Excavations In Prehistoric Chinese Cave Uncover Unusual Collections Of Large Mammals

March 28, 1998

Cincinnati -- Lumbering rhinos and elephant-like Stegodons are not the type of animal you would expect to find deep inside a mountainous cave, but those are exactly the type of animals showing up in large numbers in prehistoric deposits in the Panxian Dadong Cave in southern China.

Lynne Schepartz, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cincinnati, will report on results from this year's field season in Dadong Saturday, March 28 during the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Seattle. "We have a lot of animals turning up in that cave that don't live in caves," said Schepartz. "The big question is, how did they get there?"

Schepartz said it is unlikely that the animals wandered into the cave on their own. Rhinos are grazers and Stegodons are browsers, normally found in more open areas. In addition, rhinos tend to be solitary animals while in the Dadong cave, large numbers of rhino remains were discovered in the ancient deposits.

Another possibility involves carnivores. Packs of animals could have killed the large mammals and dragged them back to their dens. However, a close analysis of the bone fragments revealed a definite human touch. "Clearly humans are doing something with the bones, because we're finding them burnt," said Schepartz. "There are cut marks. We found a beautiful example of a percussion damage mark where the bone had been pounded, probably by a stone tool. The same piece has a cut mark and was burnt. Everything you could do as a prehistoric person to damage a bone has been done."

Schepartz is working with a team of researchers, including Sari Miller-Antonio of California State University, Deborah Bakken of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and archaeologists at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of Beijing.

The Panxian Dadong Cave was recently named a national preservation site by the Chinese government, one of the few prehistoric sites to receive that designation. Miller-Antonio will also be presenting at the Seattle meeting, discussing the collaboration in greater detail.

Schepartz's research focuses on the evolution of complex behaviors, and the cave findings so far provide evidence that early humans in southern China had the ability to think symbolically and solve problems. The rhinoceros and Stegodon findings, however, raised even more questions for Schepartz and her collaborators.

"Are they just being eaten? Are other parts being used? We're trying to figure that out. We see real differences in the age distributions of the animals. We have lots and lots of baby Stegodons. In fact, we found evidence of only one adult individual, but many youngsters."

With the rhinos, the story was quite different. All ages were represented in the deposits. That apparently rules out a simple explanation such as young animals were easier to catch or to carry into the cave. "It's not the random taking of game animals, but there are some very conscious decisions about uses and what gets transported back into the cave. Our suspicion is they're probably being used for other purposes," said Schepartz.

The evidence for complex behaviors extends to the stone tools found in the Panxian Dadong Cave during the January and February field season this year. "There's a more intensive use of the better materials, so it's clear the Dadong people were making choices about the material that they used for their stone tools. When they could, they used the best material. That's a very important point about complex behaviors. They're not just picking up anything and making do."

Additional analysis of the animal bones will be done by Wilson Tabor, an analytical chemist in the University of Cincinnati department of environmental health. Many of the bones were badly stained, and the researchers are looking for clear distinctions between chemically altered bones and burnt bone.

Schepartz will also be discussing the project and its implications for language development during the Second International Evolution of Language Conference in London on April 8. Schepartz will argue that there is archaeological evidence that complex language and behaviors evolved well before the appearance of modern humans and much earlier in the Homo line.

The 1998 research in southern China is supported by the National Science Foundation. Previous expeditions to Dadong took place in 1995 and 1996.

University of Cincinnati

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