Micromorphological analysis of the deposits at the early pottery Xianrendong cave site, China: formation processes and site use in the Late Pleistocene
Excavations at the cave site of Xianrendong (Jiangxi Province, China) recovered the earliest known pottery (20/19,000 cal bp) in the world from a typical South China Upper Paleolithic chopper-chopping tool assemblage together with bone, antler, and shell tools. Here, we present the results of micromorphological and preliminary FTIR analysis of the deposits looking at high-resolution evidence of site formation processes, stratigraphic integrity, and spatial use of the site. The excavations in the cave can be divided into two areas, east and west. We demonstrate that the contexts of the micromorphological samples from both areas show negligible disturbances within the deposits, thus supporting the stratigraphic integrity of the radiocarbon samples used to date the pottery and site sequence. We also find differences in the formation processes between the east and west areas, including evidence of anthropogenic activities such as usage of hearths and dumping areas and differing geogenic inputs during the depositional history of each area. This study, the first of its kind for a Chinese Upper Paleolithic cave site, demonstrates the advantages of the systematic use of geoarchaeological methods (micromorphology and FTIR) for reconstructing human activities and site use and their environmental contexts.