Armed with newly discovered Stone Age tools in a village near Chennai, Indian scientists are challenging the popular scientific theory that the Middle Palaeolithic was brought to India by modern humans dispersing from Africa only around 125,000 years ago or later. They were fashioned from 385,000 years ago to 172,000 years ago, showing evidence of continuity and development over that time. Prior evidence had suggested the emergence of Middle Palaeolithic culture in India to between 140,000 to 46,000 years ago, so the new discovery is causing a big rethink of conventional "Out of Africa" dispersion models and the kinds of cultures that existed in South Asia at this early stage in human history.
Now, a treasure trove of ancient stone tools suggest that humans' circuitous path to modernity also wound through India.
A recent discovery of a jawbone fossil in Israel reported last week suggested humans left Africa as early as about 180,000 years ago.
"We have clearly stated in our paper that conclusive correlations between the Middle Palaeolithic assemblages at Attirampakkam and a specific hominin species-whether modern humans or archaic hominins-cannot be established because India now lacks fossil or genetic evidence for this time period other than the Narmada fossil cranium", she told Newsclick.
"Especially the appearance and subsequent migrations of anatomically modern humans within and out of Africa".
A second theory projects that the rearmost ordinary ancestor of Neanderthals and H. sapiens devised this new age tool and passed onto the descendant species.
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"In case of India, we can not say who made the tools as no hominin fossil remains have been found till now".
Using luminescence dating to age the artifacts, at the stratified prehistoric site of Attirampakkam, India, the researchers determined that the end of the Acheulian culture and the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic culture begun nearly 450,000 years ago, much earlier than was conventionally presumed for South Asia. Prof Pappu and Dr Kumar Akhilesh from the Sharma Centre have been excavating at this place since 1999. During the Middle Palaeolithic, there is a distinct shift away from large flake technologies such as hand-axes and cleavers that were predominant during the Acheulian.
The findings in India could prompt a re-examination of the early human migration out of Africa, the researchers said.
"It has many implications as to how this culture arose in India - whether population from out Africa came much earlier than expected or whether it was a development from within India". The oldest tools found at Attirampakkam, which are more than 1 million years old, were crafted in this tradition.
The Levallois technique, including sophisticated blades chipped from chunks of quartz, for example, could be used to make spears and was believed to have first developed roughly around 300,000 to 400,000 years ago by archaic or possibly modern humans in Africa and Europe.