Early humans in China innovated technology to adapt to climate change 1-million years ago

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IMAGE: Ecological, biological and stone tool information from 2.2 million years ago to the present (the light red horizontal bar shows increased climate variability) (a) Global climate change. (b) Vegetation… view more  Credit: ©Science China Press

To assess the degree to which early stone tool using hominins modified their tool manufacturing behaviours in Eastern Asia, Shixia Yang and colleagues examined three well-known archaeological sites from the Nihewan Basin in North China. Stone tool comparisons between the archaeological sites of Xiaochangliang, Cenjiawan and Donggutuo indicate that technological skills increase at ca. 1.1-1.0 million years ago. The stone tools at Cenjiawan and Donggutuo show increasing levels of control in manufacturing procedures and some degree of planning in the tool-making process to produce desired end-products.

The technological innovations at ca. 1.1-1.0 million years ago in the Nihewan Basin correspond with a major climate transition which occurred between 1.2 million years ago to 700,000 years ago (called the Mid-Pleistocene Climate Transition). A series of global and regional palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental changes occurred during this period, such as increases in aridity and monsoonal intensity and decreases in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic.

At 1.1 million years ago the early human inhabitants of the Nihewan Basin lived under a changeable and unstable environment, experiencing strengthened aridification. As climatic variability produced ecological changes, including landscape alterations and mammalian extinctions, novel technological innovations likely provided benefits to early hominin populations in the Nihewan Basin. The unstable environmental conditions at the onset of this period provides a good example of the adaptive versatility of hominins in China, contrasting with the notion of long-lasting conservative behaviours described by other archaeologists. Yet, the increasingly harsh and oscillating climatic conditions of this period likely undermined sustained population in North China, illustrating that technological and cultural solutions did not always overcome environmental challenges.

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YANG SX, Wang FG, Xie F, YUE JP, Deng CL, ZHU RX, Petraglia MD, 2020. Technological innovations at the onset of the Mid-Pleistocene Climate Transition in high-latitude East Asia. National Science Review, doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwaa053

https://academic.oup.com/nsr/advance-article/doi/10.1093/nsr/nwaa053/5813450?guestAccessKey=e35ead21-6ce4-486c-a4ba-f7db8264b7fe

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44 thoughts on “Early humans in China innovated technology to adapt to climate change 1-million years ago

  1. Excerpt:

    The unstable environmental conditions at the onset of this period provides a good example of the adaptive versatility of hominins in China, contrasting with the notion of long-lasting conservative behaviours described by other archaeologists.

    OH MY, MY, ……. now what did the author mean by that comment? 😊

    • The paper mentions an archaeologist who found cultural development in East Asia retarded.

      It claims that genus Homo was in China 2.1 Ma. That’s remarkable, if true. An out of Africa date that early precedes H. erectus.

      • John, You probably know this but there is a recent paper (2017) claiming dating evidence for hominids at earlier than 2Ma
        https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1040618215001160?via%3Dihub
        The authors found 2 hominim fossils, associated with stone artifacts and Uranium dating gave for the most reliable samples dates of about 2.48 Ma.
        The authors conclude their abstract with:
        -” The fossil ages obtained in this work combined with paleontological evidence and new paleomagnetic results place Longgupo at the very beginning of the Early Pleistocene. Compared with other early hominid settlements, Longgupo is one of the earliest evidences of hominid settlement in China and East Asia to date.”-

        This is actually earlier than the usual “starting date” for H erectus of 2Ma (Humphrey and Stringer, 2018 ) but there was a paper a short while ago that claimed that the H floresiensis is not a diminutive H erectus but the relatively small statured H habilis so if they reached Flores then China was also accessible presumably.

        Of course in this field accepted ideas are not infrequently overthrown by new finds and new techniques for dating and genetic analysis.

        • Thanks. I didn’t know about the find in China.

          If Flores Man is a dwarf H. habilis, I’m even more amazed.

      • John Tillman, what did you mean by “retarded”, …. as in “cultural development in East Asia retarded.”?

        John Tillman “It claims that genus Homo was in China 2.1 Ma. That’s remarkable, if true. An out of Africa date that early precedes H. erectus.

        John, … I believe it could be true ….. because I don’t ascribe to the “out of Africa theory”.

        • The archaeological consensus, or at least a common opinion, is that East Asia showed less development in stone tool tech than the rest of the inhabited Old World Lower Paleolithic. But even in Africa, the Acheulean hand ax remained largely unchanged for about a million years.

