Resource: On dispersal of humans and stone tools of Paleolithic Asia

Here is an update on our earlier review of the literature on stone lithics of Paleolithic Asia and Eurasia …

The earliest three core microblade complexes in North Asia and East Asia are identified on the map above. Credit: Keates S.G., Postnov A.V., Kuzmin Y.V.a

A recent paper provides an important update and overarching theory of the origins of microblade technology in Eurasia and where the core areas of the technology might have been. This paper goes further than previous ones in suggesting that the earliest origin of the technology most likely is Korea, which displaces an earlier held view that microblade technology of Japan, for example, came from the Altai or Southern Siberia. Read the authors’ discussion of the “single origin scenario” vs the independent “multiple origin scenario” from excerpts from the paper which follow on below:

Keates S.G., Postnov A.V., Kuzmin Y.V. Towards the Origin of Microblade Technology in Northeastern Asia. Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University. History, 2019, vol. 64, iss. 2, рp. 390–414. (PDF text here)


Summary of paper:

Microblade technology is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the Upper Paleolithic of northern Eurasia, primarily the northern and eastern regions of Asia. Here we present an overview of the most recent developments in attempting to understand the emergence and spread of this technology, based on data known for Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan. The main assumptions for selection of the earliest microblade complexes are:

1) the presence of three artifact types: wedge-shaped microcores; microblades; and retouched (utilized) microblades;

2) a reliable chronology based on critical evaluation of radiocarbon dates; and

3) the stratigraphic integrity of artifacts. The pressure flaking was a technique to make microblades, and this is important issue which was often not taken into account previously. Based on these criteria, the oldest microblade-bearing complexes for each of the regions listed above were selected. Using these data, we can conclude that the earliest evidence of microblade technology is known from the Korean Peninsula where it is dated to ca. 25,500–24,200 BP. In other regions (China, Siberia, Russian Far East and Japan), the first microblade assemblages are dated to ca. 21,100–19,400 BP.

As a result of our analysis, two possible explanations for the emergence of microblade technology in northern and eastern Asia can be considered:

1) invention and diffusion from a single core area; and

2) independent creation in several places and subsequent expansion. Currently, we cannot solve this issue, but generate some suggestions which may bring us closer toward identifying its origin and spread.
Factual data as presented in this paper can be used as a primary source for future research

After a critical review of the earliest microblade complexes in northern and eastern Asia, it seems clear that we cannot solve the issue of the appearance of microblade technology, but only come closer toward identifying its origin and spread. It is certain that there are strengths and weaknesses for each of the major scenarios for the emergence of the regional microblade assemblages.
In some cases, migration may explain the occurrence of microblades at sites dated after the initial or oldest finds in Korea. Thus, a “single origin scenario” would reflect the spatiotemporal patterns of the spread of the technology. However, there are large geographic gaps where no microblade sites have been reported. This prevents us from creating a more detailed picture of microblade origin(s). Alternatively, a “multiple origin scenario” could be the mechanism responsible for the emergence of microblade technology at ca25,500 BP and later, at ca. 24,300–20,300 BP. The inhabitants of the earliest microblade sites, i. e. in Korea, may have invented the technology independently. A major problem in resolving this is the lack of any microblade-containing localities between the earliest ‘core areas’ in the geographically distant regions (Fig. 6).
The continuation of research in the northern and eastern regions of Asia will bring new knowledge on the Upper Paleolithic allowing a more detailed examination of the issue. The selection of sites presented in this paper (see Table 1) can be used as a basic source for future research.


… northern and eastern Asia, we suggest two possible scenarios for the emergence of microblade technology:

1) invention and diffusion from a single core area; and

2) independent creation in several places and expansion from them.

The early dates from Korea and the later ages for other early microblade technology sites (in Siberia, the Russian Far East, China and Japan) suggest that an origin of this technology in the northeast Asian region may point to a single ‘core area’ (i. e., Korea). The increasing regularity (standardization) and higher lithic numbers at the later sites would appear to support this scenario, that is, progressive sophistication of knapping technology to manufacture increasingly more refined and numerous specimens. Several scholars are in favor of a single core area, with the Altai Mountains as the place of origin for microblade technology105.
In northern and eastern Asia, pressure flaking may have its origin in regions where narrow-faced core technology developed, and these are Siberia, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan106. Tortsovy cores (i. e., a kind of narrow-faced core) have not been identified in China. It therefore seems possible that microblade technology was invented in several places.
We can provisionally suggest at least three centers of origin: Korea, Yakutia (as part of Siberia), and Hokkaido (Fig. 6).
At least one of these centers (most probably, Korea) may be responsible for the appearance of microblade technology in North China. This is supported by the non-existence of blades in North China before the emergence of microblades107. The proposed early presence of blade technology at the Shuidonggou 1 and 2 sites at ca. 36,300–29,800 BP108 requires further chronological research because the current evidence for this age is questionable109.
For the mainland Russian Far East with the oldest microblade assemblage dated to ca. 19,400 BP, it is plausible to suggest that the Korean ‘center’ was responsible for the appearance of microblade technology in the Amur River basin (Ust’-Ul’ma 1 site; see Fig. 6)
because contacts existed in the Upper Paleolithic between Korea and the Russian Far East as testified by the exchange of obsidian110.
The Siberian region of Yakutia with its relatively old microblade assemblage at the Khayrgas site (dated to ca. 20,700 BP) could have served as a core area for the southern Siberian regions of Transbaikal, and the Angara and Yenisei River basins (Fig. 6).

