TALE OF THE TEETH: ARCHAEOLOGISTS FIND
Date: March 12, 2001
UNUSUAL BONE COLLECTION IN CHINESE CAVE
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos by: Lisa Ventre and courtesy of Lynne Schepartz
Conference abstracts: available on request
Archive: Research News
A team of researchers, including Lynne Schepartz, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati, has discovered an unusual collection of animal and human teeth dating back over 200,000 years deep inside a southern China cave.
The evidence for human occupation of the cave is clear. There are stone tool cut marks on the animal bones, repeated findings of burnt bone, and unusual collections of bones and teeth from animals like the Stegodon which could not have lived in the cave.
The cave, known as Panxian Dadong, was apparently used by early humans in southern China and remained in use through the time of Mao and up to the present. Schepartz, Sari Miller-Antonio (California State, Stanislaus), and Deborah Bakken (Field Museum) have been working in the cave since 1996, in collaboration with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
They will report some of their findings from the 1996-2000 field seasons March 14-17 during a conference "Asia and the Middle Pleistocene in Global Perspective" that the team is hosting at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii.
Schepartz says one of the most interesting findings is the overwhelming percentage of teeth found in the cave. Roughly 30 percent of the animal remains found are teeth. Only about 2 percent come from skulls. The teeth also come almost entirely from very large animals, including the elephant-like Stegodon, rhinoceros and buffalos.
Using a "Total Station," a light-based tracking system to measure and record the precise location of all the artifacts found in Panxian Dadong, the researchers clearly located what Schepartz called "the tooth zone" about 1-2 meters below the ground surface. "It's not at all what you'd expect to find. What happened to the bones? There are almost none there, but they are found above and below the 'tooth zone.'"
To make sure the bone hadn't been degraded, dissolved or destroyed, sediment samples were analyzed by Greek geologist Takis Karkanas working at Israel's Weizman Institute of Science. Karkanas confirmed there was no evidence of dissolved bone in the "tooth zone" sediments. So, why were so many teeth there? Schepartz and her collaborators believe they were selectively transported into the cave and made into tools such as small scrapers.
The stone in the area is not the best type for tool-making. It is primarily chert, basalt and limestone. The most accessible material is the limestone, but it is the poorest quality material. As a result, the prehistoric peoples probably chose other materials for tools--one of the reasons the bamboo tool hypothesis was proposed.
"We believe we're the first to show that large animal teeth were used as the raw material for tool production," said Schepartz, who noted that the bamboo growing in the area would have been useless to the cave inhabitants unless they had a way to cut and slice it. Those research findings appeared in the British journal Antiquity in 2000.
Schepartz recently completed another analysis that supports the idea that large mammal teeth were brought into the cave. She was examining the evidence for the "schlepp effect" at Dadong. The "schlepp effect" refers to the tendency for humans to only transport useful parts of animals back to their home bases. As the legs are the portions of large animals that are easily detached and carried away, leg bones tend to show up in greater frequency at home bases.
Schepartz found that leg bones are twice as common as trunk elements (such as ribs or vertebrae) at Dadong, and many times more common than skulls. "That supports the idea that the more easily transported limbs were brought back. Picture them walking in with a leg over their shoulder. But it also shows that lots of teeth were selectively brought in as well."
So, it might be appropriate that the few human remains found in the cave so far turned out to be teeth as well. "We found another one this year," said Schepartz. "That's number five. This one was found at the deepest level of our excavations, and is probably closer to 300,000 years old."
Another surprise from the 2000 field season was the discovery of several antlers and tusk fragments. The team found both antlers that had been shed and antlers that were still attached to skulls. In later archaeological sites, antler and tusk are fashioned into tools or used to produce tools.
Many other specialists contribute to the Dadong studies. Sarah Stoutamire, an undergraduate student in anthropology at UC, spent her second field season at Dadong in 2000. She is doing a detailed analysis of the many Stegodon teeth found in the cave. Stoutamire hopes to find a pattern in the age of the teeth, information that could explain how the remains of such large animals got into the cave. Her work will help to understand whether the cave residents or large carnivores pursued older, large animals, or if smaller and younger animals were the preferred prey.
Schepartz noted that none of the excavations would have been possible without close collaboration and support from the Chinese government, which even built a lab near the cave for the researchers to use. Local families also help with the excavations.
She is also grateful for the wide-ranging support the team members have received from scientists in other disciplines. Researchers working under Jack Rink at McMaster University in Canada are using electron spin resonance to date the dental remains more precisely. Ruth Shahach-Gross of the Weizman Institute verified the difference in chemistry between burnt and unburnt bone. Lousiana State University Professor Brooks Ellwood is analyzing magnetic differences in sediment samples Schepartz and Stoutamire collected. He is looking for evidence of climate change over time.
"We have people from all over the world working on the project," said Schepartz. "To run a project like this, you have to bring in people in all kinds of disciplines. I'm fortunate that I've found people who have an interest in archaeological science."
The conference summarizing the various research findings is an outgrowth of three years of Panxian Dadong research supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. It is also receiving support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the East-West Center.