Bashan site

By REN ZHIYU / 11-23-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An aerial view of the Bashan site Photo: Courtesy of LI GANG

In July 2020, due to heavy and frequent rainfall, the Bashan Reservoir at Yishui, Shandong Province, was forced to discharge flood waters. When inspecting the reservoir, local villagers stumbled upon a large stone resembling a fossil on the riverbank. Sensing its unusual nature, they promptly contacted the local authority responsible for cultural relics protection. Following the confirmation of its significance as a Paleolithic site, the Shandong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology began excavations, ultimately revealing the remarkable Bashan site.

“With further excavation of the Bashan site, the origins of modern humans in East Asia may be rewritten,” said Sun Bo, director of the Shandong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. The Bashan site was of the Middle Paleolithic Age, specifically dated to 60,000-100,000 years ago, which conflicts with an international view that “modern humans didn’t spread from Africa to Eurasia until 60,000 years ago.” According to a report from the National Cultural Heritage Administration, the Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating data from the Bashan site shows that the middle and upper layers of the site date back to between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, with the lower layers likely even earlier. 

The site has yielded a wealth of bone products. OSL dating reveals that the ivory shovel and soil samples from the same layer date back to 99,000 and 104,000 years ago, respectively. This discovery represents perhaps the earliest evidence of bone tools processed by grinding found in China to date. Prior to the excavation of the Bashan site, only a few bone tools had been unearthed in China, dating back to as early as 35,000 years ago. The practice of carving tools from bones is internationally recognized as a hallmark of modern human behavior. The site provides compelling evidence that modern humans inhabited present-day Shandong during the Middle Paleolithic Age. This discovery has the potential to reshape our understanding of the origins of modern humans in East Asia.

The extensive layers and extended timeframe of the cultural relics suggest that the Bashan site was utilized and inhabited repeatedly over a significant period. The unearthing of this site has effectively bridged a gap in Paleolithic archaeology in Shandong and northern China.