Stone Tools From India: Another Blow To Human Evolution Model?

By Gemma Tarlach | January 31, 2018 12:00 pm
Thousands of artifacts such as these stone tools have been excavated from a site in India, revealing Middle Stone Age technology arrived much earlier than once thought possible. (Credit: Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India)

Thousands of stone tools excavated from a site in India suggest that a sophisticated tool-making technology arrived in South Asia much earlier than once thought possible, say researchers. (Credit: Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India)

A new study on stone tools from a site in India offers the latest challenge to the model of human evolution and migration that has dominated paleoanthropology, particularly in the West, for decades. The artifacts, which the researchers say were produced with a sophisticated style of tool-making, are hundreds of thousands of years older than might be expected. What does it mean? Well, that part of the story is still up for debate.

At the archaeological site of Attirampakkam in southeastern India, near Chennai, researchers have collected more than 7,000 artifacts, many of them stone tools that appear to show a transition from an early style of tool-making to one that’s more sophisticated. The shocker: if the analysis is correct, the transition occurred more than 200,000 years earlier than expected based on previous evidence.

Tool-making styles, or technologies, are important in the study of human evolution and migration for a couple reasons. For starters, stone tools have a habit of sticking around long after human remains have disintegrated. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust and all that. But the complexity of the tool technology — how the tools were made — also can reveal a lot about the cognitive ability of the toolmaker.

The earliest tools at Attirampakkam belong to the Acheulean technology. Instantly recognizable by its teardrop shape, the Acheulean handaxe in particular was a considerable improvement on earlier Oldowan technology.

Example of an Achulean handaxe (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Example of an Acheulean handaxe from Egypt. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like Oldowan before it, all indications are that Acheulean technology emerged in Africa. When Homo erectus, the first known member of the genus Homo to leave Africa, up and left about 1.9 million years ago to spread across Eurasia, they were carrying Acheulean tools. (An exception would be the hominins found at Dmanisi, in the Caucasus, which are nearly 1.9 million years old and were found with more primitive Oldowan tools.)

What a Tool

Hundreds of thousands of years later, the Levallois technology appears in the archaeological record, representing another significant improvement. In this method, one side of a stone called a core is pre-shaped. That pre-shaped portion is then struck off the core, fully formed. Levallois style tool-making allows for greater precision and sharper edges. It’s found in much of Africa and Eurasia, but there is some debate over whether the technology was spread by a single tool-tastic culture as it migrated or sprung up independently in multiple places among different populations.

While it appears in the archaeological record at different times in different places — and is associated with more than one member of the genus Homo — Levallois technology is associated most closely with the Middle Paleolithic, which was, more or less, 50,000-325,000 years ago (that’s a generous “more or less,” not only because there is considerable variation between locations, but also because researchers disagree on what constitutes start and end dates).


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One key thing to know about Levallois technology is that, until today’s paper, the previous strong evidence of it in South Asia was less than 100,000 years old.

Using a type of luminescence dating called post-infrared-stimulated luminescence (pIR-IRSL), the researchers analyzing the Attirampakkam artifacts created a chronology of tool technology at the site over a span of about 200,000 years. And during that period, the researchers say they identified an emergence of Levallois technology about 385,000 years ago. For some context, last year’s spectacular announcement from Morocco revealed human fossils — and Levallois tools — that were about 300,000 years old. The Levallois tools at Attirampakkam are significantly older and thousands of miles from Africa.

Tool Good To Be True?

To say this would be a game-changer for our understanding of human evolution and dispersal is somewhat of an understatement, but let’s look a little closer at the paper. The authors are suggesting that a Middle Paleolithic culture turns up in what’s now southeastern India at roughly, or even before, signs of it in Europe and Africa. That, in the researchers’ minds, means that either local populations of hominins developed the technology or that modern human migrations out of Africa occurred much earlier than any evidence found so far.

(As for the latter, remember that the timeline for Homo sapiens leaving Africa has been continually pushed back in recent years. It is generally agreed, however, that early waves of H. sapiens migration out of Africa began around 100,000-125,000 years ago, with the largest waves 40,000-80,000 years ago, again with a generous “more or less.” Fossils such as Misliya-1, however, announced last week, continue to challenge even that “more or less” timeline.)

