Stone age tools raise questions on migration

Print edition : March 02, 2018

The Attirampakkam site near Chennai. (Right) A sample of artefacts from the Middle Palaeolithic era found at the site. Photo: KUMAR AKHILESH, SHANTI PAPPU/SHARMA CENTRE FOR HERITAGE EDUCATION, INDIA VIA AP

VERY old and sophisticated tools excavated from Attirampakkam, 60 kilometres from Chennai, have thrown up a major puzzle in the story of human evolution. In a significant archaeological finding, researchers led by Shanti Pappu of Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, Chennai, unearthed over 7,000 stone artefacts, some of them as much as 3,85,000 years old. The discovery that such a developed Middle Stone Age culture existed in a region now known as India may prompt a re-examination of the conventional view of early human migration out of Africa.

Shanti Pappu, whose team has been studying the Attirampakkam archaeological site for two decades, admitted that this was just “one piece in a big jigsaw puzzle”. One of the things that makes it difficult for the research team, which also included researchers from the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad and the University of Lyon in France, to ascertain whether it was modern humans or their hominin cousins who had perfected this tool-making is the absence of skeletal remains at the site. The study appeared in Nature on January 31. “This is by far the oldest set of tools discovered in this part of the world,” Shanti Pappu said.

When first hominins left Africa at least 1.7 million years ago, they carried with them their signature oval and pear-shaped hand axes, which were called Acheulean hand axes. In an earlier research paper, Shanti Pappu and her co-workers had reported the discovery of such tools from Attirampakkam, which were dated to be more than one million years old.

But the second batch of implements which the PRL scientists found—through dating—belonged to a period between 3,85,000 years and 1,72,000 years ago were smaller and relatively more sophisticated compared with the Acheulean hand axes, and their crafting required significant advances in human cognition. This kind of technology, long associated with Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in Europe, West Asia and Africa, was earlier thought to have arrived in India when humans reached South Asia about 100,000 years ago. This new discovery, however, upsets this theory. One hypothesis that this study points to could be that human migration might not have been a linear process and there could have been multiple waves of migration. It is still too premature to hazard any guess, said Shanti Pappu.

T.V. Jayan

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