Ancient cave in China filled with 45,000-year-old stone tools and animal bones, new excavation reveals

Archaeologists have recovered thousands of artifacts from a cave in Xinjiang (an autonomous region of northern China) including stone tools, bronze and iron artifacts and animal fossils. Some date as far back as the Paleolithic Age, making them roughly 45,000 years old, according to the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Around 2,000 artifacts were unearthed at the excavation site Tongtiandong Cave (not to be confused with Tongtianlong limosus, the species of bird-like dinosaur that made the news in 2016 when paleontologists discovered the remains of one that appeared to have died from a literal case of being stuck in the mud). This Paleolithic cave is the first ever recorded in Xinjiang province, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

About one-third of the artifacts were stone tools, with another third comprising fossilized animal skeletons. The species the researchers could identify from the fossilized remains included rabbits, sheep, donkeys, rhinoceroses, bears and birds. They showed clear signs of cutting, burning and otherwise having been manipulated for human use, according to the academy.

The excavation was carried out through a collaboration between Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. Archaeologists conducted a preliminary excavation in early 2016 before returning for several months in 2017 to make more thorough and detailed recordings. The findings were recently published in the journal Chinese Archaeology and translated into English for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Previous research conducted in the cave had revealed stone tools and other archaeological artifacts that suggested human activity dating back to around 10,000 years ago, according to China News Service’s English language site.

The archaeologists behind the most recent project discovered that the cave provided “continuous stratigraphic cultural-layer sections,” according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Meaning, it provided a layer-by-layer view of the Early Iron Age, the Bronze Age, the Chalcolithic Age (also known as the Copper Age) and finally the Paleolithic Age. The findings could help map how the region’s inhabitants evolved over the course of tens of thousands of years.

Among the artifacts dated to the comparatively younger Iron and Bronze ages were, as one might guess, iron and bronze wares, but also pottery and millstones (round stones used for grinding up grain, the mortar and pestle of their day). The researchers were even able to carbon date leftover wheat grain, which they found to be between 5,000 and 3,500 years old, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They speculated that this region was one of the earliest to cultivate wheat, and that it might have been the point of origin from which the grain spread, via trade, out into other populations.


Pasquale Barile

Pasquale Barile, freelance egyptologist and writer, deals with ancient languages and genesis of civilization. Founder and President of the Ancient World Society and HistoryLab, conducts an intensive research, divulging and teaching activity in history. He is a member of the EES (Egypt Exploration Society) and SE (Société d'Égyptologie). He lives in Bologna, Italy.

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