Humans Were Using Complex Tools and Ochre in Asia 40,000 Years Ago

According to recent archaeological finds, ancient hunter-gatherers living in what is now China may have been the first humans in Eastern Asia to process ochre and employ complicated tools. The unearthed artifacts, according to experts who published their findings in the journal Nature, reveal new insights into how human culture and technology spread around the world as Homo sapiens populations migrated out of Africa.

The discovery originated from China’s Nihewan Basin’s Xiamabei archaeological site, which is known for its rich paleolithic legacy. Researchers discovered multiple fragments of ochre with varied mineral compositions inside a strip of silt dated between 39,000 and 41,000 years old, indicating that the natural pigment may have been transported to the site for processing.

“Although the purpose of such an activity cannot be determined (for example, the production of paint for coloring objects or decorating bodies, tanning of hides, or the 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 where tasks were performed,” the researchers write. “The usage of this substance was part of the behavioral repertoire of regional inhabitants by around 40 ka [40,000 years ago], according to this study area, which marks the oldest known case of ochre processing in Eastern Asia.”

They also identified 382 implements that were far more complicated than those reported at any of the nearby sites. These versatile tools were made utilizing two separate knapping procedures and are characterized as “miniaturized,” with almost half measuring less than 20 millimeters (0.8 inches). Many were also hafted to handles, and residues found on these tools imply they were used for drilling, whittling, chopping animal flesh, and scraping animal skins, according to an investigation of residues found on these tools.

“An original character is given to the Xiamabei assemblage by such a technological system, which has not been detected at earlier and penecontemporaneous sites,” the researchers note. “The capacity of hominins to exist in northern latitudes, with frigid and highly seasonal settings, was likely helped by the evolution of culture in the form of economic, social, and symbolic adaptations,” research author Dr Shixia Yang said in a statement.

“The Xiamabei discoveries are assisting us in better understanding these adaptations and their possible involvement in human migration.” Despite the absence of real hominin remains at Xiamabei, the discovery of Homo sapiens fossils at surrounding sites led the authors to believe that Homo sapiens was responsible for these advancements.

They explain in their paper that modern humans are thought to have arrived in the area approximately 40,000 years ago, however the nature of their contacts with other indigenous hominins like Neanderthals and Denisovans is unknown. Existing evolutionary models suggest that Homo sapiens expanded over Eurasia in a single wave, but the research authors believe that in light of their findings, this explanation now appears unduly simple. 

The fact that the people of Xiamabei had some technological and cultural traditions but not others – such as formal bone tools and ornaments – “may reflect a first colonization by modern humans, possibly involving cultural and genetic mixing with local Denisovans, and possibly replaced by a later second arrival,” according to the researchers.

As a result, they hypothesize that modern humans invaded the region in a “mosaic pattern,” with a patchy distribution of innovations across the region and unequal survival of local cultures and technology. “A spread of innovation associated with a single, rapid expansion of H. sapiens populations across Eurasia fits better with current biological and cultural evidence than one that envisions a spread of innovation associated with a single, rapid expansion of H. sapiens populations across Eurasia,” they conclude.