The stunning claims made in today’s paper are not a slam-dunk, however. One unfortunate aspect of the research is that it did not turn up any hominin fossils associated with the tools, as happened with, for example, Misliya-1, which was found in Israel with Levallois tools and dated to be at least 177,000 years old. Not having a fossil associated with any of the tools from the 200,000 year span represented at Attirampakkam makes it impossible to draw any conclusions about who made them.

“We really don’t have much of a fossil record to go on at all in South Asia,” says James Blinkhorn, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Blinkhorn, who was not involved in the new study, focuses on both Paleolithic archaeology in general and the prehistory of South Asia in particular.

Blinkhorn expressed skepticism about a number of aspects of the paper. Even with the supplementary material published concurrently, Blinkhorn felt the authors needed to make a much stronger case for their paradigm-shifting conclusions, including how they define Levallois technology and how they prove that the artifacts fit that definition. In fact, it’s unclear whether any of the tools cited by researchers as Levallois technology are indeed that, based on the information provided in the study.

“It looks more like Late Acheulean rather than a Middle Paleolithic site,” Blinkhorn says of the Attirampakkam artifacts.

Also of note: at other sites, once Levallois technology was developed, it was embraced and quickly spread through a region. If so sophisticated a style emerged at Attirampakkam, why did it stay there for, apparently, more than 200,000 years without gaining wider popularity?

“If they were an independent innovation in Southeast India, why didn’t they spread (as occurred in other old world regions like East Africa),” Blinkhorn added via e-mail. “Of course, the dated evidence from India is sparse, but my point here is that there are alternative explanations that were either not raised or not treated with any depth.”

Carl Sagan, echoing the thought of many an earlier science enthusiast, said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” We’ve been here many times before in paleoanthropology, most recently last spring when a paper, also in Nature, suggested hominins were present in what’s now California more than 130,000 years ago.

Personally, I think that the thing this paper proves is not whether hominins developed Levallois technology in India 385,000 years ago — it’s that India, like many other areas of Asia, has been underinvestigated by paleoanthropologists, and that many more sites (which may ultimately prove or disprove the claims made today about Attirampakkam) are out there, just waiting to be found.

The research on the Attirampakkam artifacts appears today in Nature.

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  • OWilson

    Forget the PC Hollywood movie title, “Out of Africa” , and start all over again with the new evidence!

    Perhaps many branches of apes evolved into hominids and ranged far and wide, died out, interbred, or were wiped out by more advanced species who left their tools to be found among the poor primitive souls, they slaughtered.

    Look around at the state of humanity for clue.

    A National Geo. anthropogist drops his Rolex amongst primitives in New Guinea.

    Let’s not build a theory out of that!

    • TLongmire

      I think once we as a species are at the point where we can download our consciousness and allow others to perceive our individual “experience” we will see the disparity between individuals and it will shadder our idea

    • Michael Cleveland

      Bad science to jump to conclusions. This “new evidence” still has to be defended against alternative interpretations and its own weaknesses. If it holds up, then and only then does it become evidence.

  • Brandon James Starcevic

    When are people going to realize that Asians came from the Americas?

    • SKVAM

      No, they were brought here by aliens.

    • Michael Cleveland

      I assume you just forgot to add a smiley face to your post, so I’ll do it for you. : )

      • Brandon James Starcevic

        Yes, my comments are always intended to be light-hearted, thank you. Though, in this case it’s also a good theory if you look the geographical habitation. Proud will follow, not by me, but it will.

        • Michael Cleveland

          I thought so, probably, but it’s not always easy to pick up tone in text. In that light, mine was also intended to be light, but in a context of way-out-there fringe elements that like these boards, ya’ don’t always know for sure….

          • Brandon James Starcevic

            Hahaha, yeah, ii had an ex that i had to add emojis in all my text or she would take it the wrong way. I think i need to rethink my sentence structure 😛

          • Michael Cleveland

            Not necessarily, but brevity is a two-sided coin.

  • Rudra Bhairav

    When is it going to dawn on Racist Western Science Cartel that Human Origins are from India, ” Out of India” ?? Either the West and Western Science will continue to bang on with like Church like Dogma orAccept Evidence based Science, which is real Science. Funny how Africa model is still around ! – ” Oh no it is still out of Africa but maybe older” !! Darwins Ridiculous “Theory” and other Myths may yet be found out sooner or later. We have Fossil Evidence of Ape men and Humans co-existing. So Humans may not have ” Descended” from Ape men either. We need Real Honest Science.

