The palaeomagnetic dating of a site in the Nihewan Basin of northern China suggests that early hominins may have occupied the region during the early Pleistocene period, as early as 1.7 million years ago. The paper, published in Scientific Reports, represents a further step towards establishing a chronology of Paleolithic sites in the Nihewan Basin and contributes to our understanding of early human colonization of high northern latitudes in East Asia.
The Nihewan Basin lies in a mountainous region about 150 km west of Beijing and comprises over 60 Paleolithic sites from the Early Pleistocene, with thousands of in situ Oldowan-like stone tools (simple flakes chipped roughly from a core). The exact age of these sites has remained uncertain. Hong Ao and colleagues report the high-resolution palaeomagnetic dating of the Shangshazui site in the Nihewan Basin, where Oldowan-like stone artefacts associated with some mammalian bone fragments have been found since the site’s discovery in 1972.
The findings indicate that the site could be around 1.7-1.6 million years old - much older than previously thought, and only slightly younger than the Yuanmou Homo erectus site in South China. This suggests that early humans may potentially have occupied a vast area in China by 1.7-1.6 million years ago.
Analysis of the associated faunal remains implies that during the earliest hominin occupation, the Shangshazui site was mainly formed of grassland, interspersed with patches of woodland. The intermountainous lake was probably a major attraction for Early Pleistocene hominins, providing water and a range of other food sources, while the mountains could have represented an important material source for making stone tools.