, Volume 57, Issue 35, pp 4594-4599,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 02 Jul 2012

An engraved artifact from Shuidonggou, an Early Late Paleolithic Site in Northwest China


Cognition and symbolic thinking are viewed as important features of modern human behavior. Engraved objects are seen as a hallmark of cognition and symbolism, and even as evidence for language. Accumulated evidences including engraved bones, ochre, ostrich eggshells and stone artifacts were unearthed from Africa, Europe, Levant even Siberia Paleolithic sites. But the archaeological evidence for this, including beads, ornaments, burials, performed objects and engraved objects, is rarely discovered in the Pleistocene of East Asia. The present paper reports an engraved stone object unearthed in the Early Late Paleolithic levels about 30 ka BP at the Shuidonggou site (SDG) in northwestern China. It was unearthed in the 1980’s excavation from Lower culture unit of SDG1 but was identified in 2011 when the first author of this article observed the collection from the 1980’s excavations stored in the Institute of Archaeology of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region for further detailed lithic analysis. This lithic artifact is the first engraved non-organic object of the Paleolithic period found in China. In order to clarify the details of the incisions and to document the human intentional modifications, we used a KEYENCE VHX-600 Digital Microscope to measure and observe all the incisions in 3-dimensional perspective. Comparing the natural cracks and analyzing many details of the incisions, we argue that incisions on this stone artifact are the result of intentional behaviors by ancient humans. Also, we exclude the possible other causes including animal-induced damages, post-depositional phenomenon and unintentional by-products. Combining all these features, we suggest that the incisions were made by an intentional behavior and were probably of a non-utilitarian character. Because the nature of most other engraved objects in China is debate, we cannot get a clear scenario of the emergence and progress of modern human behavior in North China. But we infer the possible existence of a counting or recording system, or other symbolic behaviors, which reflect considerably evolved cognitive capacities or modern human behavior in the Early Late Paleolithic of East Asia.