45,000 years ago, “Homo Sapiens” landed in China

The migration of Homo sapiens to East Asia dates back to around 45,000 years ago.

According to a study published this Thursday, January 18 in the journal


, our ancestors were already present in northern China at this time.

The colonization of China by “modern man” was previously dated to 40,000 years ago.

Drawing representing a group of Homo Sapiens in Northern China.

©: Institute of Paleontology and Vertebrate Paleontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

By: Stéphane Lagarde Follow


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With our office in Beijing,

Stéphane Lagarde


Chi Xiangyuan

Located on the eighth floor of the Institute of Paleontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, Yang Shixia's small office is a veritable Alibaba's cave for biface lovers.

Preciously stored in drawers, the cut stones which served as tools and weapons to the men of our prehistory, are delicately extracted from numbered plastic pouches.

“Here is Pointe Levallois!

, jubilantly says the institute's researcher and lead author of the study published in 

Nature Ecology & Evolution.

It is with this stone that we began the research



continues the associate professor.

She should even say:

“start again”.

Because the spear point found on the Shiyu site in northern China looks exactly like the triangular shards and sharp edges cut using the so-called Levallois method, which revolutionized big game hunting in Europe in the Middle Paleolithic.

Levallois Point, at the Institute of Paleontology and Vertebrate Paleontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

© Stéphane Lagarde/RFI

Carbon 14 leftover meals 

Research is often a question of transmission and sometimes of inheritance.

At the end of 2019, Yang Shixia returned from studies in France and research in Germany.

She then took over the sampling and dating work on the archaeological site of Shiyu, launched by her colleague and mentor Huang Weiwen, who had fallen seriously ill.

The young researcher decided to bring together the artifacts found on the site since 1963, to re-study them in partnership with an international team, notably involving the CNRS.

And there, surprise!

Some samples show European characteristics of Homo sapiens.

Three pieces of animal bones in particular recovered during the original excavations have visibly been modified by man, note the paleoanthropologists who have put everything under the microscope.


We collaborated with Peking University and Oxford University to obtain the best possible dating for this era,”

explains Yang Shixia.

On the one hand, we used optically stimulated luminescence to perform sequential dating of sediments.

On the other hand, we performed direct carbon-14 dating on bones excavated alongside these stone tools, which also showed cut marks associated with human consumption of meat.

It’s like when you eat a steak, sometimes knife marks remain on the bones.” 

Yang Shixia, researcher and study coordinator here in her office at the Institute of Paleontology and Vertebrate Paleontology in Beijing.

© Stéphane Lagarde/RFI

Obsidian tools 

It is these cuts made during meals or the butchering of animals, notably horses hunted in the steppes of the current Chinese province of Shanxi, which have partly made it possible to push back the date of the arrival of modern man in China .

Research by Chinese, Australian, German, Spanish and French paleoanthropologists also reveals the exchanges and interactions between the new arrivals and those who were already there, more complex than scientists previously imagined.

Among the treasures found in Shiyu again, small obsidian tools.

“Chemical analyzes allowed us to know where these volcanic rock objects came from,”

explains Yang Shixia.

The results showed that this obsidian came from the east of Changbaishan Mountain, which marks the border between China and North Korea.

So it’s more than 800 kilometers from where they were found

. ”

Did Shiyu's groups of Homo sapiens travel almost 1,000 kilometers to collect these stones, which they considered precious, or did populations from the East and Far East come all the way here? ?

This remains a mystery, but what is certain is that this led to a certain genetic and cultural interbreeding over long distances:

“What we can affirm, according to the elements at our disposal, is that 45,000 years ago, different individuals met here and due to exchanges and cultural mixing, there were innovations and the appearance of new tools.


The Great Migration of Sapiens

A long way for Homo sapiens, a small leap in terms of sharing knowledge and technologies in Northern China.

When we look at the different colonizations of modern man, we see that the latter was faster than we expected.

If we all descend from these few thousand individuals who left Africa probably 60,000 years ago, the dates of their conquests of the different continents are moving back as scientific advances progress.

“In 2017, we realized that Homo sapiens already lived in Africa 300,000 years ago: overnight, this discovery made our species age by a hundred thousand years,”




In 2018, a jawbone found in Israel suggests that sapiens left their African cradle 180,000 years ago, 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

In 2020, the arrival of sapiens in Europe is taking a big step back: these great travelers have already invaded the continent 45,000 years ago.”

A great upheaval which has spread to East Asia.

The study published in


calls into question the chronology of the arrival of Homo sapiens in China.

With complex exchanges once again: at the Shiyu site, prehistorians found both Western-type spear points and Asian points which were sometimes transported over long distances, like the obsidians mentioned previously.

“We observed them under a microscope.

And we discovered certain parts polished by the movement.

“It’s like leaving things in your pocket for a year, and when you come out some of the surfaces are smooth.”  

Western and Asian points for hunting large animals with different attachment points.

© Stéphane Lagarde/RFI

Horse Hunters 

“The results of the taphonomic study of mammal fossils, combined with the analysis of the wear of stone tools, show that the people of Shiyu were 'horse hunters' equipped with tanged and handled projectile points”

, underlines

the press release published on the page of the institute of paleontology


By turning the clock back 5,000 years, Chinese researchers and their foreign partners contradict what was previously considered a manifestation of the

"slow development of culture and modernity in East Asia."

These horse hunters from the grasslands of northern China indeed exhibit many of the attributes of modern humans.

On the tool side:

“a range of innovative tools from the Upper Paleolithic, including scrapers and awls.


On the ornaments side: a perforated graphic disc described as

“the oldest object of adornment known for China.


Spanning more than six decades and involving the contributions of four generations of researchers, the study of the Shiyu site provides a better understanding of the evolution of human migrations.

It also shows that new discoveries can emerge from the same site thanks to new methods and the evolution of technologies.

Evolution of mentalities too: after the discovery and start of excavations at Shiyu launched in 1963 by Jia Lanpo, considered one of the founders of Chinese anthropology, research was relaunched by the famous prehistorians Huang Weiwen and Hou Yamei in 2011 .

Today, she is a researcher who has taken up the work of her illustrious predecessors.

Yang Shixia insisted that two women appear in the drawing accompanying the study:

“I am convinced,”

she said,

“that women participated in hunting work in the same way as men.


Also read: First men of China


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