Research Article: The lithic assemblages of Donggutuo, Nihewan basin: Knapping skills of Early Pleistocene hominins in North China

Date Published: September 21, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Shi-Xia Yang, Michael D. Petraglia, Ya-Mei Hou, Jian-Ping Yue, Cheng-Long Deng, Ri-Xiang Zhu, William Oki Wong.


Donggutuo (DGT) is one of the richest archaeological localities in the Nihewan Basin of North China, thereby providing key information about the technological behaviours of early hominins in eastern Asia. Although DGT has been subject of multiple excavations and technological studies over the past several decades, few detailed studies on the lithic assemblages have been published. Here we summarize and describe the DGT lithic assemblages, examining stone tool reduction methods and technological skills. DGT dates to ca. 1.1 Ma, close to the onset of the mid-Pleistocene climate transition (MPT), indicating that occupations at DGT coincided with increased environmental instability. During this time interval, the DGT knappers began to apply innovative flaking methods, using free hand hard hammer percussion (FHHP) to manufacture pre-determined core shapes, small flakes and finely retouched tools, while occasionally using the bipolar technique, in contrast to the earlier and nearby Nihewan site of Xiaochangliang (XCL). Evidence for some degree of planning and predetermination in lithic reduction at DGT parallels technological developments in African Oldowan sites, suggesting that innovations in early industries may be situational, sometimes corresponding with adaptations to changes in environments and local conditions.

Partial Text

In assessments of stone tool assemblages of Eastern Asia, archaeologists have frequently held that there are long periods of stasis, with no significant technological changes until the upper part of Late Pleistocene [1–3]. Yet, investigators working in Eastern Asia continue to lack a detailed knowledge about Pleistocene lithic assemblages in the region, and there are substantial geographic and temporal gaps in our understanding of the archaeological record across this vast area. Though it could be argued that stone tool technologies may have remained relatively conservative over long periods, it is difficult to imagine that hominins never altered or modified their stone-tool using behaviours in the face of unstable and changing climates in northern latitudes during the Early and Middle Pleistocene. Paralleling the situation in Eastern Asia, early lithic industries with core-flake production have been typically categorised under holistic classifications, such as Oldowan or Mode 1 [4, 5]. Some stone tool analysts, however, have pointed out that early lithic assemblages, usually grouped as simple core-flake industries, sometimes show substantial variability in their flaking and production strategies in African and Eurasian contexts [6, 7]. In fact, detailed lithic analyses and refitting studies on the Lokalalei 2C assemblages in Kenya, showed that Late Pliocene knappers practiced considerable foresight in raw material procurement and lithic manufacture [8]. At the same time, the Lokalalei investigations indicated significant inter-site differences in Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene sites across Eastern Africa, thereby deconstructing the notion that the Oldowan itself was a homogeneous and static entity over evolutionary time. Likewise, examination of the lithic assemblages at Omo (Member F) indicated that, despite the limitations of the small quartz clasts, early hominins knapped cores in a precise and systematic fashion, suggesting deliberate and rational methods in obtaining flakes [9].

The Nihewan Basin is a remarkable region for understanding the behaviour of early hominins in Eastern Asia given its wealth of archaeological discoveries in stratified and dated contexts. Though a number of excavations have been performed, few lithic assemblages have been examined in any level of detail, with few exceptions [15, 23, 57, 58]. Here we have evaluated the stone tool assemblages from DGT, which has been highlighted as one of the most important sites from the Basin given the large sample of lithics and fossils. Hou’s hypothesis [26] that the cores from the site are ‘advanced’ has formed a debate as to its authenticity [16, 28]. Here we have re-assessed this claim, supporting Hou’s contention that the DGT lithic assemblages show innovations in core technology, reduction systems and tool production.

Here we provided the most up-to-date information on the DGT lithic assemblages, one of the richest Early Pleistocene sites in the Nihewan Basin of China. Lithic comparisons between XCL and DGT, two systematically studied assemblages, indicate that hominins in the Nihewan Basin, between 1.4–1.1 Ma, displayed considerable technological flexibility, utilizing both freehand and bipolar techniques in variable frequency. In both of these cases, the Nihewan hominins were able to overcome limitations of small clast size and poor-quality materials in order to obtain sharp-edged implements. While utilizing the same types of raw materials, the DGT hominins demonstrate some significant changes in lithic reduction methods in comparison to XCL, including the application of more control and preparation in conchoidal flaking methods, resulting in efficient utilization of clasts and predetermined plans for the size and shape of the struck pieces. In addition, though XCL and DGT hominins retouched flakes in various ways to produce specific tool forms, the frequency of retouched pieces at DGT was greater, with the production of rare tool types, such as borers and points. The production of frequent and diverse tool forms at DGT signals innovations in tool production and new activity tasks at 1.1 Ma, perhaps as a consequence of adaptations to more variable environments in the high latitudes during the MPT.