A foreign expert's eye view on Chinese Paleolithic Archaeology:Interview with Professor Robin Dennell
The First China Archaeological Congress is held in Zhengzhou, with the participation of about 400 experts from over 10 countries and regions including United Kiingdom, Egypt, Germany, India and the United States and etc. Take this opportunity，We invited PhD.Li Feng who is from IVPP to interview the British palaeolithic archaeologist Robin Dennell to talk about a foreign expert's eye view on Chinese Paleolithic Archaeology.
Professor Robin Dennell, whose main research interests are the palaeolithic and Pleistocene of Asia, particularly China and East Asia.Professor Robin Dennell has published over 100 research papers, and the most important recent publication is ”The Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia”, published by Cambridge University Press in 2009. He has recently collaborated with Chinese colleagues in searching for early palaeolithic evidence in the Loess Plateau of Central China, and later palaeolithic evidence in Inner Mongolia. In recent years he has become interested in increasing the number of palaeolithic and human evolution sites world with World Heritage status.
Have you conducted cooperative work with Chinese archaeologists? How was these work? What do you think of the new progresses in Chinese Paleolithic Archaeology?
I joined the IVPP team at the excavation of two sites in the Shuidonggou valley in 2007 to learn how Chinese archaeologists excavate palaeolithic sites. I’ve also worked as part of a team for two field seasons with Professors Zhu Zhaoyu from Guangzhou and Huang Weiwen from IVPP in the Chinese Loess Plateau in Lantian County near Xi’an. For me, these have been wonderful experiences. The excavation at Shuidonggou was at a very high standard in both the excavation and the recording – I do not think that I would have done anything different back in Europe. With the fieldwork in the Loess Plateau, where we were looking for stone artefacts in very deep sections of loess that were up to 70 metres thick, we worked in the same way that I had previously worked in my own project in Pakistan in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The investigations by Chinese and other scientists in the Loess Plateau is of course world-class, and the Loess Plateau provides the best terrestrial record in the world of climate change over the last 2 million years.
I think that Chinese Palaeolithic archaeology has made enormous progress in the last 15-20 years in several ways. First, the standard of excavation, particularly in the way material is recorded; is now very high on the best excavations; secondly, there is now – at least at IVPP – a healthy number of young researchers in new fields (for China) such as micro-wear analysis of artefacts, phytoliths and starch grains, archaeo-zoology, and experimental archaeology. There is also a greater awareness of taphonomy and site formation processes – in other words, how the palaeolithic record is created. Perhaps most importantly, most students are now excellent at speaking and reading English, and many are now (with some editorial help) publishing their material in western journals.
Professor Robin Dennell at Shuidonggou Site in 2007
You know very well about the Paleolithic works in western world, and are there any differences or similarities between them and Paleolithic work in China?
From what I’ve experienced in China at Shuidonggou and in the Loess Plateau, I don’t see any major differences now in excavation between what is done in China and in Europe. One major difference is that most attention in China is on individual sites. In Britain and parts of Europe, the emphasis has shifted to include studies of the landscape and how settlement patterns changed in response to climatic and environmental change. I hope this type of approach will be developed in China. GIS could play an important role, and I am glad to see that it is now being developed at IVPP in a palaeolithic context. I think in Britain and northern Europe especially, the best palaeolithic research is not only multi-disciplinary but inter-disciplinary: in other words, the different types of research are well-integrated, and not just done separately. To do this successfully, you obviously need an excellent director and a team that is prepared to work together. It is a slow process, but I think this will start to happen in China, particularly in IVPP.
What is the position of China in Paleolithic Archaeology? what do you think of the contribution of the Chinese paleolithic to the studies of human evolution in the world?
There is no doubt that the Palaeolithic of China was seen as unimportant by most western researchers until recently. There are several reasons for this. An important one was that the American archaeologist Hallam Movius dismissed East Asia as marginal and irrelevant back in 1948, and his negative views influenced most western researchers for several decades. However, it is also fair to say that there was little information available to western researchers. Most knew about Zhoukoudian because of the Homo erectus remains that were found there in the 1930’s, but there was very little information about the palaeolithic stone tool assemblages. Most had probably also heard of Shuidonggou and the Nihewan Basin, but I remember that even in the 1990’s, there were not many English publications available.
