Some cool bone tools from an ancient Chinese site

Today’s reminder that stone tools are not all that matter in human behavior: “Discovery of circa 115,000-year-old bone retouchers at Lingjing, Henan, China”.

Luc Doyon and colleagues document several pieces of bone that were used in the process of removing fine, small flakes from the edges of stone artifacts, called “retouchers”:

In this paper, we describe bone retouchers recovered at the Lingjing site (Xuchang, Henan, China) in a level dated to circa 125–105 ka BP. These artefacts represent the first evidence from Eastern Asia for the use of bone as raw material to modify stone tools. This discovery has implications for the ongoing debate on the nature of Late Pleistocene cultural adaptations in China. The lithic technology that characterizes most Chinese assemblages attributed to this period is interpreted either as reflecting a peculiar facies of the Middle Palaeolithic [34,35] or the persistence of essentially Lower Palaeolithic cultural traditions [36–39]. The Lingjing bone retouchers and the behavioural consistencies their analysis highlights show that in spite of the apparent simplicity of lithic reduction sequences identified at the site [40], Lingjing hominins integrated in their behavioural repertoire the use of bone fragments to shape stone tools. These results corroborate the view that early Late Pleistocene cultural adaptations from China must be understood as reflecting original cultural trajectories whose degree of complexity cannot be evaluated solely through the study of lithic assemblages.

Here’s a photo of one of the retouchers, made on an antler of an extinct deer:

Antler retoucher from Lingjing
Figure 8 from Doyon and coworkers (2018). Original caption: Retoucher 9L0151 from Lingjing. White bracket indicates the area where impact scars are present. Scale = 1 cm.

So-called “soft hammer” percussion uses bone or other non-stone materials to remove flakes from stone cores in a more controlled way. The use of bone and antler retouchers is widely known for Mousterian sites in Europe and western Eurasia. They are also known for MSA sites in Africa. It’s fair to describe these kinds of artifacts as a regular part of “Middle Paleolithic-MSA” technical modes of making sharp edges.

There has been some debate in the past about whether an equivalent mode of stone tool manufacture is present in China or other parts of East Asia. I think it’s fair to say that some archaeologists have had a very crystallized view of what technical abilities should be found together within assemblages, so that if you see one type of artifact, you should be able to predict the presence of many others. The Chinese archaeological record tends to disappoint such strict expectations.

There was once an idea that hominins had to be especially clever and sophisticated to use bone in their toolkits. Like most early assumptions based on limited evidence from European sites, this one didn’t stand the test of time. We have bone artifacts from some very early toolkits, and a range of different specialized uses of bone in Neandertal and other archaic human-associated sites.

But it is still interesting to see close study of bone artifacts from new parts of the world and different times. This particular case helps us to see the logical connections between the process of making stone tools and the infrastructure needed to keep those tools useful. They also remind us that some of the most important elements of ancient technology were not stone, and are not things that we see very often in the archaeological record.