Tianyuan Cave (China)

Early Modern Human in Eastern Eurasia at Tianyuan Cave

Lower jaw from early modern human skeleton from Tianyuan Cave, China.
Lower jaw from early modern human skeleton from Tianyuan Cave, China. Shang et al. 2007

The archaeological site known as Tianyuan Cave (Tianyuandong or Tianyuan 1 Cave) is located at the Tianyuan Tree Farm in Huangshandian Village, Fangshan County, China, and about six kilometers (3.7 miles) southwest of the famous site of Zhoukoudian. Since it is so close and shares geological strata with the more famous site, Tianyuan Cave is known in some of the scientific literature as Zhoukoudian Locality 27.

Tianyuan Cave's opening is at 175 meters (575 feet) above current sea levels, higher than other sites at Zhoukoudian. The cave includes a total of four geological layers, only one of which--Layer III--contained human remains, the partial skeleton of an archaic human being. Numerous fragmentary evidence of animal bones have also been recovered, most notably in the first and third layers.

Although the context of the human bone was somewhat disturbed by the workmen who discovered the site, scientific excavations uncovered additional human bone in situ. The human bone has been interpreted to most likely represent Early Modern Human. The bones were radiocarbon-dated to between 42,000 and 39,000 calibrated years before the present. With that, the Tianyuan Cave individual is one of the oldest Early Modern Human skeletons recovered in eastern Eurasia, and in fact, is one of the earliest outside of Africa.

Human Remains

Thirty-four human bones were removed from the cave, probably from a single individual of about 40-50 years of age, including a jaw bone, fingers and toes, both leg bones (femur and tibia), both scapulae, and both arm bones (both humeri, one ulna). The gender of the skeleton is indeterminate since there was no pelvis recovered and long bone length and gracility measures are ambiguous. No skull was recovered; and neither were any cultural artifacts, such as stone tools or evidence of butchering on the animal bone. The age of the individual was estimated based on tooth wear and evidence for moderately advanced osteoarthritis in the hands.

The skeletal material has most physical affiliations with archaic humans (early modern humans), although there are some features that are similar to Neandertals or midway between EMH and Neandertals, specifically teeth, tuberosity of the fingers and robustness of the tibia compared to its length. One of the femora was direct-dated between 35,000 and 33,500 RCYBP, or ~42-30 cal BP.

Animal Bones from the Cave

Animal bones recovered from the cave included 39 separate animal species, dominated by rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits). Other animals represented include sikka deer, monkey, civet cat, and porcupine; a similar faunal assemblage as that found at the Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian.

Stable isotope analysis on the animal and human bone was performed and reported in 2009. Hu and colleagues used carbon, nitrogen and sulfur isotope analysis to ascertain that the human-derived much of his/her diet from freshwater fish: this early direct evidence for fish consumption during the Upper Paleolithic in Asia, although indirect evidence has shown that fish use may have been in evidence as early as Middle Paleolithic times in Eurasia and Africa.


Tianyuan Cave was discovered by farmworkers in 2001 and subsequently investigated in 2001, and excavated in 2003 and 2004 by a team led by Haowong Tong and Hong Shang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The importance of Tianyuan Cave is that it is the second well-documented early modern human site in eastern Eurasia (Niah Cave 1 in Sarawak is the first), and its early date is parallel to the earliest EMH sites outside of Africa such as Pestera cu Oase, Romania and older than many such as Mladec.

Wearing Shoes?

The oddity of the toe bones led researchers Trinkaus and Shang to postulate that perhaps the human individual wore shoes. In particular, the middle phalanx is among the more gracile for its length compared to other Middle Upper Paleolithic humans, and in particular, as it is scaled to estimations of body mass and femoral head diameter. Such relationships compare favorable to modern shoe wearing individuals. See additional discussion at the History of Shoes discussion.


Hu Y, Shang H, Tong H, Nehlich O, Liu W, Zhao C, Yu J, Wang C, Trinkaus E, and Richards MP. 2009. Stable isotope dietary analysis of the Tianyuan 1 early modern human. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(27):10971-10974.

Rougier H, Milota S, Rodrigo R, Gherase M, Sarcina L, Moldovan O, Zilhão J, Constantin S, Franciscus RG, Zollikofer CPE et al. 2007. Pestera cu Oase 2 and the cranial morphology of early modern Europeans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(4):1165-1170.

Shang H, Tong H, Zhang S, Chen F, and Trinkaus E. 2007. An early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, Zhoukoudian, China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(16):6573-6578.

Trinkaus E, and Shang H. 2008. Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear: Tianyuan and Sunghir. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(7):1928-1933.