          The best evidence is that all Homo species and subspecies originated in Africa, except for Neanderthals, Denisovans, another unknown archaic type coterminous with H sapiens sapiens, and possibly H. antecessor, which is probably just a European version of H. erectus or possibly H. heidelbergensis. But, then, some claim that H. erectus is an Asian variant of H. ergaster. There are always lumpers and splitters. If H. floresiensis indeed be a dwarfed H. habilis, then even this Ur-Homo must have left Africa.

          • John Tillman – May 14, 2020 at 1:58 pm

            The best evidence is that all Homo species and subspecies originated in Africa, except for Neanderthals, … etc., ….. etc., …… etc., …….. then even this Ur-Homo must have left Africa.

            John, ….. originated on the hot and dry savannahs of east Africa, …….. RIGHT?

            WRONG, ….. sorry bout that John T, …. but H sapiens could not have possibly spent a half million +- years evolving on the savannahs of east Africa in the mist of all the other animal predators.

            Read my writing again, ……. to wit:

            The evolution of bipedal locomotion, loss of protective body hair and the growth/formation of “sweat glands” over their entire epidermal skin area are just three (3) of the physical attributes that our early human ancestors (the only living sub-species in the Family of Great Apes) acquired during the past two (2) million years, ….. for them to best survive in the environment that they chose to live and reproduce in.

            So, the question is, what was their selected environment like that best suited a bipedal stance or movement, ….. did not require the protection of a heavy coating of body hair, ,,,,, but absolutely, positively required that their entire body surface (epidermis) contain sweat glands that secrete copious amounts of salt (NaCl) containing water (H2O).

            Surely that environment was not a hot, semi-arid African savannah, …. simply because salt (NaCl) and water (H2O) are the two (2) most important, precious resources necessary for pre-human or human survival, ….. ” …….. etc., etc.

          • Yet our Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene ancestors did indeed evolve in African mixed woodland/grassland savanah. There is no reason to suppose otherwise and all the evidence in the world that they did.

            Numerous animals of their size, without tree climbing ability and high intelligence, managed to survive predators. Sorry, but that’s simply a laughable argument.

            Australopithecines and archaic Homo did indeed suffer predation from leopards, eagles and other carnivorous animals, but enough survived to become us. If, as you imagine without any evidence, our ancestors were at some point aquatic, then how did we survive crocodilians?

            Surely our ancestors exploited aquatic resources, but they didn’t live in lakes or seas. They slept in trees and caves.

          • John Tillman – May 16, 2020 at 8:09 pm

            If, as you imagine without any evidence, our ancestors were at some point aquatic, then how did we survive crocodilians?

            John, do you make such stupid accusations against my person and good name because of your utter ignorance of the subject matter …….. or because you desperately want other viewers of our conversation to think that you are some sort of “expert” on the subject instead of just a mimic of aa really dumb hypothesis?

            John Tillman –

            Surely our ancestors exploited aquatic resources, but they didn’t live in lakes or seas. They slept in trees and caves.

            John T, ….. like your adoring mentors, ….. you have a serious problem with your intelligence involving your thinking and reasoning.

            Above you stated: “Surely our ancestors exploited aquatic resources.”, ….. followed by: “our ancestors did indeed evolve in African mixed woodland/grassland savanah.

            And John, I am really surprised that you would believe anyone that told you that our ancestors actually lived in the waters of lakes and seas.

            Humans are creatures of habit, due to desire and necessity both. That is why, even to this very day, 50+% of the world’s population lives near or on the waters of the world.

    • Adaptive behavior, learning and teaching new skills, are not limited to humanoids. link The difference is that, with stone tools, humanoids leave artifacts.

      • The difference is that, with stone tools, humanoids leave artifacts.

        That is correct, commieBob, …. but the researchers can’t date the stone tool, just the bio-mass found underneath said tool. And a good stone tool may have been broken or lost but never thrown away, …. thus a stone tool could very well be 10, to 1,000, to 100,000, to ½ million years older than the dead biomass it was found in association with.

  2. “Hominids/Early Humans/ People” had the Ability to use Boats or at least some sort of water craft well over 60,000 yrs ago. Homo floresiensis found on Flores may be evidence of much earlier use of water craft, well before any current acceptance of such ability.
    Australopithecus/Homo erectus ? Remains go back well before 200,000 years in Southern Asia, and there is tentative evidence of Human’s in Australia going back to at least 100,000 years.
    Red Deer Cave in China, Bradshaw paintings in the Kimberly’s.
    OR ,Man out of Africa and from there, near on instantly acquiring the knowledge of Boats and Cruising down the East Coast of Australia, setting up shop on a bunch of inland lakes and burying people at lake Mungo 45,000 yrs ago while leaving traces 60,000 years old on Islands on the North west Coast ?
    Colour me Clinical.

