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The Oldest Chinese Bone Acheulean Handaxe Has Been Found

The municipality of Chongqing, southwestern China appears to have been a very active area archaeological and zoologically, during the Pleistocene.

Of the many sites, one has revealed a new exciting piece in the puzzle of the archaeology of Pleistocene China. At over 500 metres above sea level, the Triassic Rock quarry contained the remains of ancient fauna from the Pleistocene from Tapirus sinensis (tapirs), to Rhinoceros sinensis (rhinos) to Stegodon orientalis (elephants). Among these fossil remains was a S. orientalis lower jaw which is the focus of the latest announcement from the Quarry on the outskirts of Huangma Village.

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The site was dated using the Uranium-Series. What follows is a simplified summary of the dating technique. Elements within the Uranium-Series have to decay/reach a stable state. They are radioactive. Uranium-234 will morph into Thorium-230, after releasing energy. You can calculate how much of the element has decayed by noting the half-life of an element in question. So, it takes 245,000 years for half of Uranium-234 to decay into Thorium-230.

Diorama of a Homo erectus group performing various tasks such as carcass processing and setting up a camp fire – Credit Wiki Commons
Diorama of a Homo erectus group performing various tasks such as carcass processing and setting up a camp fire – Credit Wiki Commons

There are assumptions involved in the analysis, despite this, it remains a reasonably useful method to date Pleistocene deposits. In 2010, a fossil sample from Huangma Quarry was sent to the Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory at the University of Queensland, Australia and provided an age for the fossil remains of between 167,000 to 171,000 years of ago. So what is so amazing about this fossil mandible? Well some genius (of a group of Homo erectus?) decided to turn it into a tool, a Handaxe. The team of scientists who discovered the tool back in 2002, decided to classify this object as a Handaxe, based upon the criteria given by Xing Gao in a paper he published in 2012. That criteria is as follows:

1. Retouched/ Flaked on both sides (Bifacially)
2. Shape needs to symmetrical both on the face and from the side
3. The point needs to be narrow/ thin, base needs to be wide/thick

It was however the criteria for a subcategory of handaxe – the Proto-Handaxe – that best described this object. The criteria was slightly different to the above, such as a more pick-like form and short/deep retouch. The team were under no illusions, however that the Huangma bone handaxe is consistent with the classic Acheulean handaxe morphology. It diverges in form from the classic Acheulean morphology.

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Italy currently holds the earliest bone object that was fashioned into a handaxe. At just under half a million years old, the Fontana Ranuccio Handaxe surprises, given that the expectation is for Africa to hold the earliest well-defined deliberately crafted tool. Not so.

A Cave at the famed Zhoukoudien Site China – Credit: Wiki Commons
A Cave at the famed Zhoukoudien Site China – Credit: Wiki Commons

The earliest example on the African continent is a mere 70,000 years old. Europe continues to produce the goods with another bone handaxe from Bilsingsleben, Germany at 370,000 years old. The paucity of bone as a raw material for tools in the Pleistocene speaks to the inefficiency at cutting, especially during carcass processing. Nothing can beat stone, especially obsidian and flint to get a task done.

Why do we find these objects in the archaeological record at all? Here we are engaging in hypotheticals such as improvisation, to experimentation of bone as a raw material. The team suggest that this tool’s existence represents an adaptive response to the subtropical climate.

The Huangma and Renzidong handaxes were both extracted from the mandibles of S. orientalis (elephant), which is more durable and because the handaxes were carved out of a mandible and not leg bones like those of Europe and Africa, there was more raw material to craft a proper handaxe. Elephants were the most dominant megafauna on the Chinese subcontinent, found in all assemblages, in every site. Hebei, northern China demonstrates a predator-prey relationship existed for at least the last one and a half million years between humans and elephants.

Finally, the fauna of the cave at Huangma suggests the climate of MIS 6 was very wet and cold indeed requiring the shelter of caves like Huangma. There is little or no evidence, hominins were using caves during interstadials (we are in one now), but when the stadials develop, caves become invaluable places to shelter.

Written by Charles T. G. Clarke

Header Image : The Original Handaxe of Saint Acheul, Somme, France – Credit: Wiki Commons

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Charles t. g. Clarke
Charles t. g. Clarke
Charles hails from Longford in the midlands of Ireland. From an early age, he developed an interest in general knowledge which morphed into Archaeology. He graduated with a B.Sc. In Applied Archaeology at the Institute of Technology Sligo, in 2011. His dissertation involved a class of Neolithic monument called an earthen embanked enclosure - the Irish equivalent of a henge. One module - World Archaeology - would determine his future however. After being introduced to Australopithecines, he was hooked ever since. In 2012, he graduated with an M.Sc. In Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology and Department of Anthropology. His masters dissertation focused upon specie-level signatures of mandibular 2nd molars around 2 million years of age. Now out of academia, he hopes to return and pursue a PhD. He maintains the Cennathis Youtube Channel, Blog, Podcast, Twitter and Facebook pages. He currently lives in the city of London, UK.
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