Earliest ochre processing in China

Archaeologists discover 40,000-year-old ochre processing site at Ximabei, China.

The Nihewan Basin in northern China has a human past that extends from two million years ago to 10,000 years before present. Ximabei, a 40,000 year-old site in the Basin, has yielded the earliest evidence for ochre production in eastern Asia.


Several different kinds of ochre were brought to the site, where they were abraded and pounded to produce powders of different colours and consistencies. Enough ochre was processed to stain the surface of the working area red. An elongated stone slab bore smoothed areas with ochre. The inhabitants fabricated blade-like stone tools, most of them of small size, being less than 20mm long. Seven of the tools showed clear signs of hafting to handles. Functional and residue analysis revealed that these small tools were used for boring holes, scraping hides, whittling plant materials, and cutting soft animal tissues. Many of the artifacts were multipurpose tools, far more sophisticated toolkits than were in use earlier.


Unfortunately, no human remains came from the site, but a contemporary habitation at Tianyuandong contains bones of Homo sapiens, as does the Upper Cave at the famous Zhoukoudian site. The excavators think that Xiamabei was visited by modern humans who were just passing through the area, which resulted in a mosaic of different technological traditions that did not, for example, include bone tools. So the discoveries at Ximabei were part of complex episodes of genetic and social exchange over a wider area, not just a single event of colonization.


Want more archaeology? To enjoy in-depth features on archaeology, read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: ground ochre pigment