    • The Kimberly’s petroglyphs are dated to 27,000BP with a fossilized wasp nest. The petroglyph hair style and arm decoration is very close to Lake Chad glyphs of the same epoch. It sure looks like out of Africa with boats, the entire way to Australia. It sure beats walking!

    • During the LGM sea levels were about 120 metres lower than today, and presumably there were similar sea-level drops during previous glacial periods. Flores, along with Java, Sumatra, Bali etc. was joined to the Malaysian peninsula and the Asian mainland. So Flores Man could have walked from Africa.

      During glacial maxima, PNG was joined to Australia, so getting to Aus would have been a relatively easy series of island-hops, the longest being about 120 km. They could probably see the next island before embarking from the last, for most of the hops.

      Assuming that these migrations took place when the seas were dry (-ish), the first really long-distance maritime migrations (out of sight of land for many days) would probably have been by the Polynesian peoples, within the last few thousand years.

      • Even were islands not visible, wildfire smoke and land birds would have been. Plus floating vegetation.

        That Indonesia was connected to Asia however doesn’t mean the H. erectus didn’t know how to sit on logs. I can’t really speculate on navigational abilities of H. habilis, however. Modern apes wade, but don’t swim in the wild. However, chimps and orangutans raised in captivity can and do pick up swimming and diving in pools, with lifelines stretched over the deep end to avoid drowning.

  3. …correspond with a major climate transition which occurred between 1.2 million years ago to 700,000 years ago

    Being able to adapt to a major climate transition sounds quite impressive.
    But it’s not that sudden a change if it takes place over half a million years.
    These dates are all so uncertain as to make the conclusions tenuous.

  4. The Mid-Pleistocene Transition is when the glacial/inter-glacial cycle moved from a 41,000 year cycle to a 100,000 year cycle. The weather and environment changed, and people adapted. Who’d have thought it?

    • Not only did the frequency change, according to the MIS data , but also the difference between the peaks and troughs increased after the MPT. Do we know what caused that transition?

      • Well, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Pleistocene_Transition
        as you might guess : “The MPT can now be reproduced by numerical models that assume a decreasing level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a high sensitivity to this decrease, and gradual removal of regoliths from northern hemisphere areas subject to glacial processes during the Quaternary.[1] The reduction in CO2 may be related to changes in volcanic outgassing, burial of ocean sediments, carbonate weathering or iron fertilization of oceans from glacially induced dust.”

        But as we know from ice core studies , CO2 concentrations trail behind rather than leading the temperature changes. So we really don’t know.

        My bet is on the oceans/plate tectonics , with a layering-over of the Milankovitch cycles.
        The onset of the Quaternary glaciation , which coincided roughly with the closure of the Panama seaway gives a strong clue. This closure caused a shift in ocean circulation.
        Given that the overall heat capacity of the seas is about a thousand times that of the atmosphere, and the solubility of CO2 in seawater is inversely proportional to temperature, and the water is heaving with critters that fix CO2 into their carbonate shells, and the resultant sediments get re-cycled through plate tectonics and volcanism, I don’t think it’s wise to postulate atmospheric CO2 as the over-riding control factor. More likely it’s a product of other processes. Of which us digging stuff up and burning it is but one.

  5. I can’t imagine, that only changes in local climate are resposible for technical advancment. Learning by doing is usual until today.

  6. “Yet, the increasingly harsh and oscillating climatic conditions of this period likely undermined sustained population in North China, illustrating that technological and cultural solutions did not always overcome environmental challenges.”

    Yet, somehow we’re still here.

  7. I thought we all agreed that correlation is not causation. Given the extremely long period of time, it would be odd if there weren’t improvements in tool making – regardless of any climate change. In fact, I find it odd that they didn’t happen much more rapidly and be much more significant.

    • I find it odd that they didn’t happen (improvements in tool making) much more rapidly and be much more significant.

      TomB, early (pre-human) hominoids had to first learn to use natural tools (sticks, rocks, clam shells, fish bones, etc.) to assist in acquiring their food. The acquiring of high protein foods permitted the evolving of a more intelligent brain, which in turn permitted the evolving of their tool making ability. But learning to make tools, or “tool making”, ….. requires a lot of free time.

