The puzzle of tracing the origin of the world’s earliest polished stone tools

Polished stone tools from the Kannoki site in Nagano prefecture (20,000 BC) (Tokyo National Museum)

Polished stone tools are strongly associated with the Neolithic period, although they have been around since the Paleolithic era and such products were traded across a wide area. Polishing rough-cut stone axes not only increased the intrinsic mechanical strength of the axe but also meant that the head could penetrate wood more easily. Polished stone axes were important for the widespread clearance of woods and forest during the Neolithic period, when crop and livestock farming developed on a large scale. Such axe heads were needed in large numbers for forest clearance and the establishment of settlements and farmsteads.

However, the earliest known polished stone in the ground stone tools in the world have been found in Japan. These have been dated to around 30,000 years ago and are usually associated with cultures appearing around 10,000 years ago in the rest of the world.

By comparison, 24-22,000 yrs bp Bailiandong site,  axes, adzes, cutters with polished blades were the earliest tools to surface, and the earliest polished stone tools of South China, Bailiandong, etc, (axes, adzes and cutters) from the continent were found in South China and dated to 21,000 – 19,000 Cal. BP, but these only had polished blades, fully polished stone tools would appear only thousands of years later (Source: “Early polished stone tools in South China evidence of transition from Palaeolithic to Neolithic“, “UDK 903(510)633/634″Documenta Praehistorica XXXI).

Stone tools of Southern China with three stages of development:

  • blade polished only;
  • entire tool finely ground with blade polished;
  • entirely polished 

To read more about the transition from the Paleolithic to Neolithic Bailiandong culture in Southern China, see C AMS dating the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic of Southern China ,SixunYuan et al.

Related to the Funanese in Southern China, are the people of Samrong Sen, a prehistoric site in the Kampong Chhnang Province, Cambodia which had flourished from 1500 BC to 500 BC.  The 289 polished stone tools found at Samrong Sen are noted for the standardization of the tools and to manifest a close relationship with Neolithic sites in South East Asia and also many Pacific Islands (Source: A study of polished stone tools from Samrong Sen). A study of the skeletal remains at Samrong Sen reports that the archaic remains resembled the Wajak skulls from Indonesia as well as the Minatogawa skeletons from Okinawa. An earthenware vase mounted on a pedestal (reported by Mansuy in 1902 and in Mourer in 1971) links the polished stone adzes to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age and are found in the adjoining countries of Thailand and Vietnam.

According to the report extracted below, inhabitants of the Xiaohexi site, in Inner Mongolia, the earliest prehistoric settlement in the northeast, knew how to make polished stone tools 8,500 years ago.

Elsewhere, polished stone axes and adzes appeared in Bohemia (Czech territory in Central Europe) first in the Early Neolithic with the Lbk Culture (Source: Stone axes as tools, valuables and symbols (3300-1900 BC) by Jan Turek). Early Neolithic polished stone tools were also recovered from the village of Dobroslavtsi, in the Sofia basin in Southwestern Bulgaria (Source). Polished stone tool techniques of grinding, pounding, hammering and abrading activities were seen in the Early Neolithic of north-western Europe (Linearbandkeramik and Villeneuve-Saint-Germain cultures, 5100-4700 BC)

The origins of and the diffusion and spread of polished stone tools in the world is still currently an ongoing topic of comparative study by experts and scholars.

***

Earliest prehistoric site in NE China discovered (Xinhua, July 27, 2004)

Chinese archeologists have determined that the Xiaohexi site in Chifeng City, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, dating back 8,500 years, was the earliest prehistoric civilization site in the northeastern part of the country.

This latest dating was 300 years earlier than the archeologists formerly believed.

The Xiaohexi Culture, named after the Xiaohexi site at Aohan Banner of Inner Mongolia, had only smaller-sized primitive villages, whose houses were built partly underground. People living in that period had learned how to polish stone tools, according to Liu Guoxiang with the Research Institute of Archeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

This was the earliest Neolithic culture in the northeastern part of China, Liu said.

“The mystery of the Neolithic Xiaohexi culture has begun to be unveiled,” said Liu.

“Though only three sites of the culture have been unearthed, more than 300 artifacts, including various pottery mugs and vases as well as various bone and stone utensils have been discovered,” Liu added.

Among the artifacts, there was a 5-cm-tall, half-palm-sized pottery statue of a human face. The earliest of its kind in the northeastern regions, it might have been used for worshipping or sacrifice offering, Liu reckoned.

Typical stone tools at the Xiaohexi site included larger tools with a hole at the center and smaller tools with a hollow cut at the center. The designs were seldom seen in Neolithic cultures in China, which remained mysterious to archeologists.

“Only tests and experiments can explain the use of these stone tools, as different scratches would be left by wood and meat cutting and mud digging,” said Prof. Yan Wenming with Beijing University, who is also the vice chairman of the China Archeology Society.

Discovered in 1987, the Xiaohexi site had coarse pottery utensils with no ornamental designs on their surface. Archeologists believe that it is easier to determine an archeological time with pottery than with stone or bone utensils.

Northeastern China is an important birthplace for prehistoric cultures in northeastern Asia. And Xiaohexi culture is seen as oneof the most important archeological discoveries after the famous Hongshan Culture, a Neolithic culture dating back 5,000-6,000 years in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia.

