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Culture of the Three Gorges Area in Paleolithic Era

How the stoneware made 140,000 years ago by primitive human beings look like? How did people make potteries 8,000 years ago? ……Recent archeological studies in the Three Gorges unveil the mystery of human beings living in the Paleolithic era.

"If we say the Yellow River is the mother of the Chinese civilization, the Yangtze River should be the father." This is the conclusion made by archaeologists who have been working in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River over the past 10 years.

Archeological discoveries show distinctive difference between the south and north stoneware made in the Paleolithic era. But those found in the Three Gorge area have the characters of both, indicating the exchanging and blending of the southern and northern cultures in this area in ancient times.

A visit to the Three Gorges is like a journey to the past times. Wang Chuanping, vice president of the Chongqing Relics Bureau, who is also a poet, said, "The archeologists here have made great efforts in piecing together the fragments of the prehistoric civilization, just like piecing together the cracked porcelain…" But the clue of Paleolithic civilization was more dispersed than the porcelain fragments because of the long time-span.

Incisor of the Wushan Man

For a long time, the climate in the Three Gorges was humid and mild, with clear divisions for the four seasons and plentiful rainfall. It was an area good for the growth of all kinds of plants and animals. So the Three Gorges area became one of the regions that emerged Homo Erectus.

Since the 1980s, archeologists have found fossils of five kinds of australopithecines, which had close relationship with the origin of human beings, including the famous Wushan Man.

Huang Wanbo, a retired researcher of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in his 70s, led his archeology work group to Wanxian, Fengjie and Wushan in 1984. According to the clues given by the local residents, they went to a place called Longgupo (Dragon Bone Slope) and found a lot of bone fragments. Later on, they found other fossils of ancient animals and human beings.

They found a piece of mandible, with two teeth on it, and many fossils with the marks processed by man. From 1986 to 1988, in addition to a human incisor, archeologists found many fossils of 120 species of vertebrates, including reptile, bird and mammal.

Huang believes the Three Gorges came into shape 500,000 years ago, but the incisor of Wushan Man was from 2 million years ago.

Before the finding of Wushan Man, the earliest human fossil found in the mainland of China was that of the Yuanmou Man, who lived in Yunnan Province 1.7 million years ago. The new discovery puts the human existence in China 300,000 years earlier. But there are still debates on this incisor in the archeology field - was it closer to primitive human being or ancient ape? Huang said, "The forming of a culture actually means the forming of a thought. We found marks of cutting on the stoneware unearthed in Longgupo. This indicates the trace of culture, but still needs further studies before coming to the final conclusion."

The rudimental art of Fengjie

In Wushan, archeologists found fossils of human beings of different periods - including the Heliang Man of 15,000 years ago and the Fengjie Man of 140,000 years ago.

In May 2000, Huang and his team made investigations to 10 caves in Fengjie. In eight of them, he found fossils and stoneware. Following the immediate excavation, they found human fossils and stoneware of various kinds in the Xinglong Cave.

Among the unearthed relics, archeologists found tools made of ivory and on one piece, there are marks of carving. Besides, they found things looking like artworks, including a stalactite that had been polished into the shape of a bird's head, a stone whistle and elephant tusks with carved lines on them. According to the result of scientific examination, these cultural relics were from 130,000-150,000 years ago.

In a meeting room, two of the relics are displayed: one is the stone whistle, a stone tube with a round hole in the middle, which is obviously polished. When Huang blew to the hole, it produced a piercing sound. Huang supposed it was a toy or trapping instrument. Another piece of stone looks like a bird head, with distinctive marks of cutting and engraving on it.

It's hard to imagine how our ancestors of 140,000 years ago made these artistic works. Could it be possible that rudimental art emerged in such remote antiquity? Up to now, it has been believed that the earliest sculpture rudiments emerged 80,000 years ago. If the stone whistle and bird head can represent the bourgeoning of rudimental sculpture, they will push the time of the appearance of rudimental art to 60,000 years earlier.