      And the only way our pre-human ancestors could have had a lot of “free time” for learning to use tools and/or inventing tools …. is if they had easy access to an abundant supply of high protein foods. And living on or near the shore of rivers, lakes or tidal zones provided them that food source, to wit:

      The following excerpted from this WUWT posted commentary

      ……..” our early human ancestors, which eventually evolved to be a sub-species of the Family of Great Apes, established a close association with an aquatic environment by taking up residence on or near the shoreline of a river, lake, tidal zone, estuary or inland sea simply because said body of water (H2O) provided them an easily accessible, abundant supply of high-protein foods that did not require the expenditure of great amounts of time and energy, …… or the use of tools, …. for harvesting said food or for eating of said foods. Life is good …… for any animal species that doesn’t have to spend all their waking hours searching for food and evading predators.

      And bipedal walking evolved as a result of ….. harvesting their food from the shallow waters. It is quite easy to learn to walk bipedally by walking (wading) in water because the water provides buoyancy to easily hold oneself in an upright position. And thus, our early ancestors that were the best bipedal waders/walkers in the water ……. were also the bestest provider of aquatic foods ….. and the bestest food provider got to do the mostest procreating with the females.

      • “the water provides buoyancy to easily hold oneself in an upright position. And thus, our early ancestors that were the best bipedal waders/walkers in the water ……. were also the bestest provider of aquatic foods ….. and the bestest food provider got to do the mostest procreating with the females.”

        How quaint. I forgot how pleasant it was to read Kipling’s “Just-So Stories.”

        • Sam C: “and the bestest food provider got to do the mostest procreating with the females.”

          How quaint.

          TheLastDemocrat, …. so, you actually believe that 98% of human females choose their husbands because they are really handsome dudes, ……… RIGHT? 😊

      • Thanks for that informative response. If I understand correctly, the assertion is that in a land (technically a shoreline) with such bounty, creating and improving tools is unnecessary. But for a “species that doesn’t have to spend all their waking hours searching for food and evading predators”, they have something we now call “leisure time”. One of them must have been a natural tinkerer. Spend any time at all on a hobby and you get pretty good at it. Dire outside forces aren’t necessary. Natural curiosity would be more than enough all on its own.

        Of course, my theory overlooks the fact that we’re talking about a species that long pre-dates homo sapiens. So probably not as adept at problem solving.

        • TomB – May 15, 2020 at 2:30 pm

          If I understand correctly, the assertion is that in a land (technically a shoreline) with such bounty, creating and improving tools is unnecessary.

          Exactly right, TomB, …… just like Grizzly bears don’t need to be “creating and improving tools” to help feed themselves during the Salmon “runs”.

          TomB, food, especially meat, ….. the “hi-protein” brain development food, is not easily acquired on land, …..and if an animal (pre-human) locates some, they would have to fight for it, and more often than not, lose that fight. And to eat the meat off of an animal carcass, one needs an extremely sharp/powerful beak …… or extremely sharp claws and powerful incisor teeth …. or a sharp tool for butchering the carcass. Our early human ancestors had none of the above prerequisites for surviving on the open savannahs.

          But in the shallow waters of inland salty seas and the salty tidal zones near the shore of oceans, …. there is an abundant supply of “hi-protein” brain development food such as fish, clams, oysters, lobsters, shrimp, sea urchins, kelp, etc., etc., ……. that can be easily gathered and eaten without the need of tools.

          But the skeletal remains of the aforenoted sea food provided our early ancestors with “natural tools” for them to play with during leisure time. And one doesn’t have to be a genius to learn to use a clam shell for scraping, cutting or digging. Put a 2-year old in a “sandbox” and watch it play in/with the sand.

          So probably not as adept at problem solving.

          After 30K to 100K years of living near salt water and eating plenty of “high protein brain food”, ….. problem solving would be getting easier.

  8. Stone tools do not decay. For that reason they are the marker of choice for archaeologists. Not found are clothing, shoes, cordage, shelters or anything else made of fiber or fur. It is overly facile to assume that fiber/sinew crafts did not exist, to ignore them since the evidence is absent, and to discount adaptive technologies in materials other than stone.

    One technology is for certain, though. Early hominids had fire. It was not possible for hominids to survive in Pleistocene North China (or anywhere else for that matter) without fire.

    Fire was used for warmth, light, cooking, protection, and crafting. Without fire hominids freeze, starve, and die. Fire was also used outside the hearths to modify the landscape. That conclusion is inescapable even if evidence is sparse or missing.