***

A recent study points to one mtDNA haplogroup M9a’b -bearing lineage that originated from Southern China and/mainland Southeast Asia, as responsible for the polished stone technology, read on:

Min-Sheng Peng, et al. Inland post-glacial dispersal in East Asia revealed by mitochondrial haplogroup M9a’b  Journal: BMC Biology – BMC BIOL , vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 2-12, 2011 DOI: 10.1186/1741-7007-9-2

BACKGROUND: Archaeological studies have revealed a series of cultural changes around the Last Glacial Maximum in East Asia; whether these changes left any signatures in the gene pool of East Asians remains poorly indicated. To achieve deeper insights into the demographic history of modern humans in East Asia around the Last Glacial Maximum, we extensively analyzed mitochondrial DNA haplogroup M9a’b, a specific haplogroup that was suggested to have some potential for tracing the migration around the Last Glacial Maximum in East Eurasia. RESULTS: A total of 837 M9a’b mitochondrial DNAs (583 from the literature, while the remaining 254 were newly collected in this study) pinpointed from over 28,000 subjects residing across East Eurasia were studied here. Fifty-nine representative samples were further selected for total mitochondrial DNA sequencing so we could better understand the phylogeny within M9a’b. Based on the updated phylogeny, an extensive phylogeographic analysis was carried out to reveal the differentiation of haplogroup M9a’b and to reconstruct the dispersal histories. CONCLUSIONS: Our results indicated that southern China and/or Southeast Asia likely served as the source of some post-Last Glacial Maximum dispersal(s). The detailed dissection of haplogroup M9a’b revealed the existence of an inland dispersal in mainland East Asia during the post-glacial period. It was this dispersal that expanded not only to western China but also to northeast India and the south Himalaya region. A similar phylogeographic distribution pattern was also observed for haplogroup F1c, thus substantiating our proposition. This inland post-glacial dispersal was in agreement with the spread of the Mesolithic culture originating in South China and northern Vietnam.

In East Eurasian specific mtDNA haplogroup M9a’b for four reasons: 1) M9a’b distributes widely in mainland East Asia [14] and is relatively concentrated in Tibet
(approximately 19.2%) [15,16] and its surrounding regions, including Nepal (approximately 11.6%) [17], Sikkim (approximately 11.7%) [18] and northeast India (approximately 8.6%) [18,19]. 2) The phylogeny of haplogroup M9a’b indicated that this clade might be involved in some northward migrations into East Asia from Southeast Asia. With the exception of M9a1, most basal branches of M9a were distributed in southern China (6/15) and Southeast Asia (7/15); this pattern suggested that M9a might have a southern origin. The distribution pattern of M9a1 was rather complex: although this haplogroup did bear some genetic imprints of southern origin by harboring a basal lineage (that is, HN-H H27) from southern China, its effect had actually extended to northern China and Japan (for example, M9a1a1a, M9a1a1b, and M9a1a1c1a), as well as, western China (that is, southwestern China, northwestern China, and Tibet), northeast India (including Bangladesh), and the south Himalaya region (for example, M9a1b1, M9a1a2, and M9a1a1c1b). Based on this pattern, it seemed that haplogroup M9a1 had most likely been involved in some northward and westward dispersal(s) in East Asia.

Phylogeographic distribution  The updated phylogenetic tree of haplogroup M9a’b provided a basis for us to reanalyze the previously published data and to perform a well-defined phylogeographic analysis of this haplogroup. To better characterize the demographic history of M9a’b, the median-joining network was constructed based on all available M9a’b mtDNAs (Figure 3). Our comprehensive study of haplogroup M9a’b substantiated the notion that the origin of this haplogroup was most likely located in southern China and/or mainland Southeast Asia. As displayed in Figure 3, most of the basal lineages within M9a (that is, M9a*; excluding M9a1a and M9a1b mtDNAs) came from southern China, southwestern China, and Southeast Asia, strongly suggesting a southern origin of M9a. This result received further support from M9b: 9 of the 11 M9b sequences were observed in southern China, southwestern China, and Southeast Asia, while the remaining two were found in northwestern China and northern China, respectively (Figure 3; see Additional file 1).

Similar to the observation from the phylogenetic tree of the complete mtDNAs (Figure 2), the median-network showed that the dominant clade (M9a1) within M9a presented a quite different geographic distribution pattern from its sister cluster M9a* (Figure 3).

haplogroup M9a1b, the basal lineages were mainly restricted to western China and Myanmar, whereas M9a1b1 spread not only in western China and Myanmar, but also in northeast India and the south Himalaya region (Figure 3). The basal lineages belonging to M9a1a* were mainly found in southern China (Figure 3). One of its derivatives, haplogroup M9a1a2, displayed a restricted distribution in western China, Myanmar, northeast India, and the south Himalaya region (Figure 3 and 4; see Additional file 2), and presented a similar pattern to that of
haplogroup M9a1b1. Nevertheless, haplogroup M9a1a1 showed a distinct distribution pattern: most of M9a1a1 basal lineages were distributed in southern China, southwestern China, as well as, northern China, Japan and Korea, whereas its major sub-haplogroup M9a1a1c was prevalent in northern China, Korea, and Japan (Figure 3 and 4; see Additional file 2). Remarkably, the M9a1a1 lineages found in Tibet were almost clustered into haplogroup M9a1a1c1b

The whole haplogroup M9a’b showed a coalescence time of approximately 26 to 28 kya. The estimated coalescence age of haplogroup M9a was approximately 18 to 23 kya.
Within haplogroup M9a1, haplogroups M9a1a1 and M9a1b1 emerged around 14 to 17 kya and 9 to 12 kya, respectively. For haplogroup M9a1a2, because of the
small number of available mtDNA genome sequences, which would bias the age estimates, we adopted the age estimation result based on HVS-I data (11.3 ± 3.5 kya).
As a result, nearly all the age estimates placed the origin of haplogroup M9a1a1 in the Late Glacial episode, whereas haplogroups M9a1b1 and M9a1a2 are in a
more recent post-glacial period (the end of the Pleistocene and the early Holocene), despite a fact that these ages should be received with caution…”

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