Tools Reveal Ancient High-Tech China

About 800,000 years ago, a massive meteorite sent up a spray of molten debris and ignited fires throughout what's now the Guangxi Zhuang region of southern China. The conflagration incinerated trees and brush, exposing underlying beds of cobblestones. Now anthropologists report that survivors of the cataclysm fashioned these rocks into stone tools--the oldest yet found in Asia.

Sophisticated stone handaxes and cleavers as old as 1.5 million years have been found in Africa, but the same technologies weren't thought to have existed in Asia until about 500,000 years ago, when the oldest reliably dated tools were crafted. Some anthropologists therefore wrote Asia off as a cultural backwater decades ago. But other researchers suggested that some Asian sites are quite old, and some theorized that ancient Asians might have carved high-tech tools in perishable wood or bone, leaving little trace of their skill.

The new findings, reported in the 3 March Science, show that early Asian Homo erectus were more resourceful than expected. The team, led by paleontologist Huang Weiwen of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., dated remnants of molten rock thrown up by the meteorite blast. The tools were found in the same layer of soil. Using radiometric decay of argon isotopes, the researchers put the date of the tools and the blast at 803,000 years.

The dates are "outstanding," filling in a crucial gap, says Clark Howell, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. They give a shot of credibility to Chinese paleontologists' claims that tools at other Chinese sites may be as much as 2 million years old and as advanced as those of similar age in Africa, he says.