    Whatever the climate (weather, variability) the First Hominids depended upon fire. Also the Second, Third, and all hominids everywhere, every when, and continuously to this very day.

  9. I have been aware of a trickle of papers from China claiming Homo Sapiens got there more than 80k years ago with implication that humans evolved in the far east – many years ago I thought there was a bit of the ‘master race’ syndrome.

    The tool using species prior to the exit from Africa 60k years ago is thought to have been Homo erectus. However both Neanderthals and Denisovans were also out of Africa much earlier. My impression is that Chinese archeology is not keen on the idea that we are all derived from two groups that left Africa between 70 and 40 k years, based on genetic evidence. It would be interesting to know how the local Chinese media reports this.

    • The big question that needs answering is, ……… which came 1st “out-of-Africa”, …… the white skinned hominoid, …… the yellow skinned hominoid ………. or the black skinned hominoid?

      Curious minds would like to know.

        • Sure it matters. The location of the origin of H sapiens sapiens matters.

          Ridge, did our early ancestors all have the same skin color before they evolved to be the only “naked ape” of the Family of Great Apes?

          You know, like after they evolved to run bipedally they had to get rid of their body hair to keep cool.

          They couldn’t bipedally run very far or fast in 90 degree temps iffen they were wearing a full length fur coat, now could they?.

  10. Wow. I am most impressed with all these posts. There is some heavy duty brain work going on here and now my head hurts. It’s full of knowledge. I’m going to leave now and have a stiff drink.

  11. I have long been of the opinion that sapiens is probably not the only human to arrive in old Sahul (Australia and New Guinea). Any evidence of another human species, if it exists, would most likely have been drowned by natural sea level rises long ago.

    This is a fraught subject, however, thanks to identity politics. Too many questions are taboo.

  12. The archaic humans who made the tools were likely Homo erectus. It is hypothesized that Homo heidelbergensis diverged somewhat later than 1.1 mya.

    It is also hypothesized that neanderthalensis and denisova diverged from heidelbergensis 800 to 650 kya. Those dates are based on mtDNA differences from modern humans and hypothesized mutation rates using the percent distance from human–chimpanzee last common ancestor. Modern humans (sapiens) are thought to have arisen ~300 kya.

    All that is extremely iffy, but what is interesting is that Homo erectus arose at least 2 mya, is the first of the genus Homo, and was quite smart, adaptive, a group hunter and gatherer, and a fire-maker. They spread out of Africa at least 1.6 mya. From Wiki:

    H. erectus is associated with the Acheulean stone tool industry, and is thought to have been the earliest human ancestor capable of using fires, hunting and gathering in coordinated groups, caring for injured or sick group members, seafaring, and possibly art-making.

    Our caveman ancestors were not brutes barely more clever than monkeys. They were a lot smarter than modern people give them credit for. They had culture, craft, and skills, they learned, and they passed knowledge generation to generation.

    • Well said. I gag whenever the ‘woke’ left use ‘Neanderthal’ as an insult, mostly to conservative males of European origin.

      It’s a pathetic backhander to science from those who say routinely that we should listen to science. Science says at least half Neanderthals extent at any point in history were likely females and there’s no evidence that Neanderthal females were treated any worse than, or even as badly as, females of ‘our’ species have been. Further, most of the ‘woke’ left have Neanderthal ancestry themselves, a point which they don’t seem to understand. In Australia, it’s even worse to use this insult in a politically correct fashion, as Aboriginal Australians have an even higher percentage of Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry than Europeans do!

    • “they passed knowledge generation to generation.”

      The same cannot be said for the woke left.

  13. Inference (i.e. created knowledge). Assumptions/assertions? Black… brown matter? Articles of faith? Hopes and dreams?

  14. During the last sixty five years, I have realized that the general population has little to no appreciation of the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of giants. Not only science, but all of the civilized arts. Westerners from highly developed economies really don’t appreciate the privilege of their positions. The evolution of our species is the result of environmental changes on geologic time frames. I’m confident in our abilities to adapt to massive changes in the climate from the fossil record. Our records of the last two or three centuries are completely inadequate for any deep understanding of history. We adapt, we prosper, we learn through competition over millennia. There may well be too many of us at the moment, but that only means that we live in warm climate. As we know from the geologic record, this will change.

  15. Homo erectus was us, with a slightly smaller brain. They tamed fire, wore outer coverings, made shelter … They were smart, and their genes (DEnysovans, probably a late H. erectus population) are contained in the genomes of many modern H.sapiens.

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