China’s missing Stone Age technique found

New research challenges the conventional wisdom that a key stage in the evolution of stone tools in China relied on imports from the West.

An international team led by archaeologist Bo Li from the University of Wollongong in Australia has dated artefacts found in a cave in south-west China to around 170,000 to 80,000 years ago, contemporary to the use of Levallois or Mode III technologies in Europe and Africa.

Previous evidence suggests that China jumped directly from the primitive Mode II to the much more advanced Mode IV, which could only have happened through migration. But if Mode III did exist, then technical evolution is a possible answer.

Li and colleagues analysed 2273 artefacts previously unearthed from Guanyindong Cave in Guizhou Province. They found 45 (four tools, 11 cores and 30 flakes) that were representative of Levallois-style “knapping”, or chipping, then used optical simulated luminescence to date them to the relevant period.  

“To our knowledge, this is the earliest evidence of Levallois technology in east Asia,” they write in a paper published in Nature. “Our findings thus challenge the existing model of the origin and spread of Levallois technologies in east Asia and its links to a Late Pleistocene dispersal of modern humans.”

The paper describes Mode II (Acheulian) stone tools as two-faced hand-axes made primarily by hammering away flakes from stones to leave behind a deliberately shaped core, whereas Levallois tools were made of single flakes struck from previously prepared cores.

Mode IV (Aurignacian) tools, which arrived around 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, were bladed.

The whole question of classifying stone tools is far from clear cut. The five-mode evolutionary framework was developed by British archaeologist Graeme Clark in 1969 and widely adopted

However, in 2012 a nine-mode (A-I) alternative was proposed by US archaeologist John Shea, who suggested that over time problems had been found with Clarke’s model.

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