Hoabinhian sites in Asia and relict DNA

The oldest Hoabinhian site has recently been discovered in Yunnan, China. What implications does this have for the peopling of East Asia?

It has been loosely pointed out that Hoabinhian artefacts have been found in Japan (roughly corresponding to the Jomon), source: Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past (see Chapter 33) Sandra Bowdler’s map of distribution of H. artefacts in Asia refers.

Wilhelm G. Solheim in his Archaeology and Culture in Southeast Asia: Unraveling the Nusantao cites as evidence the observations of Gerard J. Groot and P. van Stein Callenfels which find early Jomon axes (especially the finds of Kozanji shell mound) to correspond perfectly to Bacsonian axes, including polished stone tools. ‘It is now considered that the “Hoabinhian and Bacsonian are two parallel developments of the same culture”.’

Read the new May 2016 paper detailing the latest find of the earliest Hoanbinhian artifacts in Yunnan (below.)

Xueping Ji, The oldest Hoabinhian technocomplex in Asia (43.5 ka) at Xiaodong rockshelter, Yunnan Province, southwest China Quaternary International, Vol 200 2 May 2016, Pages 166–174  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2015.09.080


The Hoabinhian is the most representative technocomplex in Southeast Asian prehistory for the later hunter–gatherer period. As a mainland technology based exclusively on seasonal tropical environments, this core-tool culture was previously defined in northern Vietnam in 1932 and characterized originally by its large, flat and long, largely unifacial cobble tools associated with tropical forest fauna. The recent discoveries and dates obtained at Xiaodong rockshelter in Yunnan Province (southwest China) allow us to discuss the origin and the homeland of this singular Asian technocomplex which spread to Southeast Asia during the end of the Late Upper Pleistocene. Here we present the first Chinese Hoabinhian lithic implements in their stratigraphic and chronological context within a rockshelter site, and we address the question of the dispersal of modern humans from South China to Southeast Asia

There are theories that Hoabinhian tool makers were mtDNA R9 or basal mtDNA N descendants (source). Nothing is really conclusive unless ancient DNA can be found confirming the identity of the Hoabinhian tool makers.

About.com characterizes the Hoabinhian culture as follows:

The Hoabinhian Period is the name given to that part of Southeast Asian prehistory from about 13,000 to 3000 BC. Archaeological evidence at sites such as Spirit Cave (Thailand) and Cai Beo(Vietnam) reveal that people lived in caves, at open air sites, or along coastal locations as hunter-gatherers and fishers. Coastal Hoabinhian sites often have large shell middens. Animal bones recovered from Hoabinhian sites include primarily wild pigs and deer. Plant remains from Spirit Cave have included almond, bamboo, and gourd. No evidence for domesticated millet or rice has been found at Hoabinhian sites to date.

Hoabinhian stone tools were made from pebbles, and include ground stone axes, grindstones and a dominant stone flake industry. Bone points and spatulas carved from animal bone are also known. In the later Hoabinhian period (argued to be about 5000 BC) sites are also found with potsherds, impressed with vines, mats, or cords.

Hoabinhian burials are generally flexed or contracted; they are often covered with hematite, a common trait of hunter-gatherers just about everywhere.

In Ancient Southeast Asia, John Norman Miksic and Goh Geok Yian write

The oldest Hoabinhian artifacts have been dated to the Pleistocene well before the domestication of plants and animals, or horticulture, is believed to have emerged: at Tham Lod (dates 32,400 – 12.100 BP uncalibrated) and Tham Khuong in Vietnam (20,000-28,000 BP, uncalibrated) 

Hoabinhian Archaeological Sites

Tögi Ndrawa (Sumatra), Spirit Cave and Banyan Valley Cave(Thailand), Cai Beo (Vietnam), Tam Hang (Laos.


Archaeologists discover oldest Hoabinhian site ever in China

by Matt Atherton, Dec 30, 2015

The oldest site of south-east Asian hunter-gatherer culture has been discovered in China. The site, dating back nearly 44,000 years ago, was found in the Yunnan Province at Xiaodong Rockshelter, south-west China, and is the oldest evidence of ‘Hoabinhian culture’ ever discovered.

Hoabinhian culture describes the life of hunter-gatherers in south-east Asia, and was originally believed to be a time period stretching back as far as 29,000 years ago. The new discovery, made by scientists all over the world including China, South Africa and France, suggests that the Hoabinhian age may have begun a lot earlier than thought.

“Xiaodong can be regarded as a typical early Hoabinhian site, the first such site found in China and currently the oldest in Asia as well,” said Ji Xueping, lead author of the study. “The study shows that the Lancang River valley is a possible home for the Hoabinhian culture, and a source of migration for modern humans and the transmission of their culture to south-east Asia.”

Archaeologists researching Hoabinhian sites look for areas with large axe-like tools, used for woodwork in forested areas. Some of these stone artefacts were first collected at the Xiaodong site in 2004.

