Bashan site illustrating Paleolithic human life

By LI GANG / 11-23-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The stratigraphic section of Bashan site Photo: Courtesy of LI GANG

Nestled in Yishui County, Shandong Province, China, the enigmatic Bashan site is situated where the Yi River, originating in the foothills of Mount Lu, converges with the Nuanyang River, before flowing into the fabled Bashan Reservoir. About 300 meters south of the reservoir’s flood discharge gate, rising waters due to flood control in 2020 eroded the east bank, revealing a trove of fossils and leading to the site’s discovery. 

Archaeological discoveries

The majority of the remains discovered in Yishui belong to the early and late Paleolithic periods, with fewer from the early period than the late. Animal fossils found in the same layer indicate that the early Paleolithic remains date back to the late Middle Pleistocene. The microlith site near Zhaike Village is a significant Late Paleolithic Age site in the area, featuring boat-shaped lithic cores that are representative of the Late Paleolithic microlith cores found in Shandong. These findings are pivotal in understanding Late Paleolithic stone tool technology and human migration in the region. Additionally, over 20 Quaternary mammal fossil sites, mainly from the Late Pleistocene fauna of north China, were discovered near the Zhaike site. 

Discovered in the early 1980s, the “Yiyuan ape-man fossils” found in Tumen Town, Yiyuan County, represent the earliest human remains discovered in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. The cave site of these fossils is located approximately 60 kilometers from the Bashan site. Notably, Paleolithic sites, including Bashan, have been unearthed along the Yi River, its tributaries, and in similar accumulation landforms. This pattern suggests sustained and frequent ancient human activities in the upper reaches of the Yi River throughout the Quaternary Period.


Since 2010, researchers from the Shandong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology have been conducting archaeological surveys in the vicinity of the Yi and Shu river basins, discovering more than 30 sites from the late Paleolithic Age and the transitional stage from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic. However, the vast majority of the stone items were surface finds, posing challenges in dating due to the absence of original strata. The discovery of the Bashan site has thus significantly improved the situation.

In August 2020, fossils were exposed as flood water discharge from the Bashan Reservoir resulted in the erosion of the cultural layers. Abundant quartz items were subsequently discovered in the same layer in which fossils had been buried, leading researchers to identify it as a Paleolithic site. The subsequent excavation work unfolded in two stages. 

The first stage, commencing in April 2021, involved excavating a 55-square-meter area, comprising two distinct zones: the north and the south. The accumulation of remains varied between the two zones, with the northern zone encompassing the 1st-8th cultural layers and the southern zone containing the 5th-14th cultural layers. Upon connecting the two areas, the entire stratum reached a depth of nearly 8 meters, yielding stone tools in 14 layers. Over 5,000 cultural relics were unearthed, selected, and collected, including various types of stone items like smashed lithic cores, disc-shaped lithic cores and various stone flakes. The array of tools included stone balls, scrapers, choppers, pointed tools, stone drills, and zigzag tools.

During the excavation of the 13th layer, archaeologists made a significant discovery—a shovel-shaped tool crafted from the incisor of a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), along with a portion of an elephant molar. The shovelhead exhibited a smooth edge and scratch marks on its surface. Additionally, the 13th layer yielded three mandibles and a femur fragment of an elephant, alongside a wealth of quartz items and fossils, including aurochs (Bos primigenius) and red deer (Cervus canadensis). Preliminary dating suggests that the 1st-13th layers of the site date back to a period spanning from 104,000 to 61,000 years ago.

The second excavation stage lasted from April to December 2022, with an area of 50 square meters excavated and cleared to the top of the 14th layer. Over 5,000 pieces of medium and large mammal fossils and stone products were unearthed, revealing a greater diversity of animal species compared to previous findings. In addition to the straight-tusked elephants, woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), aurochs, elk, red deer, and sheep discovered in 2021, fossils of Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), wild boars, small cervids and small mammals were also unearthed. While the types of stone products remained relatively consistent, there was an increase in the proportion of scrapers and choppers, with the discovery of numerous stone hammers as well.

After two years of dedicated excavation, the entire section revealed four distinct sets of accumulations. Layers 1 to 6 constitute the upper accumulations, dating back 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, primarily containing stone products without any animal fossils. The 7th and 8th layers are characterized by gray silty mudstone, transformed by powerful water flow, while the 8th layer yielded a significant number of cultural relics. The 9th to 11th layers exhibit a floodplain nature, with a wealth of stone artifacts and animal fossils also uncovered. The 13th and 14th layers were the oldest, possibly dating back to 100,000 years ago, and contain fossils of large mammals, predominantly including straight-tusked elephants and woolly rhinoceros. 

So far, 7 straight-tusked elephant mandibles and 2 woolly rhinoceros skulls have been discovered. The distribution of the unearthed objects in the 14th layer suggests human activities—daily activities such as stone tool manufacturing and animal processing on the gravel exposed on the river beach. Compared with the exposed upper cultural deposits, the proportion of scrap-like relics was higher in the 14th layer. The heavy abrasion of the stone products indicates that rivers washed the site in the later period, with only a few remnants of the stone products preserved in the gravel crevices.


Since the excavations, over 10,000 cultural relics have been unearthed at the Bashan site, comprising more than 7,000 stone items (predominantly quartz) and over 3,000 animal fossils. The species of unearthed animal fossil are basically consistent with the Salawusu fauna [mammal and bird fossils found at the Salawusu site in the southeast of the Ordos plateau] of the Late Pleistocene. The Bashan site exhibits great academic value and significance, particularly reflected in the following aspects.

The Bashan site stands as the Paleolithic site with the most profound cultural significance in Shandong, characterized by thicker strata and an extended timeframe of ancient human activities. It has yielded a wealth of stone artifacts and animal fossils, shedding light on ancient human behaviors, potentially linked to the use of fire and the butchering of animals.

At the site, the animal fossils represented by straight-tusked elephants and a plethora of stone tools were located in multiple layers, which is extremely rare in north China and even in the entire country. This provides important archaeological material for studying the ancient people’s utilization of sites and their livelihoods during the middle and late Pleistocene. The majority of the stone items found at this site were crafted from quartz, sourced from the abundant quartz veins in the nearby Ba Mountain. The ancient inhabitants strategically positioned their settlement close to rivers and material resources for stone tools, showcasing their remarkable skill in site selection.

The site provides important academic reference to international academic issues. Preliminary dating indicates that the deposits of the site date from 100,000 to 60,000 years ago, with the possibility of the lower cultural layers dating even earlier. Therefore, the dates of the Bashan site yield new evidence for understanding the emergence and development of modern humans in China and East Asia. 

Li Gang is a research librarian from the Shandong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.