Researchers Discover Oldest-Known Ochre Workshop in East Asia

Tools and pieces of the clay earth pigment found in northern China date to about 40,000 years old, and introduce new theories about early human migration

yellow powder ground from stone
Ochre, an iron-rich rock, has been used as paint pigment by humans for hundreds of years in various applications, such as body paint, sunscreen and as a component in adhesives.
  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Researchers have discovered the oldest-known ochre workshop in East Asia, according to Live Science’s Nicoletta Lanese. The 40,000-year-old workshop was discovered in the Xiamabei archaeological site less than 100 miles west of Beijing, according to a study published in Nature.

Fa-Gang Wang, an archaeologist at the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, began excavation of the site in 2013, Science’s Bridget Alex writes. In an area of nearly 130 square feet about 8 feet below ground, the team discovered 382 stone artifacts, over 400 bits of animal bone, the remnants of a campfire, a patch of red dirt with two pieces of ochre, a pestle-like stone, and a limestone slab.

It’s unclear exactly what the ochre, an iron-rich rock, was being used for or how these materials were processed, but typically it was ground into various powders using stone tools, according to the Public Library of Science.

Ochre has many uses, among them symbolic functions like body paint, sunscreen, and as a component in adhesives. A number of the stone tools discovered had traces of adhesive, suggesting the pigment may have been used as an ingredient to stick handles to the tools and as an additive in hide processing, according to Live Science. However, researchers say this doesn’t rule out the possibility that the ochre may have been used for symbolic purposes as well.

The team used radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (which measures how long it’s been since sediment was exposed to sunlight) to date the sediment layer and the artifacts found there to be between 39,000 and 41,000 years old. Researchers were surprised by the age, as prior to this find “evidence for ochre use in Asia before [28,000 years ago] was…very scant,” senior author Francesco d’Errico tells Live Science. Evidence of ochre use has been discovered in Africa and Europe dating back to about 300,000 years, and in Australia dating back to about 50,000 years, d’Errico says.

dig site filled with stone tools
Archaeologists discovered evidence of a large ochre-processing workshop at Xiamabei in China. Fagang Wang

Researchers suspect the ochre workshop found in China was run by Homo sapiens, but they can’t say for sure that it wasn’t human relatives like Neanderthals and Denisovans. There are no human fossils onsite, but modern human fossils have been found at a younger site about 68 miles away, per Live Science. Previous evidence suggested modern humans first migrated into Eurasia about 60,000 years ago, the Guardian’s Donna Lu writes, but human remains discovered in southern China have been dated to between 80,000 and 120,000 years old, putting that timeline into contention.

The stone artifacts discovered at the site raise more questions about that timeline, as they’re unique for the region and period, according to Science. Most of the blade-like remnants are smaller than two centimeters and are made from chert and quartz. By striking flakes off small pebbles then attaching them to bone handles, the early tools could have been used to scrape hides, bore wood and whittle plants. The stone blades discovered at the site predate similar discoveries in northern China, Russia and Japan by 10,000 years, according to the Guardian.

Study co-author Michael Petraglia tells the Guardian the site was unlike anything previously uncovered in East Asia, describing it as “a potential signpost of a migration event of our species.”

“This site doesn’t fit with anything we know. It’s got unique cultural characteristics to it,” he says. “This is a very unique place in Asia. We’ve identified, in a sense, a new culture coming out of there.”