Saturday, 16 November 2019

Lithic technologies at the onset of the Neolithic in the Lesser Khingan Mountains of Northeast China.

The long-term and historically contingent transition from Palaeolithic to Neolithic lifestyles, or Neolithisation, has long been a key issue in archaeological studies, and remains the subject of ongoing debate. The emergence of pottery is often used to define the beginning of the Neolithic period, especially in Russia and Japan. In China, the pre-Holocene material culture associated with early pottery is often attributed to the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period although it is also sometimes described as late Upper Palaeolithic. In recent decades, studies of the Neolithisation process in China, Russia and Japan have begun to give greater attention to the importance of establishing more secure chronologies and to the climatic and environmental context of these changes. 

In a paper published in the journal Antiquity on 15 July 2019, Jian-Ping Yue of the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins at the  Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment, and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, You-Qian Li of the Heilongjiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and Shi-Xia Yang, also of the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins at the  Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment, and of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, describe the results of excavations at two sites in the Lesser Khingan Mountains of Northeastern China, and the implications of these findings for our understanding of Neolithisation in East Asia.

Northeast China sits between the Korean Peninsula, the Russian Far East, north China and Hokkaido Island. Covering several geological areas, including the Khingan Mountains, Changbaishan Mountains, the Song-Nen Plain, the Sanjiang Plain and the Liaohe Plain, north-east China is separated from north China by the Great Wall. Previous research on this region and its abundant palaeoenvironmental evidence has revealed climatic and environmental changes in the terminal Late Pleistocene. Thus, the region offers an ideal context in which to study the adaptive behaviours of hunter-gatherers and the Neolithisation process. The Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period industries of north-east China, however, are relatively poorly understood, due to a lack of intensive archaeological survey and excavation in the region. In recent years, this picture has gradually improved as archaeological materials have been identified in stratified, datable contexts, such as at the sites of Houtaomuga and Taoshan.

Over the last decade in the southern Lesser Khingan Mountains of north-east China, archaeologists from the Heilongjiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology have conducted a series of archaeological surveys in advance of local highway reconstruction projects. This work identified several archaeological sites with associated Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period  assemblages, leading to formal excavations at Huayang and Taoshan. Yue et al. present reports on these two sites, with a particular focus on the lithic assemblages that extend across the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period boundary. Both sites are stratified and securely dated, and contain cultural remains dating from roughly 18 000 to 5000 years ago (16 000 to 3000 BC). Together, the sites offer a comprehensive view of the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period lithic industry, allowing an assessment of long-term human behaviour in this region. Yue et al. present these results in relation to the regional archaeological evidence and the context of pre-Holocene climatic and environmental changes in Northeastern Asia.

Topographic map of north-east China showing the excavation areas of the Huayang and Taoshan sites. Yue et al. (2019).

The Huayang site is situated in at approximately 180 m above sealevel and 20m above the local river, on the second terrace of the Tangwanghe River. Discovered in 2011, the site was excavated the following year as a salvage archaeology project under the direction of You-Qian Li. Three excavation areas and many test pits were opened, covering almost 1000 m² of the site, which itself is estimated to cover more than 70 000 m². The main excavation area covers around 560 m², divided into 24 squares labelled from A–V. In addition, another square (MK) was opened as an extension of square M, in response to the discovery of a high-density distribution of lithic artefacts.

Photograph showing the excavation area of the Huayang site. Yue et al. (2019).

In addition to the modern plough soil, three prehistoric cultural layers were identified, labelled CL1, CL2 and CL3. Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon measurements date CL1 to 5992–5916 before the present, CL2 to 14 355–14 025 before the present and CL3 to 18 614–17 885 before the present. The Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period cultural layer (CL2) yielded a few pottery sherds and a significant number of lithic artefacts (25 090), the latter forming the principal lithic assemblage of the site.

