The Japan Times
March 4, 2000

803,000-year-old stone axes found in south China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) Eight hundred thousand years ago, a meteorite blasted into what is now Vietnam, burning forests, killing off wildlife and probably badly frightening the prehumans who lived there.

But eventually, the hominids came back, perhaps having survived the explosion in limestone caves or perhaps wandering in from neighboring regions decades later.

They found a freshly exposed outcropping of rock, perfect for making stone tools. Archaeologists said Thursday they found those tools — the oldest stone axes ever found in China. They date to 803,000 years ago.

They say the tools show that the Asian Homo erectus was every bit as advanced as his African cousins and suggest this species of early humans shared a global culture.

"The early humans in China, in eastern Asia, were not part of some cultural backwater," Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who helped lead the study, said in a telephone interview.

"They had the competence and the smarts to do exactly what hominids were doing in other parts of the world."

Potts and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing were exploring an area in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Province, near the border with Vietnam in southern China.

The area is part of an ancient blast zone that has been well documented. Tektites — little pieces of broken stone associated with meteorites — have been found scattered across southeast Asia and as far south as Australia.

Potts said no one knows whether the meteorite hit the ground and broke up, or exploded just above ground level, throwing up earth and broke rocks. Either way, it was devastating.

"It would have killed off life close to the impact area or entry area. It must have been an awful place to have been at the time," he said.

"It seems like the ground zero would have been Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam," he added. "No impact crater has been found but it may have been covered over."

What has been found is a rich collection of stone tools. Potts and colleagues report in the journal Science that they have dated the tools and the tektites to 803,000 years ago.

"What we also found to our surprise at the time was that at the layer of these tektites there were also microscopic pieces of plant fragments, of burned wood, of charcoal," Potts said.

"What that indicates was that there was a lot of burned wood. I think it is evidence of fairly massive deforestation."

It is known that Homo erec-tus lived in the area at the time. "They would have been greatly affected by this," Potts said. "It's a darn shame we don't have fossil bones from this area."

But his team is digging in nearby limestone caves to see if they can find any.

Potts thinks the evidence so far tells a good tale, however.

"The fire would have actually really destroyed the forest and that would have exposed these large outcrops of stone," he said. "Large, large areas of exposed cobbles would have been available. Under those conditions that local and regional populations moved back in and made stone tools."

Potts specializes in studying how environmental change helped force the ancestors of humans to adapt and change.