Model for Banpo, a Neolithic (or New Stone Age) village dating to about 4,000 BCE. The villagers of Banpo, despite their more advanced stage of civilization, still used many of the tools conceived during the Paleolithic era. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

China’s Paleolithic era, also known as the foraging era, started about 2 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. The large span of this era can be divided into the Lower, Middle, and Upper periods, each generally correlating with significant change in human evolution. As time went on, human-made tools became more sophisticated and human population also increased.

The Paleolithic, literally the “Old Stone Age” (also known as the foraging era), is a prehistoric era characterized by the use of percussion stone tools by humans. In geological terms this period falls within the Pleistocene period, which began some 3 to 2 million years ago. Archaeological materials suggest that China’s foraging era started some 2 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. It was followed by the Neolithic era, or the New Stone Age.

More than 200 foraging-era sites have been excavated in twenty-seven provinces and autonomous regions in China. These sites can be divided into the Lower, Middle, and upper foraging-era cultures, each correlating with the evolution of humans in general: Homo erectus (upright man), Homo sapiens (knowing man), and Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans). In the world context, the earliest hominids emerged in Africa 7 to 6 million years ago, while the earliest Homo was Homo habilis (skillful person), whose fossils were found only in Africa. Slightly later Homo erectus appeared in East Africa. Their fossils were discovered in Asia as well. The fossils of Homo erectus are the oldest human fossils discovered beyond Africa.

The Lower Foraging Era

Most of the lower foraging-era human fossils and cultural layers were found above ground. It is difficult, however, to determine whether stone objects from some early Pleistocene sites were human made or natural.

Dated to 2.4 to 2 million years ago, the Renzidong Cave in Anhui Province is the oldest foraging-era site found in China, if the stone objects from this site are indeed human-made tools. The site of the Xihoudu culture in Shanxi dates to about 1.8 millions years ago, on a paleomagnetic analysis. Unfortunately, the Xihoudu relics suffered from severe erosion, which blurred possible traces of human processing of the stone objects. Another famous site, Shangnabang, Yuanmou, Yunnan, was initially dated as 1.7 millions years old, according to paleomagnetic evidence. A few scholars have recently reexamined the paleomagnetic evidence and identified the age of two human incisors from Yuanmou to be 600,000–500,000 years old. During the lower foraging era, people either settled in certain areas for an extended amount of time or stayed temporarily in one place. A close examination of the animal bones illustrates their hunting and scavenging methods. Stone tools were used to cut animal meat; sometimes the broken animal limbs suggest that marrow was dipped out of these bones. Fire was probably used as well because the Shangnabang and Xihoudu sites yielded ashes, although natural, rather than human, fire could have left the ashes.

China’s lower foraging era can be further divided into at least three cultural zones. Zone 1 includes the Xihoudu and Qiahe cultures in Shanxi and the Lantian culture in Shaanxi. These cultures were distributed mainly throughout southern Shanxi, eastern Shaanxi, and western Henan. Although large, stone tools manufactured in Zone 1 are rather simple. Many of these tools are choppers. In particular a mandible (lower cheek bone) from a pithecanthropoid (a hypothetical species thought to be intermediate between humans and the anthropoid apes) found near the village of Chenjiawo in Lantian, Shaanxi, dates to about 650,000 years ago. In 1964 a human skull was discovered in Gongzhuling of the same county. Paleomagnetic analysis indicates that the Gongzhuling fossil is 1.15 to 1.1 million years old. Both fossils were probably from remains of females.