The Taoshan site is also located in  on the southern slope of the Taoshan Mountains, approximately 500m from the Hulan River. The site is 241 m above sealevel and approximately 21 m above the local river. Taoshan was discovered in 2011 and excavated in 2013–2014. A total of 36 m² was uncovered, yielding 2908 stone artefacts, 71 pottery shards and five bead fragments made from amazonite. Three prehistoric layers were identified and accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dated. From top to bottom, layer 2 dates to 5588–5051 before the present, layer 3 dates to 15 172–14 044 before the present and layer 4 dates to 19 156–16 557 before the present. Layer 3 corresponds with the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period and yielded 2281 lithic artefacts and 12 pottery shards.

Photograph showing the excavation area of the Taoshan site. Yue et al. (2019).

Analysis of the lithic assemblage from Huayang includes tools, blades, microblades and related fragments of all sizes. Due to the large quantity of debitage, lithics smaller than 10 mm (of which there were 6613) were excluded from the analysis. The material examined therefore comprises 18 477 artefacts larger than 10 mm from CL2. A techno-typological approach was used to develop an understanding of lithic raw material procurement and exploitation, blank manufacture and tool production at the site.

Rhyolites, comprising predominantly banded rhyolite and felsite, serve as the primary raw material at Huayang, accounting for 90.25 per cent of the lithic assemblage. Shale, dacite and tuff were also procured in relatively large quantities. Other raw materials, such as agate, chert, sandstone and andalusite-hornfels, are present in small amounts. A geological survey of the site and surroundings and a follow-up petrological study were undertaken to document procurement sources. The results suggest that all the lithic raw materials at Huayang were available in close proximity (within 5 km) of the site.

Several methods of debitage production were found at the Huayang site. These can be classified largely into debitage from core-flake, bladelet and microblade production. The presence of predetermined products, such as blades and microblades, informs of the processes that produced the debitage. Although bipolar reduction was occasionally applied for agate and crystal exploitation at the site, it is relatively scarce.

Core-flake reduction is particularly prominent at Huayang and is represented by cores, core fragments, flakes and flake fragments. Rhyolite, chert, dacite and a few other materials were procured. Pebbles, cobbles and blocks were preferentially selected for blanks, as well as some thick flakes. Most of the cores exhibit a simple debitage process, with one or two platforms present. Only two truncated-facetted pieces have been identified; these are flakes that exhibit a truncation face, which serves as a platform for the removal of one or more small flakes.

Cores from the Huayang site. Yue et al. (2019).

Bladelet production is well represented at the site. The bladelet cores can be divided into two main types: prismatic and narrow-faced. These cores appear to have been made exclusively on felsite blocks, and most exhibit a partially retained natural surface. The debitage indicates that full advantage was taken of blank morphology. The debitage surface was usually not elaborately prepared, and the initial blade extraction followed the natural convexities of the core. Preparation of the platform prior to blade removal was common. Indirect percussion was used for bladelet removal.

Microblade debitage is present, although the number of microblades is small. The microblade cores, represented by two pieces, are bifacially shaped, exhibiting a wedge-like morphology. Microblades were detached from the elaborately prepared platform along one end of the core.

Bladelet and microblade cores from the Huayang site: (a)–(e) bladelet core; (f)–(g) microblade core. Yue et al. (2019).

The toolkit at Huayang includes a great diversity of tool types and technical features. The most frequently represented tools are bifacial points, with 138 complete and broken pieces identified. Approximately 91.3% of the bifacial points are broken and some can be conjoined. Banded rhyolite is the most frequently used raw material (94.93%). Themorphology of the points shows a high degree of standardisation, characterised by a pointed or elliptical base, and a V-shaped point with straight or slightly curved sides. Initially, the blanks were made by hard-hammer percussion, and subsequently retouched using a soft hammer.

Stone tools from the Huayang site: (a)–(b) arrowhead; (c) point on bladelet; (d) borer; (e)–(f) convex scraper; (g) bifacial point; (h) backed scraper. Dark red scale bars are 10mm. Yue et al. (2019).

Scrapers are represented by 44 pieces, most of which have one cutting edge, with some showing continuous and elaborate retouch. Arrowheads (5) are small with an average maximum length of 25.57 mm. These pieces are partially bifacially retouched by softhammer percussion and pressure flaking. A small quantity of additional implements, such as notches, points, denticulates, choppers and awls, were also retrieved. Overall, most of the aforementioned formal tools selected flakes as blanks; only three pieces were manufactured on bladelets. Rhyolite dominates the assemblage, along with some chert, dacite and tuff.

