‘Dragon bones’: did early humans in China collect ancient fossils for fun?

A million and-a-half years ago the early human inhabitants of a region in eastern China were doing more than just trying to survive – new evidence suggests they were creating, entertaining and even playing.

Over the past century, the Nihewan Basin in Hebei province has become famous for its abundance of Early Pleistocene palaeolithic sites dating back over 2 million years ago.

But at a site newly discovered by a villager, archeologists have uncovered evidence of “human” marks on objects, which may indicate that the individuals who made them used them for entertainment.

The fossils and gravel found at the site, which appeared to have originated elsewhere, along with items showing marks of “human creativity”, could help reveal more about the culture and behaviours of ancient human ancestors in China.

“A growing number of archaeological finds in the basin suggest that humans could not have migrated out of Africa later than 2 million years ago,” said Wei Qi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

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Wei said a new site in the basin called Lujiaoliang had been dated to be around 1½ million years old.

The discovery, outlined in a paper by Li Kaiqing of the Nihewan National Nature Reserve, will soon be published in this year’s second issue of the CAS journal Quaternary Sciences.

“Preliminary field work revealed that the mammal fossils at Lujiaoliang are quite abundant”, including teeth and bones that are likely from steppe mammoths, rhinoceroses and three-toed horses, according to the authors of the paper.

Some of the species identified at the site were unique to the Early Pleistocene era. This helped scientists date the fossils to between 2.58 million and 781,000 years ago, Wei said.

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The animal remains found in Lujiaoliang were unusual because of their “fragmented” burial, with incomplete bones found scattered throughout the site, according to the paper.

One of the recovered bones even showed “traces of cuts made by humans using stone tools”, which were visibly different from marks made by animals, Wei said.

However, the variety of fossils found – namely teeth – indicated that they “clearly had nothing to do with [hominins] making food”, the paper said.

The varying degrees of damage to the fossils and their scattered burial also indicated that “they were fossils before they accumulated” at the site, and a lack of abrasion from water transport suggested that their discovery at the site could “only be explained by man-made causes”, the paper said.

These discoveries led the scientists to one conclusion: the fossils had been collected elsewhere and moved to this site by the hominins who inhabited the area at the time.

The discovery of stones at the site with marks that appeared to be of an “artificial nature”, including “carefully repaired” stones and flakes, added to the evidence, the paper said.

Gravel discovered at Lujiaoliang also resembled river gravel from the nearby Heitugou site.

The findings suggested that this site was not a hunting camp or place where prey was dismembered, nor was it a living area, the paper said.

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Instead, the scientists speculated that the fossils and gravel were “collected for fun” and carried to Lujiaoliang by hominin children who were brought to the site by their mothers to play.

“Children and teenagers collected exposed large animal bones and tooth fossils from the outcrops of the ancient site and played with them,” the paper said, adding that the gravel may have been collected and brought there for the same reason.

“People at that time were the first to collect ‘dragon bone’ fossils,” Wei said.

The condition of the “beautifully” repaired stone products also suggested they were given as gifts or bribes, evidence of an ancient cultural practice, Wei said.

“This site is a recreational site, a type of site that has not been discovered in the past,” he said.

Lujiaoliang, and the ancient hominin entertainment artefacts found there, are a missing link in the cultural history of the Nihewan Basin, which Wei said was the first formally named palaeolithic culture in China.

The Nihewan Basin also has implications for when early humans first left Africa.

The Heitugou site, from where the gravel may have originated, has been dated to 1.9 million years ago, “which shakes the theory that humans walked out of Africa 1.8 million years ago,” Wei said.

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The sites suggest that our ancestors “could not have entered East Asia later than 2 million years ago”, the paper said.

Wei said, however, that previous claims about Nihewan being the birthplace of humans have “no scientific basis”.

Still, around half of the world’s palaeolithic sites discovered so far are in Nihewan, securing its status as an important area for the study of that era, according to Wei.

In particular, the burial conditions at the Lujiaoliang and Heitugou sites have suggested that the possibility of “discovering ape-man fossils here is high”, the authors of the paper said.

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