Prehistoric pigment points to archaic brain trust.

Nature reports on the discovery of an unusually advanced settlement in East Asia. Around 40,000 years ago, when Denisovans, Neanderthals, and the very first Homo sapiens were replacing older human ancestors, a group of early humans in Xiamabei were processing ochre – a pigment used for ritual makeup and symbolic painting – and were refining tools using techniques around 10 to 20,000 years in advance of their neighbors:

Current palaeo-anthropological and archaeological evidence demonstrates that H. sapiens was present in northern Asia by at least 40thousand years ago (ka). It is often argued that the terrestrial expansion of modern humans was facilitated by the use of advanced economic, social and symbolic adaptations enabling occupation of a variety of ecosystems. Pigment use in particular is seen as a key indicator of symbolically mediated behaviour, and technological innovations, such as the use of miniaturized technology, are considered to have had adaptive and economic advantages.

Xiamabei contains the earliest evidence of ochre processing, a novel miniaturized lithic technology, with bladelet-like forms and hafted items, and a bone tool, dating to around 41–39ka. Xiamabei stands apart from any other known archaeological site in China, as it possesses a novel set of cultural characteristics at an early date.

Taken together, the multi-proxy site evidence indicates that different types of ochre were brought to the site and processed using abrasion and pounding to produce ochre powder of different colour and granulometry. Although the purpose of such an activity cannot be established (for example, the production of paint for colouring objects or decorating bodies, tanning of hides or use of ochre as a load-ing agent for adhesives), the quantity of ochre powder produced was large enough for the leftover material to permanently impregnate the sediment of the area on which tasks took place. This work area, which represents the earliest known instance of ochre processing in Eastern Asia28, indicates that the use of this material was part of the behavioural repertoire of regional populations by about 40ka, preceding the origin of microblade technologies in China by 10kyr.

The Xiamabei site excavations and analyses identify the appearance, about 40ka, of new cultural expressions and features that were either unknown or exceedingly rare in Eastern Asia. The combination of two knapping techniques for the production of small blanks, used for a variety of tasks and sometimes hafted, indicates the existence of a complex technical system involving the use and transformation of different raw materials. Such a technical system, not identified at older and penecontemporaneous sites, gives the Xiamabei assemblage an original character. A workshop for the production and use of mineral pigments at Xiamabei constitutes a second new cultural element in comparison with earlier and contemporary sites.

…The most parsimonious hypothesis—considering the presence of contemporary fossils of modern humans at Tianyuandong, and somewhat younger at Salkhit and Zhoukoudian Upper Cave—is that the visitors to Xiamabei were H. sapiens.

…The cultural adaptations at Xiamabei may reflect a first colonization by modern humans, potentially involving cultural and genetic mixing with local Denisovans, and perhaps replaced by a later second arrival. This supports the view that current evolutionary scenarios are simplistic and that we should expect repeated but differential episodes of genetic and cultural exchange over large geographic areas.