Antiquity Vol 83 Issue 319 March 2009
At a cave site named Baerya in Guizhou province, China (Figure 1), stone artefacts have recently been recovered in the course of a survey, together with numerous remains of ancient fauna. All the stone artefacts exhibit characteristics of very ancient human-made tools, suggesting that Baerya could be among the most ancient sites in China.
Guizhou province is a large karstic plateau, located in southern China at approximately 1000m above sea level. The region is very hilly and cut by deep streams and rivers.
The Baerya cave site, northwest of Guizhou (district of Bijie), forms part of a cluster of karstic caves rich in mammal fossils. Fossils have been uncovered during quarrying over the last few decades and removed by private collectors, to the great detriment of the site. The situation worsened in recent years, when road construction and quarry exploitation became more intensive. In 2005 Zhao Fengpu, from Bijie government, collected a large number of fossils in order to preserve these precious remains; among them figure teeth of Gigantopithecus, the first to be found in Guizhou province.
A 2006 survey of the surroundings of the site produced, apart from faunal remains, 36 stone artefacts which indicate that the Baerya cave site was once inhabited by hominins.
The Baerya cave site
The Baerya site is set in limestone hills into which caves and fossiliferous fissures, superimposed on each other over a height of about 60m, are carved The hills stand against an impressively steep cliff, about 70m high. Half way up the cliff there is a hill rich in remains. Although this hill has been extensively altered by both natural erosion and limestone quarrying, it was apparent that it had once been a large cave, filled with several layers totalling a height of about 8m. The collapse of the rock ceiling, which happened after the layers had accumulated, preserved the archaeological layers. However, intensive exploitation of the cave by construction workers who dug into the archaeological deposits and then discarded the excavated rubble at the foot of the cliff resulted in the deposition of most of the faunal and lithic remains at the foot of the cliff. Currently there appears to be deposits in situ at the cave over an area only 1m wide.
The site of Baerya also includes river terraces. Remains of Gigantopithecus were collected from the top of the third terrace, an ancient river bed lying above two lower levels, which are made up of hills carved by more caves. Today a stream flows at the bottom of this landscape.
The faunal remains come from both the excavated rubble at the foot of the cliff and from the ancient river bed. According to Wang Wei who studied the Zhao Fengpu collection, the main species identified are: Gigantopithecus blacki, Pachycrocuta, Stegodon, Ailuropoda microta, Rhinoceros sinensis and Tapirus sanyuanensis. These species, characteristic of the Lower Pleistocene, have also been recognised at other southern Chinese sites such as Liuchengdong (Pei Wenzhong 1987) and Mohuidong in Guanxi province (Wang Wei et al. 2005). They are also present in Longgupo, Wushan district, south-western China, a site that also yielded teeth of Gigantopithecus (Huang & Fang 1991). Gigantopithecus remains have also been found at the northern Chinese site of Longgudong in Hubei province (Zhen Shaohua 2004).
The stone artefacts come from excavated rubble at the foot of the cliff, as do most faunal remains. They were probably originally part of the Baerya main cave filling. The collection consists of 36 lithic items. These are strongly encrusted and some of them extensively rolled.
The raw material is mainly local, i.e. limestone pebbles or slabs and sometimes flint or quartzite. The ancient river bed contains numerous pebbles which could have served as raw material for fashioning tools. A bifacial tool was made out of a piece of stalagmite perhaps from the cave wall (Figure 3).
Preliminary examination suggests that these items are tools made by humans or hominins. This industry is mainly composed of various forms modified by shaping (Inizan et al. 1999), as well as coarsely retouched flakes. Modified on one (Figure 4) or two sides (Figures 2 & 3) some artefacts show one or several cutting edges at one or both extremities; some items also exhibit a transversal cutting edge. One item, showing signs of hammering at both ends, could have been used as a hammer (Figure 5).
No archaeological excavation has ever been carried out at this site and the stratigraphy has not yet been assessed properly. Therefore, even though both stone artefacts and faunal remains most probably come from the cave filling, it is not possible to establish their precise origin. Moreover, it remains to be demonstrated whether the faunal remains and the lithic artefacts are contemporary.
However, just like Baerya, the site of Longguppo, which is currently being studied by a French-Chinese team under the direction of Eric Boëda, has shown the presence of ancient stone tools (Hou Yamei et al. 1999) in association with Lower Pleistocene fauna which included Ailuropoda microta and Gigantopithecus. Palaeomagnetic analyses gave a result of 1.9M years for Longguppo (Huang & Zhang, 2007).
The presence in Baerya cave of coarse stone artefacts associated with Lower Pleistocene fauna could therefore be highly significant. But further field research will be needed. We intend to survey the site in the near future to further evaluate it. Our objectives are: 1) to create a detailed site sequence by establishing a 0.5m wide stratigraphic section through the remaining fill; 2) retrieve material such as flint, fauna and pollen remains in a reliable stratigraphic position; 3) date the archaeological layers; and 4) identify the surrounding palaeoenvironmental context using faunal and pollen data. Surveys of the immediate surroundings of the cave are also planned to determine the origin of the raw material used by the Baerya hominins. A wider survey of the whole Bijie cave area will allow us to characterise other sites and establish a chrono-stratigraphic sequence for prehistoric sites in the whole Guizhou province.
The cave site of Baerya has provided us with remains of human occupation. In the absence of chrono-stratigraphic data it is not possible to assess the site precisely, but the presence of fauna which comprises remains of Gigantopithecus and a coarse stone industry suggests that the Baerya cave contains deposits of Lower Pleistocene age. Further field research will determine the age and nature of the site.
We thank the Chinese government foundations of Guizhou Province for their financial support (project: 2006/71 and 2007/2161).
(* Author for correspondence)