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Zhaojia Xuyao site provides evidence of Paleolithic-Neolithic transition

ZHAO YICHAO and SUN QIANQIAN | 2023-05-25 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Ceramic shards unearthed at the Xuyao site Photo: Courtesy of ZHAO YICHAO and SUN QIANQIAN

The Zhaojia Xuyao Site (Xuyao site for short) located at Xuyao Village, Zibo, Shandong Province, dates back to 11,000-15,000 years ago, corresponding to the transition period from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age. This site mainly consists of large-scale red baked earth [an archaeological term that refers to the red scorched earth left behind by ancient people who used fire to bake the walls and roofs of their houses, or by other fire-related activities] deposits and has been confirmed to span several square kilometers. To the west of the baked earth deposits, there is a well-preserved site of human activities dating back to 13,100-13,300 years ago.

Archaeological findings

The Xuyao site can be divided into distinct sites—a human activity site and red baked earth deposits. The human activity site covers an area of approximately 400 square meters, with at least three hearths. The hearths were constructed simply, with only a thin layer of ash, and the soil at the bottom of the hearths did not exhibit any obvious redness. These observations suggest that the hearths were not frequently or fully utilized. In addition, the absence of other relics or large artifacts at the site implies it was only a temporary campsite.

Over 1,000 artifacts were found around the hearths, including ceramic shards, figurines, animal bones, and artifacts made of shell and stone. With over 250 pottery shards unearthed, the site boasts one of the largest collections of pottery in China and represents the earliest examples of pottery in northern China. The ceramic shards found at the site are all from red pottery, created by mixing clay with plant stems. Their thin walls and even texture, with both the interiors and exteriors polished, demonstrate a relatively advanced level of pottery-making technology. The site not only provides evidence of the early origins of pottery in this area but also offers new insights into the origins of pottery in East Asia.

More than 100 clay figurines were also unearthed, constituting the earliest group of clay figurines found in China. The apparently improvised figurines are mostly abstract, but many were clearly in the shape of hearts, ears, and even human beings. 

The majority of the unearthed artifacts are animal bones, with over 70% being birds, mainly the ring-necked pheasant. Deer were the main mammals, including a certain proportion of young deer. The bones are highly fragmented. Most of the bird bones are broken at the joint, but the long bones are well preserved. Most of the mammal bones retained are joints with only a few long bone pieces preserved. This reflects the different ways in which the two types of animal meat resources (including bone marrow) and bones were utilized. In addition, archaeologists found over 20 shell tools, many displaying drill or cut marks. More than 50 stone artifacts, mostly limestone, were found, which may have been expedient tools to process animal bones. The Xuyao site is the most complete exhibition of early pottery usage in China. In such a temporary camp and simple setting, a large number of ceramic items were unearthed, indicating that pottery had already become central to food and daily life at that time.

Red baked earth deposits are found at different stratums of the site, with the most common form being a combination of a fire pit and a long, strip-shaped burnt mark, surrounded by a thin layer of ashes. Preliminary analysis suggests that these relics may be related to tree stumps. The archaeological team carried out experiments to burn decayed tree stumps and recorded their states and temperature changes. The fire pits were proven to be the remains of burned tree stumps, which provided an important reference for understanding the environmental background and the formation process of the baked earth.

The discovery of the Xuyao site inspired archaeologists to pay attention to the spatial distribution of the baked earth deposits during the excavation of ancient tombs in the Linzi area. Over the past year, a distribution area of over 2.5 square kilometers has been preliminarily confirmed, with the overall distribution presenting a patchy pattern. The dates of these baked earth deposits range from 15,000 to 8,000 years ago, with the latest corresponding to the Houli period (between 8,500 and 7,500 years ago).

All signs suggest that fire was the earliest direct evidence of large-scale human intervention in landscape transformation. The interaction between humans and fire has existed for millions of years. The remains exhibiting frequent use of fire not only demonstrate the long-term nature of human-fire interaction, but also indicate the repeated use of the same area by ancient humans, which may have resulted in changes in habitation patterns and prepared them for settlement.  

Restoration of ancient landscape

During the excavation, archaeologists conducted research on regional geomorphological evolution, climate change, and burial environments of relics. They also explored the mechanisms of human-land interaction centered on the Xuyao site during the transition period between the Paleolithic Age and Neolithic Age from various perspectives.

Surveys show that the Xuyao site is located at the front edge of the alluvial fan of the Zi River. The stratigraphic sections of Yafu Village and Rongjia Village on the north of the Xuyao site present the facies of lacustrine and swamp environments of the same period.

The excavation area revealed the most complete stratigraphic sequence of the alluvial fan in front of mountains in northern Shandong. Dating results show that the alluvial fan formed no later than 15,000 years ago, roughly corresponding to the Late Glacial Interstadial (c. 14670–12890 years ago). The aggradation process went through the Younger Dryas, and ceased after the Mega thermal period (around 8,000 or 9,000 years ago). 

The excavation team conducted high-resolution analyses of plant opal phytolith, plant pollen and spores, and mollusk remains found on the section where the site was located. The preliminary results indicate that the ecological environment was a forest steppe, and the overall climate was a fluctuating warming stage.

This discovery is significant to understanding the background of the alluvial fan. There used to be numerous rivers in front of the mountains in northern Shandong, each developing a small alluvial fan and eventually forming a large-scale alluvial fan complex. The discovery of the Xuyao site not only provides important evidence for reconstructing the formation process of the mountain-front alluvial fan and the ancient environment in northern Shandong, but also offers a clear reference for finding similar relics in the future.

Paleolithic-Neolithic transition

The discovery of the Xuyao site provides key evidence for understanding the significant changes of the transitional period from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age in northern China. 

The application of technology represented by pottery not only met the demand for improving resource utilization, but also objectively reduced the mobility of the population. The management of resources and landscape by humans indicates a change in the human-land relationship pattern—from passive adaptation to actively transforming nature, which is an important step towards agricultural society. The repeated use of the same region is a key step for humans towards settlement. The non-practical pottery sculptures reflect the development of people’s inner world, which corresponded to the aforementioned changes in human behavior. This can help us better understand how human thinking changed around the origins of agriculture. These factors suggest that the population represented by the Xuyao site was in the early stage of agrarianization.

Although East Asia and West Asia are the primary origins of agriculture, they have developed along completely different paths. In West Asia, settlement occurred first. Domestication followed the Younger Dryas, and agriculture matured in the late stage of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The widespread use of pottery came later [than settlement], which was a response to the maturity of agriculture. 

On the other hand, in East Asia, pottery appeared first. Extant information indicates that pottery was first used around 20,000 years ago, and became quite popular throughout East Asia around 10,000 years ago, when domestication and settlement began. The Xuyao site not only displays the most complete scene of pottery use of this period, but also reveals the ways in which humans have used fire to shape their landscape and how they engaged in human-land interaction over 15,000 years ago.

Zhao Yichao (associate research librarian) and Sun Qianqian (research librarian) are from the Shandong Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute.