Go east, ancient tool makers

Hand ax innovators reached South Asia earlier than thought

Finds unearthed in southeastern India offer a cutting-edge revision of hominid migrations out of Africa more than 1 million years ago that spread pivotal tool-making methods.

SHARP FINDS Stone artifacts, such as this hand ax unearthed in India, indicate that African hominids moved to South Asia shortly after developing advanced stone tools 1.6 million years ago. Courtesy Science/AAAS
INDIA LINK Workers excavate India’s Attirampakkam site, where Homo erectus turned up bearing hand axes and related stone tools as early as 1.5 million years ago. Sharma Center for Heritage Education, India

Makers of a specific style of teardrop-shaped stone hand ax, flat-edged cleavers and other implements that originated in Africa around 1.6 million years ago (SN: 1/31/09, p. 11) reached South Asia not long afterward, between 1.5 and 1 million years ago, say archaeologist Shanti Pappu of the Sharma Center for Heritage Education in Tamil Nadu, India and her colleagues.

Rather than waiting until around 500,000 years ago to head into South Asia, as many researchers have thought, the African hand ax crowd wasted relatively little time before hightailing it to India, Pappu’s team concludes in the March 25 Science.

Archaeologists categorize stone hand axes and related implements as Acheulian tools. Most researchers regard Homo erectus, a species that originated around 2 million years ago, as the original brains behind Acheulian innovations.

“Acheulian tool makers were clearly present in South Asia more than 1 million years ago,” Pappu says. Several previous excavations in different parts of India have also yielded Acheulian tools, but these finds lack firm age estimates, she adds.

No fossils of members of the human evolutionary family, or hominids, turned up among the new tool finds.

H. erectus must have rapidly moved from East Africa to South Asia, proposes archaeologist Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. Pappu’s new finds raise the possibility that 800,000-year-old hand axes previously discovered in southeastern China (SN: 3/4/00, p. 148) indicate the presence of H. erectus groups that came from South Asia — or at least exposure of Chinese hominids to Acheulian techniques, Dennell suggests in a comment published in the same Science.

Prior finds point to a second migration of Acheulian-savvy hominids out of Africa, he says. Homo heidelbergensis — a species first identified in Europe that some researchers now suspect inhabited East Africa and possibly Asia — trekked northward to the Middle East and then westward into Europe by half a million years ago, Dennell hypothesizes.

Until now, scientific consensus held that Acheulian tool makers, presumably H. erectus, reached the Middle East at least twice, around 1.4 million and 800,000 years ago, but went no further. H. heidelbergensis then took Acheulian implements from Africa to both South Asia and Europe approximately 500,000 years ago in this scenario.

If that was the case, even older Chinese hand axes might represent a tool tradition that developed independently of outside influences.

Any relationship of those Chinese finds to tools unearthed by Pappu’s group remains unclear, comments Harvard anthropologist Philip Rightmire. But it’s not surprising that H. erectus inhabited South Asia sometime around 1.5 million years ago, he says. Other evidence suggests that H. erectus left Africa for several destinations throughout Asia beginning at least 1.8 million years ago, wielding simple chopping tools.

“For now, it’s enough to say that Homo erectus introduced Acheulian tools to India,” Rightmire says.

Pappu’s team excavated and dated stone tools at Attirampakkam, an Indian site discovered in 1863. Work since 1999 has produced more than 3,500 Acheulian artifacts, including 76 hand axes and cleavers.

Artifact-bearing soil contained signs of a reversal in Earth’s magnetic field that places the finds at between 1.07 and 1.77 million years old. Measurements of radioactive isotopes in six quartz tools unearthed at Attirampakkam indicated that these finds had been buried approximately 1.5 million years ago.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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