The Nihewan Project

Dr. Chen Shen – Nihewan project - Xichangling Excavation, China, 1998 - 2000

The Early Pleistocene hominid occupations in East Asia (1.8 – 1 million years ago)

This project’s objective is to find archaeological evidence related to hominid behaviours as well as the earliest hominid fossils in the Nihewan Basin, located in Hebei province about 150 km northwest from Beijing. This large lacustrine basin has extensive Pliocene and Pleistocene deposits containing hominid sites with associated fossil faunal and stone tools.

In the early 1920s, French missionaries collected prehistoric animal fossils; the finds excited scientists interested in finding early hominid remains (e.g., Homo erectus). In the late 1970s, the first archaeological site, Xiaochangliang, was identified, and at the time was regarded as the earliest hominid site in China. So far, more than a dozen sites dating to the Lower Pleistocene and early Middle Pleistocene have been identified within a 5-km radius of Donggutuo village, Yangyuan County. The number will likely increase, as the investigation is ongoing, suggesting that the Nihewan Basin is the most northern populated area, at 40o north latitude, for the earliest hominid occupations in East Asia.

The project began in 1998 with the first field session at the Xiaochangliang site, dated to 1.36 million years ago. In the summers of 2000 and 2001, full-scale excavations were carried out at the multi-layered Donggutou site in the same region. The most exciting discovery came in the fall of 2001—a new site was identified and excavated. Named by the project team Guodi, the site dates to 1.66 million years ago and is now the earliest site in the region. In fact, the Guodi site is probably the earliest archaeological site with unambiguous evidence for hominid onsite activities in all of East Asia.

More field investigations are being planned. Although, hominid remains have not been found, abundant artifacts were recovered at the Nihewan Basin sites, indicating extensive hominid use of the waterfront resources. We will examine these artifacts to understand hominid living patterns. How did they live? When and why did they arrive in this part of world?

This research has been funded, in part, by grants from the ROM Governors, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (International Collaboration Research grant, 2005), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2005 – 2008).

The project is a joint collaboration between the Royal Ontario Museum and the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Archaeologists from Shanghai's Fudan University and the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology also participate in the project. A permanent working station near the sites was established in 1999, to which the Royal Ontario Museum has partially contributed.

Recent Publications

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