Huang said it is something unusual to find so many traces of ancient human beings in the Wushan Mountains. It indicates ancient people lived here successively. Places of continuous dwelling are rare either in China or in other parts of the world. Archeologists also found fossils of 116 animal species, indicating the Three Gorges area was a place good for human beings to inhabit.

As human being and culture almost emerged simultaneously, Huang said, the fossils marked with human activities discovered in Fengjie perhaps reflect the broader sense of culture. The origin of the Three Gorges culture used to be traced back to the Ba Culture, now the discovery in Wushan and Fengjie has pushed it back to 2 million years ago. Comparing the stone instruments found in the Three Gorges area with those from the Yellow River valley, archeologists find it's obvious that the culture of the former had seldom suffered interferences from other cultures, whereas the northern culture, particularly in the late period of the Paleolithic era, had suffered repeated interferences from other cultures.

Most of the stone articles in Wushan and Fengjie were discovered in cave areas, indicating our ancestors primarily lived in caves; the large quantity of animal fossils found in the dwelling area shows their activities for survival were mainly fishing, hunting and collecting.

The stoneware of Fengdu

Fengdu is very important in the Paleolithic archeology of the Three Gorges area as numerous Paleolithic sites, including Jingshuiwan, Yandunbao and Ranjialukou of Gaojia town, have been found there.

In Jingshuiwan, a middle-phase Paleolithic site of about 100, 000 years ago, a lot of animal fossils and rare, real stoneware have been unearthed. Specialists believe it is "the most significant Paleolithic site in the Three Gorges area."

Jingshuiwan is situated between 151 to 161 meters above sea level. Ancient human beings processed stoneware and butchered animals there. A total of 400 pieces of stoneware of all kinds have been discovered there, in addition to animal fossils of the stegodon, tapir, ox and deer. It was the first time that typical sharp-edged tools were found in the There Gorges area. Archeologists conclude that Jingshuiwan had been a quarry where stoneware was processed.

The archeology fieldwork has already finished in the Paleolithic sites in Fengdu, which are mostly below the submerged line of 135 meters.

Gao Xing, a researcher and program coordinator of the Three Gorges Paleolithic Archeology, said, "Archeological discoveries in the past 10 years changed our understanding of China's cultural origin. We used to think the Yellow River Culture was the only origin of the Chinese civilization, but now we know the Yangtze River Culture was another origin. In short, if we say the Yellow River is the mother of our Chinese civilization, the Yangtze River should be the father."

What excited archeologists was that the stoneware articles were totally different from both that of the South and the North, but had the characters of both. It shows that in the ancient time, the cultures of the south and north met there.

The oldest pottery of Yufupu

Fengjie, called Kuifu in old times, is a famous historical city. It has many Paleolithic sites, including those in Henglu, Yufupu, Yang'andu and Santuo, which were the latest evidences of the transition from Paleolithic era to Neolithic era in the Three Gorges area.

The relics found there were mainly chipped stoneware of 10,000 years ago, with a few pottery fragments and polished stonewares - symbol of the following Neolithic era. These Paleolithic sites show that the Three Gorges area came into Neolithic era earlier than other parts of China.

Archeology discovered a pottery fragment, which was later named "the first fragment of the Three Gorges" in Yufupu. This 91.7-millimeter-long, 36.0-millimeter-wide and 7.4-millimeter-thick pottery fragment was maroon, made of mud and kneaded to the shape. It's not hard and has carved patterns. The piece was important because it was made with the most primitive method about 8,000 years ago. The earliest pottery fragment found in the Three Gorges, some experts believe it is another witness of the transition from Paleolithic era to Neolithic era of this area. But other archeologists hold that this single piece of fragment is far from enough to lead to any conclusion.


From their coming into being to 10,000 years ago, human beings mainly used chipped stoneware, and this period was thus called the Paleolithic era (also called Old Stone Age). There are more than 50 Paleolithic sites under the 175-meter water- emerge line in the Three Gorges. According to these years of excavation and the on-the-spot study, these sites were between 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. They are precious cultural relics of the middle and latter Paleolithic culture of the Three Gorges area.

(China.org.cn Translated by Chen Lin July 30, 2003)

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