Zone 2 covers northern Hebei, northern Shanxi, and southeastern Liaoning and is marked with cave sites. Many of the stone tools from Zone 2 are small. The main types are scrapers. In Zone 2, Zhoukoudian Locality 1 is the most renowned of all foraging-era sites in China. Its occupants were collectively called Peking Man. Located 48 kilometers southwest of modern-day Beijing, the site was first discovered in 1921. Excavation of the site began in 1927. Before 1941 five nearly complete crania were found at the Zhoukoudian cave site. Unfortunately, these fossils mysteriously disappeared in 1941. Since 1950, a few teeth, a skullcap, a mandible, and several long bones of human fossils have been discovered at Zhoukoudian. Taken together, the fossils from Locality 1 represent a population of more than forty Homo erecti. Clearly, Peking Man had used this site for a long time. More than 30 meters of cultural remains in thirteen different layers had accumulated on the site. Multiple dating methods, including paleomagnetic analysis and the uranium fission technique, place these layers at between 500,000 and 200,000 years old. Peking Man’s main food source was the meat of wild animals, among which 70 percent were deer with heavy horns. All together more than ninety kinds of mammal fossils have been found at the site, including remains of leopard, cave bear, Pachycrocuta sinensis (a kind of giant hyena), elephant, rhinoceros, water buffalo, and ostrich. Many pieces of charcoal, burned bone fragments, and hearths suggest that Peking Man had used fire and cooked meat, although there is no direct evidence to prove that he knew how to make fire. Peking Man made six kinds of stone tools: scrapers, points, chopper hammers, awls, engravers, and balls. Many are multipurpose objects. Zone 3, in southwestern China, is represented by the Guanyindong culture in Guizhou. The predecessors of the Guanyindong culture were probably related to the Yuanmou culture of Yunnan. Stone tools from this cultural zone differ to a great degree from the other zones, and there are quite a few different types. Most stone artifacts were skillfully fabricated.

The Middle Foraging Era

The middle foraging era was between 128,000 and 35,000 years ago. During this time the natural environment changed dramatically. In north China the climate became drier and cooler. As a result the saber-toothed tiger (Smilodon), the giant beaver (Trogontherium), and Pachycrocuta sinensis became extinct, while wild donkeys, horses, deer, Bos primigenius (a kind of cattle), and many other species gradually emerged.

In this period a deposit of wind-blown sand and clay, known as the Malan loess, transformed north China. By comparison changes in the tropical and subtropical natural environment in south China were less significant. Giant panda, oriental Stegodon (an elephant-like creature), the Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus), rhesus monkey, sambar deer, and water buffalo were the typical animal species living there. The middle foraging-era cultures showed varying characteristics. For instance, the Xujiayao culture in Shaanxi and Hebei produced a number of types of small stone tools, most of which were small scrapers. By comparison the Dingcun culture from Shanxi used larger stone tools. The typical Dingcun tools were points with three ridges. The Xujiayao culture might have developed
from the Zhoukoudian culture while the Dingcun may have come from the Qiahe culture.

Humans during this time lived in caves or camps above ground near to water. The middle foraging-era cave sites were used mainly for dwelling rather than for slaughtering animals. Many caves have hearths inside. No buildings from this time have been found to be constructed or modeled clearly by humans.

Lifestyles differed according to location. In the tropical and subtropical forest areas, food gathering was probably common. In the temperate zone grasslands, a combination of hunting and food gathering was more viable. Sometimes certain stone tools, including balls, characterize a specific site, suggesting that people were engaged in specialized hunting or food-gathering activities. Small, well-polished tools, such as engravers, were produced at this time. Such tools could be used to process other small-scale and more refined objects, which could be used for ornamental purposes. At this time in Europe and West Asia, graves emerged, but so far no tombs from this era have been found in Asia. The middle foraging era also saw an increase in human population.

The Upper Foraging Era

The upper foraging era began about 35,000 years ago and ended approximately 10,000 years ago. This period witnessed the peak of the glacial period. Many parts of northwest China changed into frozen zones, deserts, or grasslands, while subtropical forests gave way to temperate-zone forest grassland or semiarid grassland north of the Nanling Mountains in south China. Following the peak of the glacial era, the weather gradually changed and warmed the land. From the end of the Pleistocene period, followed by the Holocene period, weather patterns in China generally changed to become what they are today. Bone and horn artifacts became increasingly popular during this time, and humans evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans.

Upper foraging-era sites were found not only in northern and southwestern China, where foraging-era cultures were normally discovered, but also across Heilongjiang in the north; Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Taiwan in the east; Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong, and Guangxi in the south; and the Tibetan Plateau in the west.

