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Diversity and homogeneity: the lithic technology in southwest China from the late Pleistocene to early Holocene and its implication to Southeast Asia Prehistory


Author: Zhou, Yuduan
Under the direction of: Hubert Forestier
Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris
English Language English text

Keywords: History, Southeast Asia, Southwest China, Hoabinhian, Carved pebble, Continental Southeast Asia, Late Upper Pleistocene-Holocene, Lithic technology, Modern man, Lithic industry, Engineered pebbles.


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The Late Pleistocene witnessed the emergence of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs) in southern China around 120-100 ka. However, culturally and behaviorally, these AMHs appear to be very different from their Western counterparts from a technical standpoint. Indeed, their material culture is often characterized by the “pebble-tools” (i.e., cobble-tool industry), which gives them “archaic” accents, for some, -savoir-faire inherited from the Lower and Middle Pleistocene in this region of the world (e.g. Longgupo and Bose). During the end of the Late Pleistocene (about 40-10 ka), the Hoabinhian technocomplex emerges and becomes generalized with the tools on cobbles. A real technical phenomenon Hoabinhian began to take shape in Yunnan province, southwest China, around 40 ka, then probably spread to the neighboring Chinese provinces and then throughout continental South Asia. However, the techno-cultural identity of these hunter-gatherer groups in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi is still little known due to a lack of in-depth technological studies of archaeological materials. And the only known studies are typological and have been applied in the European way, which has not given many results since they are not suitable for studying Asian material. Chinese industries have a very long history of cobble tools, drawing a unique technological trajectory dating back more than 2 Ma. In this research project, we chose to study the lithic assemblages of six excavated sites with relatively clear stratigraphy and well-dated between 40-8 ka. Two main regions were chosen : five sites in southwest China and a major Hoabinhian site in southern Thailand. Our methodology is based on technological analysis principles. The objective is to qualitatively and quantitatively identify the different knapped products present in the selected sites, which will allow the different assemblages to be compared with each other according to identical criteria. Our first results show that the Chinese sites present a high variability of tools with different functional intentions and production systems. Although they all generally belong to a “cobble industry”, each site appears to be different from the others while presenting some similarities. The similarities and differences are reflected in four aspects : raw material types, production systems, tool structures, and functional needs. The concepts of debitage and shaping almost coexist in all sites, but sometimes the distinctions between different sites are quite significant. Some sites have outstanding features. Through the published literature, we compared other ten contemporary sites. Five of them are in China, and five in Southeast Asia. After the comparison between the sites, we primarily distinguished four techno-cultural areas in Southwest China and Southeast Asia, represented by Tangzigou techno-culture, Maomaodong techno-culture, Sonvian, and Hoabinhian. This division is based on the site’s technical characteristics, but there are some similarities and generalities among different sites. It now seems reasonable to call southwest China the “Hoabinhian Homeland” instead of the mountainous areas in northern Vietnam. Hoabinhian groups may migrate from north to south along the Lancang-Mekong Rivers. This research provides a systematic technological methodology and a framework for comparative research. And this is the first step for further large-scale comparative studies between South China and Southeast Asia.