China now has a much higher profile regarding its palaeolithic record. I think there are three reasons. One is that there are many more Chinese archaeologists publishing their material in English, in western journals. A second is that there are now many more western researchers visiting China at conferences, and collaborating with Chinese researchers. There is now a small but growing community emerging of western researchers with a genuine interest in collaborating with Chinese scientists. For the Palaeolithic, I can think of researchers from Australia, America, Belgium, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and South Africa. Also very important is the fact that many young Chinese researchers are going abroad for their post-graduate training, becoming fluent in English, and they also play an important role in raising the profile of China.
Regarding the contribution of the Chinese Paleolithic to the studies of human evolution: China is clearly too big to be dismissed as marginal. It also has the longest record of occupation outside Africa – I’m thinking here of the Nihewan Basin, with its outstanding record of sites dating from the Neolithic back to ca. 1.7 million years ago: nowhere else in Asia or Europe do you find that length of sequence. We also know now that its early palaeolithic record – in other words, before ca. 40,000 years ago – is not primitive and simple, as suggested by Movius. As you might expect in a country as large as China, there is a great deal of variation in the type of stone tools, the rocks there were made from, and the way they were made. Some – especially so-called handaxes – are very like some from Europe, but others are found only in China or East Asia. The big difference between East Asia and Europe and SW Asia is that there is no obvious equivalent in China to the Middle Palaeolithic. Nor is there any obvious reason why there should be a Chinese Middle Palaeolithic – each region has its own history. After all, China does not have a Copper Age, as in Europe, because it used jade instead.
With the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens, in Asia, China is now playing a major role. First, it has a rich fossil record. Secondly, recent excavations have produced material that is hard to explain. Some specimens of our species seem to be much older than expected by those who think that our species reached China only 40,000 years ago. I’m thinking here of caves in South China such as Xinrendong and Daoxian that have produced examples of Homo sapiens that may be 80,000 years old. Also, caves in Yunnan Province in southwest China have produced human remains that are only 10-14,000 years old but these have a very strange appearance, and again, this was unexpected. The main problem continues to be one of dating, particularly when specimens were found many years ago and not under ideal circumstances (for example, when they were found by villagers digging for fertiliser). Caves are also very complex environments, and we need to understand their sedimentary history much better before we can be sure of the age of some of these specimens.
Studies of ancient DNA have also had a big impact in showing that the population history of East Asia is far more complex that we thought only a few years ago. There are clearly many questions that we cannot answer at present, and this also increases interest in the fossil, genetic and palaeolithic history of China.
Professor Robin Dennell at Shuidonggou Site in 2007
How do you think about the influence and benefit of an archaeological project to the local community? How do you conduct public archaeological programs in England?
Public interest in archaeology is essential. After all, it is the public that pays for archaeology through its taxes, and the public need to know that their money is spent well, and that archaeology is interesting and worthwhile to them. Also, some of those teenagers who see how archaeological sites are excavated will study archaeology at university, and some of those will become the next generation of archaeologists. For the local community, it is important that it has an appreciation of its own history. To give an example: I live in a village in south-west England, where recent work has shown that the Romans were living over 1700 years ago along the same road where I live, and that knowledge helps us appreciate that our village has a deep history.
There are many types of public archaeology programmes in England. Local societies and local and national museums often have open days when the public can see current excavations or see how prehistoric objects such as pottery, metal or wood were made by watching researchers replicate them. One example is an excellent Ancient Technology Centre where the public can see replicas of ancient buildings and specialists making the types of objects found on archaeological sites. Another way that is very popular is through re-enactment: that is to say, there are amateur enthusiasts who dress up as Roman or medieval soldiers and show the public the type of uniforms and weapons that were used. Some of the larger museums also employ actors who dress up as Romans or prehistoric people and then interact with the public – this is very popular with children and young people. The basic idea is that the public is immersed in an ancient culture, so it is not just in a glass case.