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Probing early presence of hominids at Nihewan

CUI YONGCHAO | 2019-01-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Nihewan Site, which is located in Yangquan County, Zhangjiakou City, in North China’s Hebei Province, has become one of the important regions challenging the theory that considers Africa as the origin of humankind. Photo: FILE


Nihewan is a small village in Yangquan County, Zhangjiakou City, in North China’s Hebei Province. The time-honored Sanggan River runs throughout Yangquan County from west to east, and Nihewan lies by the river. The Nihewan Basin, also known as the Sanggan River Basin, has well-developed quaternary strata. In the Nihewan ruins cluster, an astonishing number of Paleolithic cultural ruins were discovered, including more than 150 ruins in Yangquan County and more than 20 in Yuxian County. And there are large amounts of Early Pleistocene human remains. Since it was discovered in the 1920s, the Nihewan Site has become one of the important regions challenging the theory that considers Africa as the origin of humankind.


Defining Nihewan Beds
In the early 20th century, the French built churches at Nihewan to preach sermons. In 1921, priest Ernest Vincent found some paleontological fossils in the vicinity of his residence and informed priest Emile Licent, a French geologist and paleontologist who was preparing to build the Tianjin Beijiang Museum.

In 1924, George B. Barbour, a professor of geology at Yenching University and lecturer of geology at Columbia University made an on-the-spot investigation into Nihewan and named the quaternary fluvial and lacustrine sedimentation “Nihewan Beds.”

Licent went to Nihewan six times and found a fair number of animal fossils there and in another village called Xiashagou. In 1927, Barbour and Pierre Telhard de Chardin, a priest and doctor of paleontology, made stratified accounts of the Nihewan Beds. They introduced the types of mammalian fossils based on Licent’s fossil discovery.

In 1930, Chardin and Jean Piveteau examined mammalian fossils in the Nihewan Beds in detail and called them “Nihewan Fauna” in the paper “Mammalian Fossils in Nihewan,” when they raised the possibility of human activities in Early Pleistocene at the Nihewan Site.

The studies of Western scholars on fossil mammals and stratigraphy established the scientific value and global status of the Nihewan Beds. The 18th Session of the International Geological Congress in 1948 accepted the Nihewan Beds as one of the early quaternary standard strata in North China. From then onwards, the Nihewan Beds were a proper noun in the international archaeological community.

Through nearly one hundred years of unremitting efforts, Chinese and foreign scientists defined the Nihewan Beds as not only a Lower Pleistocene Series standard stratum, but also a diachronous stratum including the Middle and Upper Pleistocene Series, which can be divided into the Nihewan section of the Lower Pleistocene Series, the Xiaodukou section of the Middle Pleistocene Series and the Xujiayao section of the Upper Pleistocene Series. They made significant progress in quaternary geology, mammalogy, paleoanthropology and Paleolithic archaeology.


Studying hominid activities
In 1963, Wang Zeyi, a researcher from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered the Zhiyu Site in Shuozhou, Shanxi Province, southwest of the Nihewan Basin. In 1965, he found the Hutouliang ruins cluster of the Late Paleolithic Age. That was the first time microliths were discovered in the stratum, clearing the doubt over the existence of a stratum for microliths in East Asia and kicking off research on ancient human activities in Nihewan.

In 1972, the IVPP conducted investigations and excavations of Paleolithic sites from the early to late quaternary Pleistocene. Archaeologists Gai Pei and Wei Qi discovered nine microlith cultural ruins of the Late Paleolithic Age at Hutouliang, a village in Yangquan County.

In 1974, Jia Lanpo and Wei Qi found the Xujiayao Site of the Middle Paleolithic Age and discovered abundant animal fossils and paleoliths, with nine fossils of late homo sapiens unearthed afterwards, preliminarily building the intrinsic relation between Nihewan and the Peking Man culture.

In 1978, You Yuzhu, Tang Yingjun and Li Yu found the Xiaochangliang Site of the Early Paleolithic Age in the Nihewa Beds of the Early Pleistocene. There was a great number of paleoliths and some mammalian fossils. Among others, flake stone tools along with multiple types of scrapers and tipped stoneware with flint as the raw material were most striking.

