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Late Middle Pleistocene Levallois stone-tool technology in southwest China

Naturevolume 565pages8285 (2019) | Download Citation



Levallois approaches are one of the best known variants of prepared-core technologies, and are an important hallmark of stone technologies developed around 300,000 years ago in Africa and west Eurasia1,2. Existing archaeological evidence suggests that the stone technology of east Asian hominins lacked a Levallois component during the late Middle Pleistocene epoch and it is not until the Late Pleistocene (around 40,000–30,000 years ago) that this technology spread into east Asia in association with a dispersal of modern humans. Here we present evidence of Levallois technology from the lithic assemblage of the Guanyindong Cave site in southwest China, dated to approximately 170,000–80,000 years ago. To our knowledge, this is the earliest evidence of Levallois technology in east Asia. Our findings thus challenge the existing model of the origin and spread of Levallois technologies in east Asia and its links to a Late Pleistocene dispersal of modern humans.

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This work was supported by the Australian Research Council through Future Fellowships to B.L. (FT140100384) and B.M. (FT140100101), a grant from the National Science Foundation of China to J.-F.Z. (NSFC, 41471003), postgraduate scholarships from the University of Wollongong to Y.H. and X.R. and the China Scholarship Council to X.R. (201506010345), the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) Strategic Priority Research Program Grants of ‘Macroevolutionary Processes and Paleoenvironments of Major Historical Biota’ (XDPB05), State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, CAS (SKLLQG1501) and National Science Foundation of China (41272033) to Y.-M.H. We thank S. Lin for assistance with artefact analysis and valuable comments on the manuscript; Y.-M. Hou for assistance with CT scanning on stone artefacts; R. G. Roberts, Z. Jacobs, Y. Jafari and T. Lachlan for support and assistance in the OSL laboratory; M. Otte and P. Zhang for valuable discussions on lithic assemblage; Y.-S. Lou, N. Ma, X.-W. Li and L. Lei for assistance with lithic observation.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks C. A. Tryon and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Centre for Archaeological Science, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

    • Yue Hu
    • , Ben Marwick
    • , Xue Rui
    •  & Bo Li
  2. Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Ben Marwick
  3. MOE Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes, Department of Geography, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • Jia-Fu Zhang
  4. Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Ya-Mei Hou
    • , Jian-Ping Yue
    •  & Wei-Wen Huang
  5. CAS Centre for Excellence in Life and Paleo-environment, Beijing, China

    • Ya-Mei Hou
    •  & Jian-Ping Yue
  6. Qianxi County Bureau of Cultural Relics Protection, Bijie, China

    • Wen-Rong Chen
  7. ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

    • Bo Li


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B.L., Y.H., W.-W.H. and J.-F.Z. conceived and coordinated the study; Y.H., B.M. and J.-P.Y. conducted the stone artefact analysis; B.L., Y.H., J.-F.Z., W.-R.C., W.-W.H. and Y.-M.H. planned and directed field investigations and stratigraphic analysis. Y.H., B.L., J.-F.Z., X.R., W.-W.H. and Y.-M.H. collected samples for dating; Y.H., B.L., J.-F.Z. and X.R. measured OSL samples and analysed the dating results; B.M., B.L. and Y.H. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from the other authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ben Marwick or Bo Li.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Photos showing the landscape and location of the Guanyindong Cave.

    a, Southward view of the Guanyindong Cave. b, The main entrance of the cave.

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Plan view and stratigraphy of the Guanyindong Cave.

    a, Plan view of the cave, main excavation area and the residual profiles from the south wall. The blue dots and the numbers next to each of the dots represent the locations of U-series dating samples have been taken previously17 (see Supplementary Information for discussion of the U-series results); sample codes from 1 to 8 are QGC-19-1, QGC-19-2, QGC-4, QGC-21, QGB-4, QGC-7 and QGC-23, respectively. The green circles are the locations of profiles 1, 2a, 2b and 3. The red squares show the locations of the residual profiles S1 and S2, where the OSL samples were taken. b, Detail of the numbered stratigraphic layers at the main entrance of the cave. The stratigraphic layer numbers are shown in yellow circles. The red rectangles show the locations of the two south-wall sections (S1 and S2) where OSL samples were taken. The locations of OSL samples are shown in red circles, with the sample code shown inside (for example, number 1 represents GYD-OSL1; see Extended Data Figs. 3, 4 for more details). a, b, Images were adapted from a previous study16, copyright 1986.

