Conversations with: Dr Shixia Yang

I am delighted to introduce today Dr Shixia Yang, a Palaeolithic archaeologist from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences! Shixia’s current research focuses on stone tool production techniques, raw material sourcing and human adaptation to different environments in East Asia. Recently, she was also granted a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to conduct research at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History between 2017 and 2019. 

Dr Shixia Yang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

Generally, I am interested in human evolution in relation to climate change. I am a Palaeolithic archaeologist, and I devote a lot time to researching the evolution of human behaviour. Currently, my own research focuses on stone tools in Palaeolithic East Asia, and understanding how climate climatic change may have influenced stone tool production techniques, raw material sourcing and so on.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

During my first two years at university, I was fascinated by the exquisite bronzes of Shang Dynasty (also named Yin Shang, the Chinese dynasty in the second millennium BC). However, I changed my mind after my first field excavation in 2008 at the beginning of my third year of university, which is usually when students receive field training in China. We excavated a site containing cultural layers from historical periods to the Neolithic Age, but without Palaeolithic. It was then that I began to get curious to what the Palaeolithic age was like. To get more information about the Palaeolithic, I began to read more books about stone tools. I became deeply attracted to the different types of lithics and realised that Palaeolithic studies is closely related to geology, which was one of my favourite subjects in the high school. In 2009, I got the chance to visit the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). This is an institute where a group of archaeologists focus mainly on Palaeolithic and have large collection of lithics from different parts of China. In the following year, I entered IVPP as a PhD candidate for a five-year program.

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? How did you find your PhD experience?

I obtained my PhD at Institute of IVPP in April 2015. My PhD topic was on the Acheulean of the Dingcun site along Yellow River. I focussed on technique analysis and performed a knapping experimental study of the Dingcun assemblage.

At that time (2010-2012), the Acheulean in Eastern Asia was a big controversial issue. Only a few scholars in China supported my work. My supervisor, Yamei HOU, and I felt huge pressure from other colleagues but my supervisor really encouraged me to think and work independently. She also encouraged me to do exchange project with French research team. During my PhD, with the support of the Sino-French Program Cai Yuanpei, I had the chance to work and study in France with Prof. Jacques Pelegrin and Jacques Jaubert. They helped me learn a lot about stone tool manufacturing techniques and knapping experiments.

Finally, I published my paper on the Dingcun’s Acheulean and finished my PhD. My PhD was an important experience in learning how to break conventions and work hard on my own academic ideas.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

After my PhD, I was still at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), however I moved to another institute, the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, and I began a post-doc research project within a geologic group. In that two years, I was the only archaeologist there, whilst others worked on chronology, geophysics, palaeoenvironments and geotectonics. It was a wonderful experience, as I learned how to work inter-disciplinarily and made some excellent friends. After two years, in July of 2017, I returned to IVPP, CAS, and became a permanent member there. In the same year, I received a Humboldt fellowship and so I worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History for two years till the end of 2019. Now I am back to China to continue my research work with the IVPP, CAS.

All of this has happened early in my academic career, during the first five years science I got my PhD. I feel very lucky to have been given the chance to work in different research institutions and learn from cooperative partners and enlightened supervisors working in different disciplines.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

In the recent five years, I have been mainly working on a project titled: “Behavioral Adaptations of the Earliest Humans in East Asia”. I’ve been working on this project with Prof. Cheng-Long Deng (from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, CAS) and Prof. Michael Petraglia (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) to understand early human behaviour and environmental influences on human evolution in the well-known Nihewan Basin. We have been trying to explain more details of Early Pleistocene hominin behaviour in eastern Asia, and link it to the changing climate in the region.

On the Losses Plateau, I have worked with Prof. Zhaoyu Zhu, Prof. Robin Dennell and Prof. Weiwen Huang. We recently reported the earliest appearance of hominins outside Africa at the site of Shangchen in Nature, and the oldest artefacts are dated to about 2.12 Ma.

Shixia taking part in field investigations in eastern Asia

Currently, I am also working with Dr. Jianping Yue and Prof. Li Youqian on the topic of “The Environmental changes and behavioral adaptation of hunter-gather in Northeastern China.”. Northeast China is situated at the crossroads between North China, Mongolia, the Russian Far East, the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, and the site is characterised by the high sensitivity to climatic fluctuations during the Late Pleistocene to early Holocene. It is a really great project!

I am looking forward to making more exciting archaeological findings and enriching the Palaeolithic story of eastern Asia. At the same time, I would love to know more about how human adapts to different environments in the future.

What do you like the most about being in the field?

For me, field archaeology is wonderful combination of manual and mental work, and it takes me close to the nature, which is important to me. My favourite memories from the field are always related to the beautiful sunset after a whole day excavation.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am very proud of joining the team that led to the discovery of the earliest stone tools in eastern Asia. I would also say that the Loess-Paleosols sequence is amazing and looking for stone tools in the deepest section is one of the best things I have ever done.

During the 2018 field trip to the Loess Plateau

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

Recently, with the development of ancient DNA techniques, I have seen a series of important publications which have really refreshed our knowledge of early humans. For example, the publication The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father in 2018 deeply changed what we can know about extinct hominins – I think this is a really revolutionary discovery

What would you be if you were not an archaeologist?

 When I was a teenager, my ideal career was to become a diplomat. After starting university, I found myself more inclined to work on something close to the nature (plants or animals), so maybe a botanist!


Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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