The Luonan Project

Lower Palaeolithic settlement of the Middle Pleistocene

The Luonan Basin is located about 1000 meters above sea level, in the valleys of the Qingling Mountains. This research project investigates the settlement pattern of Lower Palaeolithic sites in the small basin.

Prior to 1995, little was known about early hominid occupations in this area. Over the past ten years of field investigations, 268 Palaeolithic open-air sites were identified in the basin, and more than 13,000 lithic or stone artifacts were collected from archaeological surveys. Most significantly, a cave site, Longyadong, was discovered and excavated from 1995 to 1997. The Longyadong cave site, dating to about 400,000 to 200,000 years ago, is located about 40 to 50 meters above river flats on the hill slope and about 150 km west of Xi'an city in Shaanxi province. Three years of excavations have yielded more than 20 species of faunal remains and over 77,000 lithic artifacts, as well as other vestiges of hominid activities—traces of fire use and living floors.

Ongoing investigations reveal that there are two distinct lithic industries in the basin. The lithic assemblage of the Longyadong cave is dominated by flaked stone tools, while the open-air sites around the cave yield mainly large triangular bifaces and choppers (pebble-core tools). A number of Acheulian-like handaxes were collected, although their primary context is not clear. This differentiation in tool composition suggests two situations: two groups of people exploiting resources in the same area, who made and used the two different kinds of tools; or the same group of people occupying both cave and open-air sites seasonally and conducting different activities leaving behind two different tool kits. To establish which situation existed, one of the current objectives of this project is to determine the ages of the sites and whether they are contemporaneous.

The Qingling Mountains are conventionally regarded as the geographical division for northern and southern China. During the Middle Pleistocene, the lithic technology in the north and south differed, represented respectively by flake tools and pebble-core tools, and reflecting Chinese hominid adaptation to the different environmental settings. Archaeological evidence of technological variability in the Luonan Basin is lacking due to insufficient study, but the presence of both technologies suggests the area could be a place where cultural interaction occurred. This project will contribute to our knowledge of early migration and cultural interaction of hominids in the Luonan Basin.

This research has been funded, in part, by grants from the ROM Governors, the Chinese Academic of Sciences (2005 to 2007), and the Australian Research Council. The project is a joint collaboration between the Royal Ontario Museum, The Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, and the La Trobe University, Australia.

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