Thursday, December 27, 2012

30,000 year old engraved stone found in China intrigues archaeologists

Cognition and symbolic thought are often viewed as important features of modern human behaviour. Engraved objects are seen as hallmarks of this cognition and symbolism and even as evidence for language, indeed they are usually considered as one of the most important features of modern behaviour.

Careful re-analysis of lithic assemblage

During analysis in 2012 of the stone tools that had been unearthed at the Shuidonggou site in 1980, an interesting engraved stone artefact was discovered among the assemblage.

Dr Fei Peng, postdoctoral research fellow at the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the paper in the Chinese Science Bulletin that reported the discovery was amazed at what they found.

“It is the first engraved non-organic artefact from the whole Palaeolithic period in China”, Dr Peng said. However, this discovery was not entirely a lucky coincidence as the team were aware that when analysing materials unearthed from the site during excavations in the 1920s, French archaeologist Henry Breuil observed parallel incisions on the surface of some of the siliceous pebbles.

Unfortunately, he did not provide any further details regarding the incised pebbles he had noticed, so during the lithic analysis the team took great care to be aware of the potential existence of engraved objects.

The artefact in question is made of a siliceous limestone and measures 68 x 36 x 23 mm. One of the cortical faces bears 8 lines, clearly visible to the naked eye and inscribed deeply into the thick cortex. All the incisions are perpendicular to the long axis of the core and while two incisions are crossed the others are roughly parallel.

Prof Xing Gao of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing, co-author of the paper, said:“[the] Shuidonggou site includes 12 localities, ranging in date from Early Late to Late Palaeolithic. The engraved stone artefact was found at Locality 1, which is [dated to] 30,000 years old.”

Examination confirms the discovery

Digital microscopy was used to further examine every incision and 3D images were created to enable examination of the artefact at the minutest level.

After excluding the possibility of natural cracking, animal-induced damage and even unintentional human by-products, it has been concluded that the incisions could only be made by intentional and deliberate behaviour.

Although the function of these incisions is uncertain, the straight shape of each line shows it was incised once over a short time interval without repeated re-cutting, implying the intriguing possibility of counting.

In addition to the engraved stone artefact, a single ostrich egg bead was unearthed from Locality 1. The lithic assemblage of this locality includes blade production and elongated tool blanks. A blade technology that was probably introduced from the Altai region of Russian Siberia, matching comparable lithic assemblages.

Further questions

As it stands, a definitive scenario cannot be provided by the archaeological team, making a requirement for more research into this particular puzzle. This discovery opens up new questions regarding the creators of both the ostrich eggshell beads and the engraved stone. Were they made by the populations who migrated from the west, perhaps from what is now the Altai region, or were they the result of acculturation, where a population in north China learned this technology from an incoming group or individual? Perhaps they were created by the local people themselves as part of a cognitive advancement?

Past Horizons. 2012. “30,000 year old engraved stone found in China intrigues archaeologists”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 5, 2012. Available online:

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