China’s Cave of Prehistoric Mysteries

As much knowledge as we have gained about the history of our world, there some things that we may never truly understand. As we peer back into time to ages long gone, the picture of events can become distorted and murky, our only lens through which to see it warped and fogged by the inexorable march of time. Scattered ruins, scant remains, and incomplete evidence conspire with the passage of aeons to perhaps forever fog our knowledge of past events. One such enigma that has proven to confound those who have researched it is a remote cave in China, where baffling clues and perplexing evidence have left us trying to fit together a picture of the strange events that took place here.

Perched up within a karst tower 1630 meters above sea level in a remote valley near the western Guizhou Plateau, in Southern China, is a cavern called the Panxian Dadon, which means simply “Big Cave.” Despite its gaping maw of an entrance which can be seen from a distance, at first glance may seem not all that much different from the numerous other similar caves and caverns that dot the mountainous area here, yet the Panxian Dadon holds within its cavernous murky depths some of the most profound and perplexing paleontological and archeological mysteries of modern times.

Panxian Dadon Cave

Panxian Dadon Cave

The cave long remained hidden within the rugged mountainous wilderness, and was not actually first discovered and explored until 1990, when archeologists penetrated into the uncharted darkness and were met with a series of unusual findings. The cave itself was found to be surprisingly large, stretching for a total of over 1,660 meters into the mountainside, with various interconnected caves, shafts and tunnels that meandered off into the inky black. The total area of the fairly vast cave system was estimated to be around 9,900 square meters. As impressive as this was, the real surprises came when researchers began picking through the deep prehistoric sediment deposits here and found an increasingly baffling collection of ancient remains dating back between 130,000 to 300,000 years that remain a mystery to this day.

Among the large number of remains found in Panxian Dadon were those of human ancestors found to be around 300,000 years old, making them perhaps the earliest known human population in Asia, along with numerous surprisingly well-made stone artifacts and evidence of burned charcoal and bones. Scattered among these human remains were also the teeth, bones, and skulls of a menagerie of ancient, long extinct animals, including over 40 species of mammals, many of these very large species. Among the many animals found were an extinct rhino species, buffalos, enormous elephant-like creatures known as Stegodons, and many others. While this is an impressive treasure trove of paleontological findings, the big mystery here is why any of these animals should have been there at all. How did these large, lumbering beasts, many of which are not known to have lived in caves, manage to get all the way up into this cavern located up steep rock over 1600 meters above sea level? It is a question with an answer that continues to elude researchers to this day.

Stegadon

Stegadon

Paleoanthropologists have pointed out that it is unlikely that these animals wandered in on their own, since species such as the Stegodon and rhinos typically were browsers and grazers that lived on open grasslands rather than in caves, and it also seems unlikely that these enormous, hulking beasts could have climbed up to the cave by themselves even if they wanted to. Additionally, the large amount of rhino remains found in the cave is at odds with their typically solitary nature. One theory has been that prehistoric predators may have killed the animals and dragged them back to their cave lairs to feast on them, yet evidence found on the bones that were found tends to challenge this notion. Careful analysis of the bones showed that ancient human beings likely had some part to play here, although it is unclear just what that may be. A paleoanthropologist from the University of Cincinnati named Lynne Schepartz, who has spent a lot of time working with other scientists from as far and wide as California, Chicago, Beijing studying the cave’s mysteries, elaborated on the condition of the bones thus:

Clearly humans are doing something with the bones, because we’re finding them burnt. There are cut marks. We found a beautiful example of a percussion damage mark where the bone had been pounded, probably by a stone tool. The same piece has a cut mark and was burnt. Everything you could do as a prehistoric person to damage a bone has been done.

Other questions that surround the remains are why there is such a plentitude of rhino and Stegadon remains in particular compared to the other species found, and why out of all of the Stegadon remains only one adult specimen has been identified while the rhinos represent an even distribution of all ages. This tends to discount the idea that young Stegadons were killed just because they were easier prey and easier to carry up to the cavern, and seems to demonstrate a very conscious, deliberate process behind the reasons why these large, heavy animals were killed and laboriously brought here, rather than just random hunting. Whatever those reasons may be remain unknown, and will perhaps always remain so. For the time being, research has continued at the Panxian Dadon cave, and the Chinese government has designated the site as a national preservation site, making it a rare case of such a designation for a prehistoric site in the country.

While research continues to try and piece together these ancient clues, there is a chance that we may never truly know for sure what transpired here all of those millennia ago. These are secrets that have been lost to the ages, buried under the sands of time, leaving us to merely sift through the remnants and speculate. For some ancient mysteries there is no sure way to come to an understanding of what exactly happened. We are left to peer back through the cracked sense of scattered remains and incomplete evidence to wonder and marvel at long gone ages. While we may never thoroughly peel back the mysteries of the Panxian Dadon, here at this remote, lofty cave there were strange things afoot in a land where giant stegadons and other megafauna roamed the earth, and the first humans hid in darkened caves, perhaps looking to and wondering about their future as much as we look back and wonder at our past.