  3. Extended Data Fig. 3 General view of the residual profile S1 from the cave entrance.

    a, Photo taken from the interior of the cave, showing the location of the residual profile S1 at the south wall (marked by a rectangle with details shown in b and c). b, Photo showing details of the residual profile S1 at the south wall and the location of all OSL samples from layer 1 and layers 4–8. The details of layers 3–9 inside the yellow rectangle are shown in c. c, Photo showing the details of sedimentary layers 3–9 of group B, and the location of OSL samples. The stratigraphic layer numbers are shown in blue circles and the location of OSL samples are marked by yellow circles with sample names shown next to each of them. The dashed yellow lines in b and c show the boundaries between the layers.

  4. Extended Data Fig. 4 General view of the residual profile S2 outside the cave entrance.

    a, Photo taken from top of the cave, showing the location of the residual profile S2 (indicated by the rectangle). b, Photo taken from outside the cave, showing the location of the residual profile S2 (indicated by the rectangle). c, Photo showing the details of sedimentary layers (layer 2 and reworked layer 1) of residual profile S2, and the location of OSL samples. The dashed yellow line shows the boundary between layers 1 and 2. The stratigraphic layer numbers are shown in blue circles and the location of OSL samples are marked by yellow circles with sample names shown next to each of them.

  5. Extended Data Fig. 5 Photographs of selected Levallois cores.

    a, d, f, Levallois recurrent cores. b, c, e, Levallois preferential cores. The line drawings of these artefacts are shown in Fig. 3a–f. The artefacts shown in b and c were recovered from group A.

  6. Extended Data Fig. 6 Photographs of selected Levallois flakes and tools.

    gk, n, Levallois flakes. l, Débordant. m, Tools made on Levallois blanks. o, p, Pseudo-Levallois points. The line drawings of these artefacts are shown in Fig. 3g–p.

  7. Extended Data Fig. 7 Photographs of selected Levallois tools and flakes with prepared platform.

    qs, Tools made on Levallois blanks. tz, Flakes with prepared platforms. The line drawings of these artefacts are shown in Fig. 3q–z. The artefact shown in q was recovered from group A, and those shown in r and s were from group B.

  8. Extended Data Fig. 8 Distributions of metric variables on flakes.

    a, Histogram of flake lengths, coloured by size class. b, Box-and-whisker plots of a selection of metric variables to show technological variation across the size classes to reveal the lithic reduction sequence (n = 1,177 flakes). Centre lines show data median, boxes show first and third quartiles (the 25th and 75th percentiles), and the whiskers extend from the upper and lower hinge to the largest and smallest values that are no further than 1.5 times the interquartile range from the hinge (which is the distance between the first and third quartiles). Data beyond the end of the whiskers are outlying points and are plotted individually. Linear dimensions are measured in mm, mass in g.

  9. Extended Data Fig. 9 Distributions of technological attributes of flakes across the five size classes.

    n = 1,177 flakes.

  10. Extended Data Fig. 10 Comparison of flakes from the upper (group A) and lower (group B) layers of the deposit (n = 204), with 117 pieces from the lower layers (dated to 170–160 ka) and 87 from the upper layer (dated to approximately 90–80 ka).

    a, Metric variables. Linear dimensions are measured in mm, mass in g. b, Technological variables. Centre lines show data median, boxes show first and third quartiles (the 25th and 75th percentiles), and the whiskers extend from the upper and lower hinge to the largest and smallest values no further than 1.5 times the interquartile range from the hinge. Data beyond the end of the whiskers are outlying points and are plotted individually.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Discussions, Supplementary Tables 1-5, Supplementary Figures 1-24, References, and Supplementary Data.

  2. Reporting Summary

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