Acta Anthropologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 42 ›› Issue (02): 161-176.doi: 10.16359/j.1000-3193/AAS.2023.0014

Special Issue: 特邀文章

• Invited Papers •     Next Articles

A review of Paleolithic raw material exploitation studies in China

SHEN Xuke(), LI Ting, ZHANG Dongju()   

  1. Key Laboratory of Western China’s Environmental System (Ministry of Education), College of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou 730000
  • Received:2022-10-18 Revised:2022-12-26 Online:2023-04-15 Published:2023-04-03


As an important part of the lithic artifact manufacturing system, lithic raw materials exploitation reflects several attributes of prehistoric humans, including environmental cognition, resource exploitation, mobility patterns, and cultural exchanges. However, there were differences in these attributes between Africa and Western Eurasia: In the former, high-quality flint and obsidian are relatively abundant, whereas in East Asia the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers mainly exploited the locally ubiquitous vein quartz, quartzite, and ordinary chert to produce stone artifacts. This has resulted in a relatively small number of Paleolithic raw materials exploitation studies in East Asia. To better understand what is known about the lithic raw material exploitation strategies of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in China, here we review and summarize all previous related studies. We found that from the Lower Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic periods, raw materials composition, source selection and exploitation methods changed substantially. During the Lower Paleolithic period, hunter-gatherers mainly exploited local vein quartz, quartzite and flint from riverbeds, bedrock outcrops and weathered outcrops near residential or camp sites. The quality of these raw materials was usually unexceptional, and the exploitation distances were generally within 10 km. During the Middle Paleolithic period, lithic raw material types increased in number and they varied between regions. Although the quality of these raw materials was also generally unexceptional, high-quality flint began to appear at some sites, albeit not in dominant proportions. Local procurement within 10 km still dominated during this period, while long-distance procurement occurred occasionally. The hunter-gatherers during this period clearly had an improved ability to recognize and utilize local raw materials, and they relied increasingly on high-quality raw materials. During the Upper Paleolithic period, the types of lithic raw materials increased greatly, and there was a marked decrease in the proportion of vein quartz and quartzite, and a significant increase in the proportion of high-quality raw materials, like flint, chalcedony, siliceous rock and volcanic tuff, and there was also the first appearance of obsidian. Long-distance procurement of high-quality raw materials in northern China became more common, but in southern China local procurement from riverbeds still dominated. The emergence of specialized raw material exploitation and lithic production workshop sites is another distinctive feature of this period. These temporal and spatial changes in Paleolithic raw material exploitation strategies in China were likely the result of multiple factors, including the mobility patterns of hunter-gatherers, advances in stone tool production technologies, and climate changes. In summary, the study of Paleolithic raw material exploitation strategy is critical for understanding human behavior, population interactions and migrations. Therefore, more intensive and systematic studies of Paleolithic raw materials exploitation in China are needed in the future.

Key words: Paleolithic sites, Lithic raw materials, Exploitation strategies, Impact factors

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