The development of upper foraging-era cultures was highlighted by the making and use of microlithic tools by humans. Other types of tools also emerged, including scrapers, points, engravers, awls, drills, and even arrowheads. Many of these artifacts are composite tools. The advancement of stone technology, the use of many new and efficient tools, and the specialization of tool types reflect a further development in the hunting and foraging lifestyle. The use of microlithic tools suggests a profound understanding of the physical qualities of stone and the ability of modern humans to modify the material into intended shapes. Composite tools also indicate a possible specialization among certain groups of people in stone making. Such specialization requires organization and coordination among the stone workers. At the same time, there appeared highly specialized hunters, including the horse hunters of the Zhiyu culture in Shanxi. Another notable achievement of upper foraging-era cultures was the manufacturing of bone and horn artifacts. Many such items have been excavated from the Upper Cave of Zhoukoudian of Beijing, Haicheng, and Zhejiang. Fish forks, spears, daggers, and shovels made of animal bone and horns were manufactured by applying sawing, cutting, scraping, surface polishing, and drilling methods. Large quantities of ornaments, of a variety of materials, were used, including many kinds of animal bones, animal teeth, stone, shell, and ostrich eggshells.

Another aspect of the upper foraging era was the multiplicity of lifestyles. People hunted wild animals, fished, or gathered plants and adapted to their changing environment. Society at this time was composed of small units. Often the existence of a hearth in a dwelling suggests a possible social unit, perhaps a family, while several units form some sort of clan or tribe. A remarkable development during the upper foraging era was the rapid expansion of the human population. Although the death rate of new babies remained high and the lifespan was seldom more than fifty to sixty years (with that of women less than forty years), in general this period saw more people growing old. Modern humans lived a healthier life than ever before.

In the upper foraging era, humans showed an increasingly complex treatment of the deceased. They not only buried their dead in specified locations, thus marking a kind of “resting” place for the deceased, but also placed artifacts in the tombs to accompany them. In the Upper Cave of the Zhoukoudian site, in addition to burial goods, hematite powder (iron oxide, often used a pigment in tomb murals) was also found spread around the bodies. Such treatment of the dead suggests that humans at this time had developed a concept of an afterlife, or another world to live in after one physically died. Primitive religious ideas might have arisen during this period, too.

The Legacy of the Foraging Era

In short, China’s foraging era was characterized by regional differences and marked by different developmental phases. Changes in weather and the natural environment made a huge impact on people’s lifestyles and migration routes. With the development of tools and the sophistication of the brain, people evolved into modern humans. Improved techniques in the fabrication of stone, bone, horn, and shell implements contributed to a higher quality of life and unprecedented prosperity among cultures. Toward the end of the foraging era, around 10,000 years ago, human beings in China began to cultivate plants, domesticate animals, make ceramic vessels for cooking, and generally settle down, thus ushering in the Neolithic era.

Further Reading

Aigner, J. S. (1981). Archaeological remains in Pleistocene China. Munich, Germany: Verlag C. H. Beck.

Bai, S. Y. (Ed.). (2004). A general history of China, Vol. 2: Ancient Period [In Chinese]. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press.

Brooks, A. S., & Bernard, W. (1990). Paleoanthropology: the Chinese side of the story. Nature, 344, 288–298.

Chang, K. C. (1986). The Archaeology of ancient China (4th ed.). New Haven CT; London: Yale University Press.

Chen, T. M., & Zhang, Y. Y. (1991). Paleolithic chronology and possible coexistence of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens in China. World Archaeology, 23(2), 147–154.

Lu, Zuner. (Ed). (2004). A century-end reflection of China’s archaeological studies (archaeology of the Paleolithic era. [In Chinese]. Beijing: Science Press.

Shapiro, H. (1975). Peking Man. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Wang Youping. (2000). Archaeology of the Paleolithic era [In Chinese]. Beijing: Wenwu Press.

Wang Youping. (2005). Roots of Pleistocene hominids and cultures in China [In Chinese]. Beijing: Science Press.

Xie Yanping & You, X. H. (Eds.). (1984). China’s Paleolithic culture sites [In Chinese]. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.

Zhang, S. S. (1987). China’s Paleolithic cultures [In Chinese]. Tianjin, China: Tianjin Science and Technology Press.

Zhang, Zhenghong, Huang, J. Q., & Wu, J. M. (2003). The archaeology of China’s Paleolithic era [In Chinese]. Nanjing, China: Nanjing University Press.

Source: Jiang, Yu. (2009). Paleolithic Era. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1709–1713. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Bone artifacts from the Banpo Neolithic village, dating to the Paleolithic (foraging) era. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

Among the 174 adult graves found at Banpo village, there were two graves that buried multiple bodies. In the upper foraging era humans were already showing an increasingly complex treatment of the deceased, including the placement of artifacts in tomb and a sense of the tomb itself as a resting place. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

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