven survival of local cultures and technologies.
“This more complex evolutionary scenario fits better with current biological and cultural evidence compared with one that envisions a spread of innovation associated with a single, rapid expansion of H. sapiens populations across Eurasia,” they conclude.