Some Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period tools, including axes, adzes and chisels, have also been identified at Huayang. These pieces are made on tuffaceous sandstone, quartzite and diorite, reflecting different raw material preferences and exploitation strategies. Some pieces, particularly the stone chisels, also show evidence of grinding, which is further attested by the presence of two grinding stones. Tabular cobbles in sandstone and quartzite sandstone were selected as grinding stones and show clear traces of ground-stone tool production.

Grinding stones (a)–(b) and ground-stone chisels (c)–(d) from the Huayang site. Yue et al. (2019).

The Taoshan lithic assemblage is dominated by crystal tuff, with lesser amounts of rhyolite and andalusite-hornfels. Other raw material types (e.g. chert, quartz sandstone and agate) are present in smaller quantities. Field survey and statistical analysis of the presence of cortex indicate that almost all the raw materials were taken from the local riverbed.

Flakes and flake fragments constitute the dominant artefact type at Taoshan, while cores of flake debitage are represented by only two pieces, showing a simple debitage method without preparation. Yue et al. therefore suggest that most of the flakes result from the shaping out of microcores—the primary activity at the site.

Lithic artefacts from the Taoshan site: (a)–(b) flake core; (c)–(f) microblade core; g) broken bifacial point; (h) adze; (i) axe. Yue et al. (2019).

Microblade debitage is well represented by six wedge-shaped microblade cores and a series of characteristic debitage products. The blanks are on cobbles or flakes and were shaped using bifacial percussion. The platform was formed with successive transverse preparation and subsequent removal of longitudinal spalls. Microblades were detached by pressure flaking, following the removal of the crested blade, the first bladelet that displays negatives of the bifacial shaping of the core.

Although the Taoshan assemblage contains a relatively small quantity of formal tools, various types have been identified and demonstrate similarities with those of Huayang. Along with some retouched pieces, such as scrapers, denticulates, end-scrapers and notches, relatively large-sized domestic tools, including adzes and axes, have been identified. These pieces were made on cobbles in tuff and andalusite-hornfels, and achieved morphological standardisation through progressive shaping, although they show no evidence of grinding. A single broken bifacial point was also recovered from Taoshan.

The sites of Huayang and Taoshan are located in the southern Lesser Khingan Mountains, approximately 100 km from each other, and are almost contemporaneous, with assemblages exhibiting clear technological similarities. In terms of raw material procurement, igneous rocks were preferentially selected, followed by shale, chert, agate and andalusite-hornfels. All raw materials were obtained from local primary or secondary sources and show clear procurement management strategies. Banded rhyolite, for example, was primarily procured for bifacial point production, while felsite was mainly used for bladelets at Huayang. Several reduction sequences were used at both sites. Flake debitage demonstrates a predominantly simple reduction method, with little evidence for elaborate core preparation. Microblade debitage is characteristic of the bifacial shaping-out of wedge-shaped microblade cores. The toolkits of these two sites are also similar in the types of tool represented and in the evidence for the addition of new forms, including adzes, axes and chisels. There is also a notable presence of early pottery at both sites.

Nonetheless, there are some distinctions in blank debitage and tool production between the two sites. Bladelets and bifacial points, for example, constitute significant components of the Huayang Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period assemblage, while at Taoshan the lithic industry is characterised by microblade technology, with no evidence of bladelets and only a single bifacial point. What, then, might explain the differences between the two assemblages? At other contemporaneous sites in north-east China, blade and microblade items serve as common features of the regional Late Pleistocene lithic industries. Yue et al. note that at the Huayang site, cores and tools of different raw material types, selected for their particular knapping qualities, are found in distinct parts of the excavation area. Felsite, for example, which was used predominantly for bladelet and core-flake production, is concentrated in the southern area, while banded rhyolite, which was used mainly for bifacial point production, concentrates in the western part. Regardless of the small excavation area at Taoshan, it is reasonable to deduce that an uneven spatial distribution of lithic artefacts could explain the lack of blade and bifacial points found at the site. In sum, the lithic assemblages of Huayang and Taoshan site can be clustered into the same techno-complex, which collectively represent the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period lithic industries in the southern Lesser Khingan Mountains.

The Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period lithic evidence from Huayang and Taoshan demonstrates important technological innovations and developments of the earlier lithic industry, especially the production of adzes, axes and chisels and the initial application of grinding techniques. On the basis of a systematic analysis of the lithic raw materials of Taoshan it has been suggested that a decrease in population mobility was concurrent with greater exploitation of more local raw materials.

In addition to changes in tool types and mobility patterns, a transformation in subsistence strategies is also evidenced by the presence of early pottery in the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period cultural layers at Huayang and Taoshan. Sherds of sand-tempered vessels fired at low temperatures were recovered from both sites. The development of ceramic containers is suggested to have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with new strategies for storing, processing and consuming foodstuffs. Isotopic analysis of charred residues on the early pottery sherds (dated to 13 000 to 11 000 before the present) from the Houtaomuga site on the Song-Nen Plain of north-east China suggests that freshwater fish may have been a major component of the local diet.

Similar changes in technology and subsistence have also been identified in adjacent regions of North-eastern Asia, particularly the Russian Far East and Hokkaido. Early pottery has been widely reported in the Russian Far East, particularly from the Oshipovka Culture layers along the lower Amur River, at such sites as Gasya, Khummi, Goncharka 1, Novotroitskoe 10 and Oshinovaya-rechika 16. Together, these sites suggest a use-life ranging from 14 000 to 12 000 before the present. The earliest pottery on Hokkaido is reported from the Taisho 3 site, is associated with projectile points, burins and axes, and dates from 15 030 to 13 570 years ago. New technological innovations, including stemmed points and axes, also developed contemporaneously in both Hokkaido and the Russian Far East, and are accompanied by the miniaturisation of microblades and a higher frequency in burin (stone tools with chisel points) maintenance. Although local lithic raw materials replaced non-local materials, tool type and inter-site assemblage variability increased.

A combined focus on climatic conditions and cultural developments highlights the important role of environmental changes in the course of the Neolithisation of this region. North-eastern Asia is located on the northern boundary of the modern Asian monsoonal systemand is highly sensitive to rapid changes in climate. A series of high-resolution palaeoclimatic records clearly characterise the vegetation history and climatic variability during the terminal Late Pleistocene, which includes prominent climatic phases, such as the Last Glacial Maximum, the Bølling-Allerød warm phase and the Younger Dryas cold event. Pollen analysis of samples from Taoshan also reveals substantial change in vegetation from a steppe environment, during the layer 4 period (Last Glacial Maximum), to dense forest in layer 3. This change is attributed to increasing precipitation and rising temperature concurrent with the start of the Bølling-Allerød warm phase.

During the Late Glacial phase (15 000 to 11 700 years before present), climatic and environmental conditions changed significantly, which led to an improvement in landscape productivity and a noticeable alteration in plant and animal resources. The population density seems to have increased, as attested by the higher number of archaeological sites and larger amounts of intrasite material remains in the area. Thus, the imbalance between population and available resources could have accelerated over time. All of these factors probably contributed directly to the Neolithisation process, as they enabled local populations to develop new, innovative subsistence strategies and behaviours. During this period, the mobility of prehistoric populations tended to decrease while exploitation of locally available resources, not only faunal and floral resources but also lithic raw materials, intensified. Several technologies indicative of resource intensification (e.g. pottery, axes and adzes) appeared in North-eastern Asia, signalling the beginning of a new period: the Neolithic.

Here, we have focused on the Palaeolithic-to-Neolithic transition period lithic assemblages from the Huayang and Taoshan sites in the southern Lesser Khingan Mountains of northeast China. Analysis of the assemblages in combination with contemporaneous material from adjacent regions, particularly the Russian Far East and Hokkaido Island, demonstrates both a uniformity of the trajectory of the Neolithisation process in North-eastern Asia and a close connection with environmental shifts during the Late Glacial phase. These analyses enrich our understanding of the nature, course and geographic extent of Neolithisation in both north-east China and Northeastern Asia more widely, and facilitate comparative study with neighbouring regions, such as north China, where the Neolithisation process followed a different trajectory.

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