The ca. 20,700 BP old microblade technology at the Kashiwadai 1 site on Hokkaido is older than the microblade assemblages from Honshu Island (ca. 14,250 BP) and Kyushu Island (ca. 16,000 BP)111. The Kashiwadai 1 wedge-shaped cores and microblades are very standardized and advanced. For Sakhalin Island (Ogonki 5 site), Hokkaido is the most probable source area for the introduction of microblade technology (Fig. 6). The exchange of raw material (obsidian) is known to have existed between these regions since ca. 19,200 BP112.
The proposal that microblade technology was introduced to Hokkaido from the Altai and possibly Transbaikal via Mongolia, and to Transbaikal from Hokkaido via Sakhalin and the Russian Far East113, ignores the evidence from the Korean Peninsula. It can also not account for the lack of sites between Hokkaido and Mongolia because of the absence of microblade complexes south of Hokkaido within the Japanese archipelago (Kyushu and Honshu islands) where around 13,670 Paleolithic sites are known114. There is also no reliable evidence for human migration from Hokkaido Island to the Transbaikal via Sakhalin Island and mainland Russian Far East115

Credit: Keates S.G., Postnov A.V., Kuzmin Y.V.

In the paper, the authors also dispute these previously held views of other authors:

“With regard to misinterpretations and misrepresentations of our views in terms of the age and origin of microblade technology, three recent cases deserve attention.

O.BarYosef116 states that “…the early pottery examples from Japan and from eastern Siberia are found in the context of microblade industries, the origin of which is currently attributed to northern China”, with reference to our volume117. However, this book118 does not contain any information about northern China as the place for the origin of microblade complexes, and Bar-Yosef ’s opinion is a plain misrepresentation119.
It is stated that “…the Lake Baikal region of Siberia was the cradle of microblade technology…”120, citing our work121…”


The view of an origin of microblade technology in the Altai Siberia is seen in the literature reviewed below:

Even though population genomic scientists have, until recently supported the southern route origin of East Asian populations, the archaeological record provides strong support for the northern route as the origin of human activity, particularly for the arrival at the Japanese archipelago located at the east end of Eurasian continent.

A good resource on Paleolithic Asia, is the book “Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia” addresses the origins and dispersal of modern humans in Asia, bringing together the views of archaeologists from the Asia Pacific Rim, Australia and N. America, based on their papers delivered at a 2011 symposium sponsored by the Tokyo Ueno National Museum of Nature and Science. The work is a landmark reference work that provides a coherent account of the coming of ‘modernity in the Paleolithic of Asia … the area has been under-studied and escaped scholarly attention despite the significance of the topic of human migration in Asia given the high growth and population densities of Asia in times past and present.

The oldest use of Upper Paleolithic stone tools goes back 38,000 years, and microblades, likely originated from an area around Lake Baikal in Central Siberia, are found in the northern island (i.e., Hokkaido; ~25 kya) and main-island (i.e., Honshu; ~20 kya) of the Japanese archipelago.

Read more at Microblade industries emerged earliest on Hokkaido in the north


References and further reading:

Keates S.G., Postnov A.V., Kuzmin Y.V. Towards the Origin of Microblade Technology in Northeastern Asia. Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University. History, 2019, vol. 64, iss. 2, рp. 390–414. (PDF text here)

Chang YJ 2013 Chang, Yongjoon, Human activity and lithic technology between Korea and Japan from MIS 3 to MIS 2 in the Late Paleolithic period, October 2013, Quaternary International 308:13-26 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2012.09.002

Kaifu, Y., Izuho, M., Goebel, T., Sato, H. & Ono, A. Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia. (Texas A&M University Press, 2015).

In the Chapter 5 of the following book,

“Katsuhiro Sano discusses in detail various aspects of microblade complexes discovered in the central part of Honshu, the largest island of Japan. The main focus is on raw material composition and mobility of human groups in later Upper Palaeolithic times of central Honshu, dated to c. 17,000–14,000 BP. Of particular interest are first-hand data on raw materials used and distance to its sources from microblade manufacturing sites. Sano points to the transport of siliceous hard shale artifacts over a distance in excess of 200 km.”

Kuzmin, Yaroskav, Keates, Susan and Shen, Chen, Origin and Spread of Microblade Technology in Northern Asia and North America 2007/01/01
IBSN – 978-0-86491-294-7  is also a valuable resource that provides an overview and that ties the Eurasian microblade developments from Siberia to China, Korea and Japan to North America (excerpts below from Chap 1 “Origin and Spread of Microblade Technology in Northern Asia and North America”  ):

“The sites from the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia are of particular interest considering their early radiocarbon dates, with a minimum age of about 35,000 BP. Microblade sites from other parts of Siberia, such as the Yenisei River basin, along with the earliest microblade complexes from the Russian Far East, the Amur River basin and Sakhalin Island are also described.”

