- Current Research in Chinese Pleistocene Archaeology
China has been for a long time a large landmass of which little was known by way of its prehistoric record. The narratives of human evolution on which I have been brought up focused on various parts of the Old World, almost invariably ending with a caveat: "But we know very little about China. We predict that intriguing things will come out of China that could change the whole picture."
Indeed. Chinese Pleistocene archaeology has not been static or stagnant, but it remained largely unknown to non-Chinese readers. After a long spell of scientific isolation China has opened to the West, and it now reveals riches of prehistoric archaeology that stand up to expectations. The volumes by Aigner (1981) and Wu and Olsen (1985) provided first glimpses of the achievements of Chinese colleagues up to the early 1980s. Shen and Keates' volume follows down the same path, acquainting the reader with the main questions, advances, and shifts in worldviews in Chinese Pleistocene archaeology during the last two decades.
There are two types of contributions in this volume. One group consists of site-oriented papers, elaborating on particular aspects of single sites or site complexes. Such are the two chapters on the early Pleistocene site of Xiaochangliang (dealing with site formation processes combined with lithic technology and with taphonomy, respectively); two papers on the middle Pleistocene site of Panxian Dadong (on bone taphonomy, site formation processes and human behavior, and on ESR dating); and a contribution dealing with the age of the Jinniushan hominin (also of middle Pleistocene age) and its skeletal remains. Other chapters in the volume take a comparative and/or synthetic approach to the study of lithic technology (Chun Chen, Youping Wang), site formation processes (Chun Chen, Susan Keates), and chronology (Susan Keates, Qi Chen). The compilation of papers results in a volume that speaks in unison to a profound paradigm change in Chinese Pleistocene archaeology. C. Chen characterizes this change as a shift from "culture history" to "scientific archaeology."
One consensual view that emerges from this volume is that the paradigm shift was brought about by increasing collaborative projects between Chinese and foreign colleagues. Cormack's review of Davidson Black's career in China is illustrative in this context. Seemingly out of place and distanced from the realities of the here and now in Chinese prehistory, it provides a historical account of Black's joint work with Chinese colleagues. Cormack underlines the reasons for Black's successful scientific enterprise in China. She identifies his ability to establish true collaborations among equal partners (as opposed to scientific colonialism) as a keystone of his success. Similar sentiments resonate loud and [End Page 283] clear in C. Chen's account of the history of Paleolithic archaeology in China and are implicit in many of the papers by Chinese colleagues. There is a message here to take home (or at least to heart) about the way international research in China (or in other parts of the world, for that matter) should be carried out, as noted also by Shutler in his comments.
The book's title conveys more than simply the time frame encompassed in the volume. As the editors emphasize, the Paleolithic cultural sequence of China is such that internal temporal divisions are not warranted, let alone the use of terminology borrowed from Paleolithic research in the West. Instead, they are of the opinion that the appropriate analytical units for dealing with China's prehistory are temporal, and they emphasize their preference for the terminology of early, middle, and late Pleistocene. Still, the editors seem to have placed a high premium on the early and middle Pleistocene, as the late Pleistocene is discussed less frequently in this volume. It is unavoidable in such a context that the antiquity of the early Paleolithic in China will become of major interest. How do claims for the existence of late Pliocene and/or early Pleistocene sites in China (amply cited throughout the book) stand the test of rigorous research methodologies? This is...