    • Precision English

      Darwin’s “ridiculous” theory is the basis of modern biology which continues to collect mountains of evidence that support it. The basic line of hominin (genus Homo) evolution is well established in the fossil record and via discoveries like these. You’ll have to do better than throw epithets around.

    • TANSTAAFL!

      No one, at least no one with any science education, claims that humans ” Descended” from Ape men. Evolution says that humans and apes have a common ancestor.

    • Michael Cleveland

      No scientist, nor anyone versed in the sciences has EVER said that man descended from the apes. Guess that makes you the monkey’s uncle.

      • Jim Speidel

        We didn’t descend from apes, we ARE apes ! Just a different species.

        • Michael Cleveland

          It’s a matter of terminology. Hominids and apes share a common ancestry, so we are related, but no, humans are not apes.

          • Jim Speidel

            From Miriam Webster: Definition of Great Ape
            : any of several large primates (such as the orangutan, gorilla, or chimpanzee) that are either placed in the same family (Hominidae) as humans or are grouped in a separate family (Pongidae)

            We fit the official definition.

          • Michael Cleveland

            Which one? Of course I had forgotten that Meriam Webster was the final arbeiter in questions scientific. Even so, you might want to read what it actually says. For the record, orantugan, gorilla, and chimpanzee are normally considered Pongidae, not Hominidae, and Webster’s “or” does not make them equivalent.

    • Michael Cleveland

      Ou of India? Ok, bring on the evidence. But you will have a mountain of evidence that says otherwise to overturn.

  • OWilson

    The main contributors to anthropological theories have long been social predisposition, a remnant from the Victorian Age, the fossils themseves, use and design of tools, and now, relatively new DNA analysis.

    Tools are found and are associated with their local populations, but tools ae often spoils of war and can be looted, pillaged, carried, traded and held and passed down from generation to generation, as well as produced locally. They can be carried thousands of miles, by hunters along the edge of the polar ice as they followed the seals.

    When studying tools, it is important to locate the source of the material used. Today geologists have the ability to determine where the tools originated or were mined.

    I think that will be the next illuminating the chapter in the story, that has “scientists scratching their heads”!

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Manufacture requires raw materials. Given said extraordinary tonnages to supply the statistical samplings discovered – where were the chert mines? Why aren’t their geological scars still evident?

    • OWilson

      The Bill Nye crowd has a favorite “knapper”, he is seen at anthropological sites demonstrating his technique to the students.

      Never see him sweep up, though! :)

      Help!

    • Michael Cleveland

      Why mines, when you can pick up all you need and more from stream beds in regions where it’s found? It is very common.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        A brilliant Idea has been ruined by an inconvenient fact.
        Viam sapientiae mundi, per quam pervenitur

        • Michael Cleveland

          Often the case in the ongoing conflict between ideas and fact.

  • Monswine

    Quite a bit of pseudoscience in the comments section so far. Nothing makes headlines like a heterodox interpretation of a new human origins discovery. I don’t have any special knowledge or expertise with which to reject the researchers but I do find myself agreeing with the more cautious interpretations.

  • OneGoodEye

    The first course of action is evaluation of dating methods. Radio carbon dating and uranium methods are suspect of inaccuracies based on naturally occurring variation of background/contaminating radioactive sources. Methods’ data placing modern artifacts to 9,000-50,000 years in the future may warrant some reluctance accepting results, which at best should be received as uncertain.

    • Michael Cleveland

      Dating methods can sensitive to human error, but work very well when done with proper care. Dating methods for very old samples have been compared, with results found to be consistent within about 1 percent. When you are looking at dates in the hundreds of millions of years, that suggests very high reliability.

      • OneGoodEye

        yes, 1% of 1million years is accurate to +- 10,000 year or a 20,000 year window of error. And, that’s ok if your application and audience’s expectation is satisfied with that error rate. A significant issue with all these methods, it there is no way to confirm the methods are correct… We have no “known” 1 million year old “standard” from the area to compare against. Additionally, there’s the contamination problem, we don’t know the sample’s origin to make a determination of “handling” effects 20,000 or more years ago. Its likely the source may be found using trace element analysis, however it’ll likely be trial and error finding the source location.

