Fossil Finds

Excavating sites in China's Yunnan Province, Nina Jablonski uncovered mammals from the last Ice Age.

Several years ago, a group of construction workers set out to build a new road in the village of Nanfeng, in China's Yunnan Province. As they dug down to create a level plane for the road, they unintentionally started a dig of a different kind - a paleontological excavation. By a stroke of luck, the workers had uncovered the top of a dense collection of mammalian fossils. After learning about the new site, Academy scientist Nina Jablonski assembled a team of both Chinese and American paleontologists to conduct an excavation.

Arriving in Yunnan Province this past November, Jablonski and her team excavated test pits at the new site of Nanfeng as well as four other nearby sites that were previously known. Their preliminary work yielded hundreds of new fossils spanning the Middle to Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene, about 780,000 - 5,000 years ago. The earlier fossils include massive megafauna from the last Ice Age, including giant pandas, woolly rhinoceroses and Stegodon, the enormous ancestor of mammoths and modern elephants. Jablonski also found a number of smaller ancient mammals, including deer, muntjacs, oxen, pigs, porcupines, rats, and a blind, burrowing rodent.

These new finds from Yunnan's Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs will help Jablonski and her colleagues to trace the evolutionary trajectories of different vertebrate lineages. This information will help scientists understand how different animals may react to future environmental change and guide future conservation decisions in the region.

While searching for fossils at Wanrengang, the team found this grinding tool, which ancient humans would have used to mash plant materials for food and pigments. Made from the quartzite cast of a large gastropod shell, it represents one of the first known examples of a fossil being fashioned and used by ancient humans as a tool.
Photo: Nina Jablonski


At Laohudong, a site known as the Tiger's Cave, Jablonski had to squeeze through a narrow entrance to access the cave's fossilized mammalian bones, which were probably washed into the site by flowing water.
Photo: George Chaplin
Map by Colleen Sudukem

The team excavated a test pit at the new paleontological site of Nanfeng, where they found fossilized bones from mammals as big as stegodon - the enormous ancestor of mammoths and modern elephants - and as small as mice.
Photo: Nina Jablonski