Beijing: In a remarkable discovery, researchers have found at an eroded basin in China's northern Hebei province what appears to be nearly two million-year-old "playground" of early hominids.
Examination of stone artefacts between 1.77 and 1.95 million-years-old found at the site suggested that they could be toys played with by children.
"This is an amazing discovery," said professor Wei Qi, paleoanthropologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead scientist of the project at the Heitugou site in Nihewan basin, Yangyuan county.
"The site is a treasure chamber that may hold some useful clues to answer a lot of important questions, from the social structure of the early hominids to whether, when and how they arrived in Asia all the way from Africa," he was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
Wei, now retired and spending most of his time at the site, believed that these stone pieces were made by the hands of children and women.
More than 80 per cent of them were small, ranging 20?50mm in length, with most carrying no sign of wear by use at all.
One artifact caught Wei's special attention. In his opinion it could be a toy or gift made by a mother for her child.
"You can almost feel the maker's love and passion, which was deeply embedded in this piece," he said.
"It was so finely made and beautifully shaped, its quality could rival the stone artefacts of much more recent periods," he said.
There is other evidence suggesting the site was a playground instead of a living or working area.
Researchers failed to find large amount of animal remains that are common in a habitat, and the near absence of large size stone tools could be a sign that few adult workers were involved in these activities.
A big challenge was to determine the age of these stone artefacts, Wei said.
Though the site was discovered as early as 2002, it was not until recently that the scientists were able to date it with any certainty.
Wei said they would report details of their findings in a research paper, which had been submitted to a top archaeological journal in China.
But Wei's discovery at the Heitugou site was not without controversy.
Gao Xing, researcher with the CAS Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, said the biggest concern was whether the stone pieces were all made by hand.
"It is difficult to rule out the possibility that they were just stone fragments created by natural forces," Gao said.