16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site

From June 2015 to 2017, Guangxi Provincial Institute of Heritage preservation and Archaeology conducted archaeological excavations to the Yahuai Cave site. In total, more than 40 square meters had been excavated, dates back to Palaeolithic period to Neolithic period. Yahuai Cave site is located on an isolated hill in the town of Qiaojian, Longan County, Guangxi Province.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
The excavation at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
[Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

Remains and Assemblage

1. A Palaeolithic burial was found, with a complete human skull. The burial pit was roughly rectangular. The tomb dates back 16,000 years through Carbon-14 dating method.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
A human skull found at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
[Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

2. Two fire-use evidences (fire pit or fireplace) were found in the Palaeolithic strata. One of them measured 3 m × 4 m, with more than 10 cm in thickness. The other one measured 40 cm × 90 cm, and nearly 10 cm in depth at the deepest part. From it charcoal debris, fired bones and stone artefacts were found.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
The excavation at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
[Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

3. Phytolith remains of rice (Oryza sativa L.) uncovered from the Yahuai Cave, which dated approximately 16,000 years before the present. In addition, phytoliths likely belonging to rice dating back to 28,000-35,000 years ago were found.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
Animal teeth remains found at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang
Autonomous Region [Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

4. Tens of thousands of artefacts were unearthed, and the assemblage comprises a large number of stone implements and several mussel shell, bone tools and pottery fragments, as well as abundant terrestrial animal and plant remains.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
Xie Guangmao, a leading archaeologist from the Guangxi Cultural Relics Protection and Archaeological Institute,
works at the Yahuai cave site in Longan, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
[Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

Stone artefacts were the main assemblage that were uncovered, with more than 10,000 pieces, including chipped and polished stone tools; Chipped stone tools accounted for the vast majority. Raw materials not only included common sandstone, quartzite and quartz, but also flint and tektite which is rarely seen in prehistoric sites of Guangxi. Stone implements included hammer, stone cores, stone flakes, broken blocks, debris and tools, etc. Flake stone tools were the most abundant; some of them had traces of usage. Chipped stone tools were mainly tiny flake tools, with lengths between 2cm to 5 cm.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
Obsidian and flint tools found at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang
Autonomous Region [Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

In addition to stone products, a small amount of pottery, shell and bone tools were also found. Pottery shards were composed of sandy pottery with cord pattern and bare surface pottery, most of which were broken and difficult to distinguish shape. Shell tools were chipped and only clam knives were recognized. The only bone tools were bone awls. Remains of animals and plants were rich, including tens of thousands of aquatic and terrestrial animal bones and teeth, a large portion of which were small animal remains discovered through screening and flotation.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
Phytolith remains of rice (Oryza sativa L.) found at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s
Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region [Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

Dating and Periodization

The site was primarily dated to 44,000-4,000 BP. Based on the stratification of strata, the characteristics of unearthed artifacts and the existing dating results, the remains can be roughly divided into four phases.

16,000-year-old fossil human skull found in south China cave site
The excavation at the Yahuai cave site in Longan County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
[Credit: China News Service/Zhong Xin]

Significance

1. New Type of Late Palaeolithic Archaeological Culture of Lingnan region

Most of the stone implements were tiny chipped stone tools belonging to the flake tool industry system, which is in contrast to the pebble tool tradition in the same region. The tiny stone-tools found at Yahuai Cave added new data for studying the relationship between the northern and southern cultures of the late Paleolithic culture in China.

2. Bridging the Prehistoric Culture Sequence in the You River Valley

A large number of remains were found in Yahuai Cave site dating to 44,000-10,000BP, most of which with precise culture strata, bridged the timeline of middle to late Palaeolithic culture in the You River Valley, thus further completing the prehistoric cultural sequence in Guangxi.

3. New Findings of Late Pleistocene Burial and Human Fossils in China.

Very few late Palaeolithic burial and human fossils have been found in China before, with a lack of exact dating. The burial at Yahuai Cave is the second one discovered in China after that at Upper Cave (Shandingdong site). The human fossils are of great academic value for studying the diversity of modern people, the migration and exchange of human populations in the late period of Late Pleistocene, and the burial customs in the late Palaeolithic Age.

4. Earliest Evidence of Humans Utilizing Wild Rice in the World

There is a long time in the use of wild rice before the rice domestication. The presence of phytoliths from rice (Oryza sativa) found in Yahuai Cave dating to ca.16,000 BP provided valuable material data for the wild rice exploitation and offer new clues for exploring the rice domestication.

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Source: Chinese Archaeology [March 13, 2018]

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