As was suggested by Butzer (1991), the emergence of microblade technology in Asia was directly connected with an increase in site frequency (“site visibility”) that is a function of population size. It was stated: “In northeast Siberia (mainly cave sites) and Japan (mainly
buried, alluvial sites), a rapid increase in visibility was delayed until the appearance of microblades and pressure flaking after 14,000 B.P. …
in any event, site visibility, as inferred from site number and assemblage size, increased with the establishment of the “developed micro-blade tradition” about 13,500 B.P.” (Butzer 1991:144).
New data presented in this volume demonstrates that although this idea remains valid, there is one exception – the beginning of human population rise and “site visibility” in Siberia can now be dated to at least c. 35,000 BP, and it generally coincides with the earliest evidence of microblade manufacture (Kuzmin and Keates 2005:785).
Upper Palaeolithic complexes with microblades are widely distributed in Northern Asia, including the western and central parts of Siberia (e.g. Vasil’ev 1993, 2001); northeastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, such as Yakutia (Mochanov and Fedoseeva 1984, 1996), the Kolyma and Indigirka rivers (Pitul’ko 2003; Slobodin 2001, 2006), Chukotka Peninsula (Kiryak 1996, 2005, 2006; Pitulko 2003; Slobodin 2001, 2006), Primorye Province (e.g., Vasilievsky 1996; Kuznetsov 1996), the Amur River basin (Derevianko 1996, 1998), and Sakhalin Island (Vasilevski 2003). Microblade technology is well presented in late Upper
Palaeolithic assemblages of China and Korea (e.g., Chen 1984; Seong 1998), and especially of Japan (Tsutsumi 2003a, 2003b; Nakazawa et

In 1998, the first data on microblades and wedgeshaped cores from the early Upper Palaeolithic complexes in the Altai Mountains, dated to c.35,000 BP, and perhaps even older, were published in another conference excursion guide, “Arkheologiya, Geologiya i Paleogeografiya Pleistotsena i Golotsena Gornogo Altaya” [Archaeology, Geology, and the Pleistocene and Holocene Palaeogeography of the Mountainous Altai], edited by Anatoly P. Derevianko.
A more detailed description of the Altai sites with very early microblade assemblages was published later (Derevianko et al.2003). Some aspects of the origin of “tortsovoe” (narrow-face) flaking in the earliest Upper Palaeolithic complexes of the Altai Mountains, which is considered to be one of the methods for the origin of microblade reduction, were mentioned previously (Derevianko 2001; see also Derevianko and Volkov 2004). Unfortunately, these data remain poorly known outside of Russia even today; for example, the most recent English summary of the early Upper Palaeolithic of Siberia (Goebel 2004) makes no mention of these.
The discovery of very ‘old’ microblade complexes in southern Siberia now challenges previous models of microblade origin somewhere in East Asia, probably in northern China, and its spread to the north and east (e.g., Chen 1984:110; Tang and Gai 1986:350–353; Fagan 1996). For example, it was noted: “The longlived microblade cultures of China and northern Asia generally appeared at least 30,000 years ago, based on a technology that produced dozens of diminutive blades from wedge-shaped, conical, and cylindrical cores. These in turn became sharp-edged barbs, arrow barbs, or scraper blades. Microblade technologies may have first evolved in northern China, where the earliest sites may occur, but they eventually spread northwards to the steppe-tundra of northeastern Asia, and even to North America. They represent a highly effective adaptation to highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifeways in open terrain.” (Fagan 1996:137).
By 40,000 – 35,000 BP, dramatic cultural changes had occurred in North Asia, as they had elsewhere evinced by the sudden appearance of various stone tool technologies, such as blade technology, bifacial technology, and especially microblade technology (e.g., Bar-Yosef 2002;
Straus et al.1996; Soffer and Praslov 1993). In northern China, after about 30,000 years ago, these new technologies mixed with the indigenously developed lithic technologies (specifically the flake tool and pebble-core tool technologies), thereby forming the unique Upper Palaeolithic culture of northern China. Blade tools are known from the Shuidonggou and Youfang sites, and bifacial tools from Qingfengling, Xiachuan, and other sites, while Xiachuan, Chaishi, and Xueguan are among the numerous representative microblade sites in China (Shen in press).

Migrations of modern humans from the Eurasian steppe, including Siberia, probably contributed to the complexity and variability of
Upper Palaeolithic lithic industries in China. The emergence of microblade technology in northern China might be the result of interactions with northern hunting-gatherer societies that are related to the event of the peopling of the Americas.
While hunter-gatherers of the Eurasian steppe, who mixed with the local resident populations acquiring new cultural elements and skills, continued northeastwards to cross Beringia and hence into North America, another wave of migrating humans must have moved from eastern Siberia southward into northern China, where they interacted and integrated with the indigenous hunter-gatherer societies (Shen in press). At the end of the Pleistocene, cultural manifestations in northern China, Japan, Korea, and the Russian Far East and Northeast, were part of a cultural interaction sphere that eventually reached the New World by at least 13,500–11,500 years ago.”