Perspectives on Hominid Behaviour and Settlement Patterns: a
study of the Lower Palaeolithic sites in the Luonan Basin, China, By S. Wang
The long-standing debates regarding the nature of the earlier (ie, pre-Upper) Palaeolithic occupations of central and south-east Asia have frequently centred upon the Movius Line concept and the validity (or not) of claims for handaxes to the south and east of this line (eg, Petraglia 1998; Corvinus 2004; Norton et al. 2006). It is therefore very pleasing to see this publication of new sites and handaxe-bearing lithic assemblages from China, and particularly as part of the BAR International Series which should assist in the exposure of the material reported here to a wide audience.
The volume, seemingly derived essentially from Wang’s doctoral thesis, is logically organised into four sections, discussing (respectively) the background to the study; geological context, site formation processes, and taphonomy; the lithic assemblages; and a comparison and conclusion. The study is essentially focusing upon the cave site of Longyadong and a series of surface/ shallowly buried findspots from the surrounding landscape of the Luonan Basin, China. TL dating and the recovered fauna suggests that the lithic assemblages date to the middle–late Middle Pleistocene (c. 500–250 kya). Ash beds, burnt bones, and burning traces on the cave walls are interpreted as evidence of intentional burning and fireplaces: it would have been helpful to have included photographic evidence of the ‘burnt marks indicative of a fireplace’. Wang’s analysis of the faunal and lithic material has highlighted a number of interesting patterns, including the usage of a wide range of raw material types all derived from local (within 2km) fluvial sources, the preferential use of different percussion techniques with different raw materials, an association between particular tool types and raw materials (eg, quartzite for producing handaxes), and the presence of handaxes in the region and their absence of handaxes from the Longyadong cave. All of this material is interesting with regards to Lower/Early Palaeolithic behaviour and possible similarities and differences with the Acheulean records of Africa, Europe and western Asia.
However there are also a number of serious limitations in this work, with regards to the implementation of the fieldwork, the interpretation of the data, the contents of the volume, and its presentation. In terms of the implementation of the fieldwork, there are some approaches whose absences are surprising: for example, in light of the diversity of raw materials utilised within the lithic assemblages, it might have been expected that the author would have sampled the river floodplain and terrace deposits to assess the relative availability of the different raw material types.
I have a number of concerns regarding the interpretation of the data. At a most basic level the author makes persistent reference to Lower and Middle Palaeolithic concepts and models, without at any point acknowledging the ‘Early’ and ‘Late’ Palaeolithic model applied to East Asia (and especially China and Korea) by Gao & Norton (2002). With specific regards to the lithic analysis (chapter 8), I was left uncertain as to the rationale and principles behind the chosen analytical methods: in some cases it appeared that methods had been derived from previous studies, yet in other areas there no references to previous work of this type. Some of the technological and typological terminology and classifications used were also rather unfamiliar (at least to me), and it would have been helpful to know more details about their origins. Moreover, since the author himself acknowledges that many of the methods widely used by western Palaeolithic archaeologists have rarely been applied in China, the lack of detail regarding the methods used in this study is all the more frustrating. I was also extremely surprised by the limited discussion of the handaxes: only the most basic morphological and technological information is included. The absence of a more detailed typological and/or morpho-metric scheme (as developed by Roe (1968) and Wymer (1968) for British handaxes assemblages for example) was particularly surprising in light of the recent discussions as to whether the key contrast across the Movius ‘Line’ is one of handaxe refinement (eg, Norton et al. 2006). The author also makes reference to significant patterns without any recourse to basic statistical testing of those patterns. With regards to the question of artefact use I was left wondering whether abrasion, as defined and measured here, should be expected to reveal such evidence. Perhaps most importantly, I was concerned at the lack of attention given to the questions of the time depth and possible time averaging of the assemblages, and whether or not (and at what scales) the assemblages from the open air sites and the cave can be considered to be contemporary. These issues are clearly critical to some of Wang’s discussion sections (eg, regarding the possibility of two ‘cultural traditions’ in the Lower Palaeolithic (see comments above) of north China, and the reconstruction of hominin behaviour in the Luonan Basin) yet do not seem to be given sufficient attention.
With regards to the content, I was frequently left frustrated by the degree of detail and the balance of the material. Too often the sections and chapters seem to be too brief, with limited or even superficial discussions of the key issues and comparative data sets (this is particularly true of the chapters in part II). The balance of the volume also seems rather uneven: for example the key lithic analysis chapters (9 and 10) dominate the volume, with a particular emphasis upon basic data description, while there is only limited coverage of the geological context and the site geomorphology. This is particularly frustrating, since given the geographical location of the sites and the potential readership of the volume a more in-depth discussion of the geological and geomorphological context would have been extremely beneficial for those unfamiliar with the locality and/or the region. There are a number of other frustrating absences: the lack of photographs or drawings illustrating the deliberately broken bones and cut marks; the absence of photographs of the various lithic raw material types and the key artefact types; and the failure to present the burnt and cut marked bone data by both species and body part are just some of these. There are also a number of minor errors in the discussion of the material, for example some of the age ranges for marine isotope stages are misquoted. A number of key and up-to-date references also appear to be missing, and their absence contributes to the overall impression that the work is somewhat flawed.
With regards to its presentation unfortunately the text is littered with grammatical and typographic errors. While I am entirely sympathetic to grammatical inconsistencies from an author not writing in their first language, the profusion of typographic errors is not acceptable and would seem to indicate an absence of appropriate proof-reading and/or editorial involvement. I do not feel that this is simply a case of nit picking: these errors reduce the readability and usability of the volume, and in some cases the basic meaning of sentences and paragraphs becomes unclear. The poor presentation is also indicated by other errors, such as inconsistencies between the citations and the bibliography, and an occasionally rather clumsy page layout. The nature of the text is particularly frustrating in light of the generally clear formatting of the volume’s tables, although it is rather more in-keeping with the quality of one or two of the photographs, which in the worst instances are almost entirely uninformative.
In conclusion, this is an extremely frustrating volume, not least because I was more than once left with the feeling that there is potentially very good work here. The underlying material is clearly of interest, both at regional level (the Earlier Palaeolithic of China) and at a global level (the distribution of the Acheulean and the validity of the Movius Line concept). Unfortunately there are also a number of notable flaws (both in terms of the analytical work undertaken and in the presentation of the material) which raise question marks over some of the conclusions, leave the reader frustrated as to unanswered questions and ignored issues, and limit the wider accessibility of the work.
Dr Rob Hosfield
Review Submitted: December 2006
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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