        • Michael Cleveland

          From an immediate perspective, 10,000 years is a very long time, but against a geological perspective, against a million years, a variance of 10,000 years is miniscule, insignificant. No one expects to come up with a date like Sunday, June 3, 1,237,183 BC. The standard is not in the object, but in the method. The rates of change at the atomic/molecular level in certain materials can be measured very precisely, and with that known rate, ages can be measured, with a variance of no more than 1 percent between multiple methods over very vast expanses of time. This is a very high standard of accuracy. The rest, about contamination, is gibberish, irrelevant to the actual processes, and shows that you have made no effort to look into the actual measurement methods. As I have pointed out in similar discussions, you use a computer, and probably a cell phone, and presumably you accept the science behind them (what choice, since they work?), yet you reject other very well established science because it does not fit your personal preferences, essentially because you don’t want it to be so. Fuzzy thinking, bad logic.

          • OneGoodEye

            Unfortunately, you appear to misinterpreted my comments, maybe you have me confused with someone else. I have a great respect for interpreted science, often guesses are in the ballpark resulting in great new discoveries after exercised prudence. Having used radio-active dating professionally, I do understand contamination models better than most. For example, exposure to C14 at an age of 200,000 yrs will contaminate a sample to appear 200,000 yrs old. Because of this well known effect, C14 marine dating requires corrections. Well documented “Hard water” and other “reservoir effects” from fresh water runoff significantly skews organic readings. Before the claim was made, there should have been a magnetostratigraphy study to ballpark layers. Unfortunately, there was no obsidian in the samples for a hydration study.. Fuzzy thinking believes in one type of testing as a validation, much like classical mechanics was one solution to explain all physics.

          • Michael Cleveland

            I simply answered your own statements. I agree with what you are saying in principle, but C14 has an effective limit of about 50,000 years (sometimes as high as 75,000 years with special preparation of the sample), so I don’t know where the 200,000 years is coming from. It’s not possible for the C14 method to register that kind of result, even in error. I should have been more specific, but was not considering C14 as part of this, since the ages being tested are much older than this method of measurement permits, and because we were talking about stone tools, which cannot be dated with C14, except via associated organic materials, and within the maximum limit for the test. You are correct, C14 is highly sensitive to contamination from a number of sources, and the nature of the sample does have to be taken into account. However, there are radiometric dating methods for more ancient materials (rocks and sediments, primarily) which are less or not at all subject to contamination. You are also correct that better dating comes through correlation of multiple methods, but there is no need for a known million year old sample for comparison, since the dating is absolute, not comparative, and derives from known rates of change in the isotopes being measured. There have been studies in which multiple radiometric dating methods have arrived at results with a consistency in the same sample within 1% over measurements of millions of years, so we know that the methods are accurate to that high a degree. Since no one is looking for calendar dates, that is a very acceptable degree of reliability.

  • Janey04090

    Interesting how views change as society advances.

    • OWilson

      Interesting, and inevitable!

  • gem39

    “Personally, I think that the thing this paper proves is not whether hominins developed Levallois technology in India 385,000 years ago — it’s that India, like many other areas of Asia, has been underinvestigated by paleoanthropologists, and that many more sites (which may ultimately prove or disprove the claims made today about Attirampakkam) are out there, just waiting to be found.”

    • Michael Cleveland

      No one is disparaging. This the way science works. If you make a claim that is open to other interpretations, you must be able to support it against alternative interpretations. The claims made in this paper are extraordinary, so no one is going to say, “Oh…OK.

  • wholekraft

    Another “scientific fact” trashed. Dating of artifacts is dubious, so what we are told is scientific fact is really “guess work” – and as we see almost always refuted by “some other evidence”. Evolution being the finest example of incomplete information and guess work. God is still in change – not man!

  • nik

    Hominids, would have had to migrate north, and south, and north, repeatedly, as the climates changed with each 100,000 year Malenkovitch ice age, and the advance and retreat of the permanent snow lines. So, their technologies would have travelled with them.
    Stone tools are damned heavy, and would have been a serious handicap to have to lug them any distance, they may well have been cached, to be retrieved later, by them, or maybe others. Its quite possible that there were groups that had developed more advanced tools, who would meet others during their migrations, and technologically more advanced tools swopped for food, or other goods.
    If the Australian Aborigines, are taken as an example, they travelled hundreds or maybe eventually thousands of miles, to meet other groups for exchanges of goods, and for partners, to avoid interbreeding. If some stayed with a group and then later moved on to meet other groups, this would extend their migrations to thousands of miles, over time.
    The same could easily have occurred in Asia, or elsewhere.

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