These archaeological excavations built a temporal and spatial framework of the Early, Middle and Late Paleolithic Age in Nihewan, affirming the possibility of the existence of early human fossils.

Starting from 1983, researchers from Hebei Province, led by Xie Fei, began to participate in and steer investigations, excavations and studies of Paleolithic archaeology in Nihewan. They discovered a great many sites, such as Cenjiawan, Banjingzi, Yujiagou   and Maquangou, substantially enriching the picture of Paleolithic culture in the Nihewan Basin. In particular, the discovery of the Maquangou Site, which is regarded as the most important site for Early Paleolithic culture, dates human activities in Northeast Asia to 2 million years before the present. At the Cenjiawan Site, archaeologists pieced stone artifacts together for the first time, repairing and restoring the damage from the process of stone flaking. On this basis, they built the initial taphonomy as well as models of environment formation and human behavior.

The Nihewan ruins cluster houses the most complete Paleolithic cultural sequence in the world. It has not only the earliest Maquangou Hominid Site in northern China dating to 2 million years before the present, but also the Xujiayao Site of the Late Paleolithic Age where human skulls and many forged spheroids were unearthed, as well as the Yujiagou Site of the Paleolithic-Neolithic transition period where the earliest pottery fragments and many microliths were unearthed in northern China. All of them show the microlithic cultural traditions of northern China, demonstrating high cultural continuity.


Cultural transition and convergence
Archaeological discoveries from Nihewan reconstructed the context for the Peking Man culture. In the 1970s, Jia first put forward the proposition that there were two stone cultural traditions in northern China: the microlithic tradition represented by the Nihewan and Peking Man sites and the macrolithic tradition represented by the Dingcun Site in Shanxi.

The microlithic tradition originated from the Peking Man Site and terminated at the Zhiyu Site. The discoveries of the Xujiayao and Houjiayao sites in Nihewan were dubbed by Jia as a “crucial link between the Peking Man and Zhiyu cultures, as it were, a bridge for the cultural transition.”

In terms of epochal and technical origins, Nihewan is likely the origin of microlithic techniques in northern China. Between the Maquangou Site of 2 million years ago and the Xibaimaying Site of 18,000 years ago, a series of cultural ruins are scattered, such as Xiaochangliang, Dachangliang, Banshan, Donggutuo and Feiliang. Their microlithic cultural features are salient and stable. The Xiaochangliang and Donggutuo sites of the Early Paleolithic Age have the apparent pioneering properties of Peking Man stone artifacts. In particular, the lithic cores of Donggutuo offer evidence for the theory that microliths originated from northern China.

Excavations of the Yujiagou and Ma’anshan sites in the Hutouliang ruins cluster reveal that Nihewan saw ceramics 11,000 years ago and the earliest pottery in northern China, during the transition from the Paleolithic to Neolithic Age. The discovery of pottery of more than 10,000 years old at the Yujiagou Site seems to herald the beginning of animal husbandry and the breeding of the agricultural revolution.

In the Late Paleolithic Age, local refined microlithic crafts and techniques, complete kitchens and numerous fire pits might be directly involved in the origination and development of pottery and agriculture, playing a significant role in the transition from the Paleolithic to Neolithic Age.

Nihewan is regarded as a junction of multiple cultures and a two-way channel for the communication between northern China and the Central Plains. From the Huliu River Valley, a branch of the Sanggan River in Yuxian County on the west side of the Yanshan Mountain, a series of Neolithic relics with their own characteristics were dug out, covering the Hongshan Culture, the Yangshao Culture of the Miaodigou phase and the Yangshao Culture of the Hougang phase. Diverse factors converged there.

The Hongshan Culture originated from western Liaoning Province, the Miaodigou Culture stemmed from the Guanzhong area in Shaanxi Province, and the Hougang Culture from northern Henan and southern Hebei. The three archaeological cultures converged and exchanged at Nihewan.

The discovery of a jade pig-like dragon in the Late Neolithic Age tombs in Jiangjialiang in Yangquan County evidenced the coexistence of the three archaeological cultures. The fusion of the cultures might indicate a fledgling stage dating 5,000 years before the present.


Cui Yongchao is from the Cultural Relics Research Center of Hebei Province.

​(edited by CHEN MIRONG)