Re: Zhoukoudian Fire

Glenn R. Morton (
Wed, 22 Jul 1998 19:51:07 -0500

Hi Blaine,

At 08:07 AM 7/22/98 -0700, wrote:
>Glenn R. Morton wrote:
>> There is a study out that disputes the use of fire at Zhou Kou Dian,
>> Beijing. All I have seen is press reports such as:
>> I am eager to see the original report.
>Hi Glenn
>I just saw the original report you mention above. Have you seen it
>yet? It is in Science 281:251-253 (10 July 1998).

By shear coincidence, I stopped at the library on the way home tonight and
copied the article. So I just read it. My comments below.

There is also a
>capsule summary of the article on page 165 of the same issue. I will
>quote from this:
>"They found no evidence of controlled use of fire: no hearths, no ashes,
>and none of the unique chemical signatures expected from fires." Science
>"In the lab they (Weiner, et al.) confirmed that a small number of bones
>were burned. But the sediments contained no ash or siliceous
>aggregates, soil-derived minerals that are cemented together in trees
>and stay intaact after burning-and should be present at the site of
>almost any wood fire. The thick layers aren't ash at all, but
>accumulations of organic material, much of it laid down under water,
>says Weiner." Science 281:166
>The paper indicate the samples were taken directly from layers 10 and 4
>of a sheer cliff while working atop a 10 story scaffold.

I posted on another list the questions I wanted answered about the article.
Here was my concern. The anthropological literature is full of these types
of statements about Zhou kou dian:

"Four ash layers at the site range in thickness from about 1 to 6 meters
and date to periods between 460,000 and 230,000 years ago. Charred Chinese
hackberry seeds also occur in the cave deposits, along with possibly burned
bones, artifiacts, and charcoal, although some archeologists question the
presence of actual hearths at this site." ~ Donald Johanson and Blake
Edgar, From Lucy to Language, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. 96

Relethford states:

"The Zhoukoudian caves show evidence of two major cultural adaptations of
H. erectus--fire and hunting. there are large hearths in the caves, some
with ash as deep as 7 ft. Fire was important in the northern environments
for warmth, light, and chasing off predators." ~ John H. Relethford,
Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, (Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co.,
1994), p. 271

I don't know the source of this information, but I for one am eager to see
the original report in Science. My question is: Did they examine talus
from the original excavation or is this new recently excavated material
from another part of the cave? If it is from another part of the cave,
then one might question the validity of the report in overthrowing the
original excavator's data.
***end of my concerns****
The unfortunate item about Zhou kou dian is that almost all of the deposits
were excavated earlier this century before many of the modern analytical
techniques were available. This leaves only the edges of the deposit to be
analysed. So, one of the questions I had about the article was did they
analyse the originally excavated material or the left-overs. They sampled
what is left.

So, given that they did not review the original material, does this
invalidate their result about not finding wood ash in the cave? I will
surprise you but I don't think it does. Ash at least in microscopic
quantities should have been kicked and pushed around the cave so that each
layer would have some ash all over it. So the fact that they didn't find
wood ash must be honored.

But this then sets up a puzzle. The authors showed that some of the bones
are burned.

"We extracted insoluble residues fromt he black bones after dissolution
ofthe carbonated apatite by IN hydrochloric acid (HCl) and the adherring
silicate minerals by 40% hydrofluoric acid (HF). Infrared (IR) spectra
showed that the insoluble residues are all characteristic of burned bone
organic matrix."~Steve Weiner et al, "Evidence for the Use of Fire at
Zhoukoudian, China," Science 281(1998):251-253, p. 251

and futher,

"The strongest evidence for fire associated with Layer 10 is the presence
of burined macrofaunal bones. Layer 10 also contains an assemblage of
stone artifacts composed mainly of quartzite. During our examination of
Layer 10, we observed several quartzite pieces, all of which came from the
upper part of the section. There is thus a close association of the
artifacts and the burned bones. Only 2.5% of the microfaunal bones were
burned, as compared to 12% of the macrofaunal bones. These values are
roughly similar to those obtained in much younger caves where fire was
undoubtedly used by humans. As some of the sediments of Layer 10 were
deposited under water, we cannot be sure that the bones, including the
large burned and unburned bones, as well as the artifacts are in their
original discard location. If fire was used at this location in the site,
it is difficult to account for the absence of the insoluble fraction of
wood ash."~Steve Weiner et al, "Evidence for the Use of Fire at
Zhoukoudian, China," Science 281(1998):251-253, p. 252

There is one thing that might resolve the discrepancy. Maybe the thing
that was burned (for there are burned bones in a proper percentage) was not
wood. What else burns but wouldn't leave wood-ash? How about manure?
Native Americans on the plains used buffalo chips (dried bison dung) for
fire. Even many of the early farmers of the plain used the same fuel. On
parts of the American prairie there were no trees to burn. Also another
source of fuel is bone. In Russia around 26,000 years ago, the mammoth
hunters actually burned mammoth bones for their fires although that
wouldn't be likely for Zhoukoudian that early.

The other part of the puzzle concerns the survivability of people in
Beijing to survive the winter without heat. According to

the average nightly low temperature in Beijing in December, January and
February is 22, 17 and 22 deg. F respectively. The coldest it has been in
the past 100 years is 1 deg F. But today is not the height of a glacial
age. From 500,000 to 200,000 is the height of the Kansan/Mindel
Glaciation. So presumably the temperature was colder then. Even with
temperatures of today, with a 20 km/h wind, the feel of the temperature
drops into the -20 deg C range. It would be difficult to survive a 3 month
long winter like that without some sort of protection in the form of warmth.

To conclude, I think the press has overblown this report a bit. It doesn't
prove that there was no fire at Beijing, it does indicate that they didn't
use wood and the association of artifacts with burned bones in a proportion
similar to known human cook-fire residues, surely must make one think long
and hard before denying that there was any use of fire. If the authors
could rule out dung as a fuel, then their case might become stronger. I do
accept what they say that there is no wood ash at Zhou kou dian. But I am
not so sure that the case against fire itself has been made yet.


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