Since then, further research has been carried out to try and confirm the scientific value of the site. This research was then verified and published in December 2015, in Quaternary International.

Carbon dating was used to verify the date from which the site was occupied. Four metres of vertical soil layer was dated – showing the site was inhabited between 43,500 to 24,000 years ago. The scientists speculated that the very bottom layer may be even older.

The discovery provides further insight into how hominids survived a long time ago. It shows some of their strategies for survival, as well as how – and when – they changed from sporadic settlements to agricultural communities.

Hoabinhian culture was first discovered in Vietnam nearly 100 years ago. Since then, more site discoveries in south-east Asia have been dated back between 29,000 and 5,000 years ago. This is the first of these sites to be found in China. … Read more at IB Times

For a discussion of what DNA might have constituted the oldest arrivals in Southeast Asia, including the Hoabinhian culture, see Hill, Catherine, Phylogeography and Ethnogenesis of Aboriginal Southeast Asians Mol Biol Evol (2006) 23 (12):2480-2491.doi: 10.1093/molbev/msl124:


Studying the genetic history of the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia can provide crucial clues to the peopling of Southeast Asia as a whole. We have analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNAs) control-region and coding-region markers in 447 mtDNAs from the region, including 260 Orang Asli, representative of each of the traditional groupings, the Semang, the Senoi, and the Aboriginal Malays, allowing us to test hypotheses about their origins. All of the Orang Asli groups have undergone high levels of genetic drift, but phylogeographic traces nevertheless remain of the ancestry of their maternal lineages. The Semang have a deep ancestry within the Malay Peninsula, dating to the initial settlement from Africa >50,000 years ago. The Senoi appear to be a composite group, with approximately half of the maternal lineages tracing back to the ancestors of the Semang and about half to Indochina. This is in agreement with the suggestion that they represent the descendants of early Austroasiatic speaking agriculturalists, who brought both their language and their technology to the southern part of the peninsula ∼4,000 years ago and coalesced with the indigenous population. The Aboriginal Malays are more diverse, and although they show some connections with island Southeast Asia, as expected, they also harbor haplogroups that are either novel or rare elsewhere. Contrary to expectations, complete mtDNA genome sequences from one of these, R9b, suggest an ancestry in Indochina around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, followed by an early-Holocene dispersal through the Malay Peninsula into island Southeast Asia.

mtDNA haplogroups M21 and R21 were suggested as ancentral in the Semang and Senoi, F1a1a a Holocene component from Indochina.


R9b and perhaps N9a are found in high frequency only in Aboriginal Malays … suggest a Pleistocene origin to the north in indochina, wiht an early Holocene dispersal southwards through the Malay Peninsula and into island Southeast Asia.  echoes … the suggestion of Van Heekeren (1072) that the Hoabinhian had originated in South China before spreading to Malaya and North Sumatra.

[What of Austronesian  expansion in the archipelago?]

… on the other hand, haplogroups N21, N22 and M7c1c suggest an equally large offshore component, dating ot the mid/late Holocene, in the ancestry of Aboriginal Malays.

Perhaps the most striking signal is the presence of F1a1a, which aside from the apparently indigenous R21 is the most common haplogroup in the Senoi[R21 diverged from the common haplogroup R ancestor ~60,000 years ago (Macaulay et al. 2005), although the putative control-region link with haplogroup R9 (at np 16304) may imply a younger common ancestor], carried by almost half of the individuals sampled. This haplogroup, which is of early to mid-Holocene age, has b een observed elsewhere at high frequences only in Indochina and probably dispersed there from South China (where it is less frequent but more diverse and where its 1-step ancestor is found) during the Holocene). This suggests that almost half of the maternal lineages of the Senoi may trace back to an origin in Indochina at some point within the last 7,000 years or so.

Gorman, Chester. 1969. Hoabinhian: A Pebble-Tool Complex with Early Plant Associations in Southeast Asia. Science 163(3868):671-673.

Harvick, Ben. 2006. A Methodological Study of Technological Attributes in Hoabinhian Lithic Assemblages. In Social, Cultural and Environmental Dynamics in the Highlands of Pangmapha, Mae Hong Son Province: Integrated Archaeological Research into the Region Rasmi Shoocongdej, ed. Australian National University.

Hoabinhian, Jomon, Yayoi: Early Korean States (Oxbow Monograph) by Gina Lee Barnes

Mineral Food in the late Palaeolithic Hoabinhian Culture of Vietnam and Geophagia in Today Vietnam”, which was presented in the Symposium for Salt Production held in Tokyo Nov 2009, as a part of the paper “Further Studies on Hoabinhian” presented at the IPPA conference, Hanoi, Dec. 2009 and as a paper “Mineral Resources and Salt using in Prehistory Vietnam in comparison [comparation- sic] with Japanese Prehistory


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