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Paleolithic India and the spread of humans

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Acheulian tools

On a visit to a museum recently I saw some paleolithic tools found in India and began to wonder about them: how old they are, what species of humans used them, how widespread they were. A little searching led to the fact that tools such as the ones on the right are known as Acheulian tools. They are the oldest kind found in India. Similar stone age tools are seen across Africa, Asia and Europe.

Also, I began to wonder why we learn so little of prehistory in school, although Paleolithic tools were first identified in India in 1863. The answer turned out to be completely surprising. Our knowledge of paleolithic cultures in India has been overturned just a year back. Little that was written about it before that is correct. The new findings are central to the study of how humans spread across the world.

The main error was that Acheulian tools found in India were thought to be a few tens of thousands of years old. The first paper that suggested very old dates for the Acheulian tools found in India was an article written in 1992 by Sheila Mishra in Current Anthropology:

In summary, the dates obtained from Saurashtra by Baskaran et al. were useful as the first minimum dates for the Acheulian in India. Dates implying that the Acheulian is beyond the limit of Th230/U234 dating method have more recently been obtained from Did- wana in the Thar Desert (Raghvan, Rajaguru, and Misra I990), from Nevasa and Yedurwadi in the upper reaches of the Krishna and Godavari River systems (Atkinson et al. I990), and from Teggihalli in the middle reaches of the Krishna drainage (Szabo et al. I990). … [I]t seems more likely that the true age of the Acheulian is > 350,000 B.P. at both Sadab and Teggihalli. The recent dating attempts have therefore significantly increased the antiquity of the Acheulian in India.

This was the first time anyone put together the argument that these artifacts were so old that they could not be properly dated by the methods then in use. Sheila Mishra’s blog pointed to the paradigm shifting paper from March 2011 by Shanti Pappu and her collaborators in Science in which they used completely new tools for age determination and found:

South Asia is rich in Lower Paleolithic Acheulian sites. These have been attributed to the Middle Pleistocene on the basis of a small number of dates, with a few older but disputed age estimates. Here, we report new ages from the excavated site of Attirampakkam, where paleomagnetic measurements and direct 26Al/10Be burial dating of stone artifacts now position the earliest Acheulian levels as no younger than 1.07 million years ago (Ma), with a pooled average age of 1.51 ± 0.07 Ma. These results reveal that, during the Early Pleistocene, India was already occupied by hominins fully conversant with an Acheulian technology including handaxes and cleavers among other artifacts. This implies that a spread of bifacial technologies across Asia occurred earlier than previously accepted.

These ages are contemporary with some other Lower Pleistocene Acheulian sites in Africa and southwest Asia. The earliest known dates for the Acheulian (~1.6 to 1.4 Ma) are from East Africa (14, 15). Early Acheulian sites in South Africa have also yielded an age of ~1.6 Ma (12), suggesting rapid and widespread dispersal of this technology across Africa. Closer to India, the age of the Acheulian at ′Ubeidiya (Israel) is estimated at ~1.4 Ma (16), and the sequence at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov was formed between 0.7 and 0.8 Ma (17). In the Bose basin, China, Acheulian-like bifaces date back to ~0.8 Ma (19). In South Asia, there is at present little unequivocal evidence for a pre-Acheulian Early Pleistocene occupation

In short, the oldest stone tools found in India are Acheulian, and date from about 1.5 million years ago. This implies that the earliest tool users in India were probably Homo habilis rather than Homo sapiens. Similar tools are found in European sites much later, only from about half a million years ago. This could imply that H. habilis from Africa, or at least their Acheulian technology, migrated to West Asia very soon, and then radiated immediately to the east into Asia long before the movement west into Europe. All earlier histories were thrown off by erroneous datings of Indian remains.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 22, 2012 at 6:29 pm

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