Stone artefacts excavated from Hanumanthunipadu village in Andhra Pradesh
IT WAS SOMETIME in 2018, when Devara Anil, who was moving about in an area around Hanumanthunipadu village, surveying the region for traces of ancient stone tools, chanced upon a buried stream that had recently been dug up.
A particularly poor rainfall season had persisted in this region in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district for some time. And in an effort to better preserve rainwater, the local Public Works Department had begun to dig up some buried streams to reconnect them to lakes, including this one at the northern fringes of a shallow lake.
Anil is a temporary assistant professor and doctoral student at Vadodara’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, who specialises in the behavioural evolution of ancient humans in South Asia. “I look at the timing and nature of Homo sapiens in South Asia; when Homo sapiens came to India from Africa; which route did they take to get here; what stone tool technology they were using; and, if other hominins [ancient human species] were already present in South Asia, what kind of exchange pattern took place between these two.”
Anil was surveying this area as part of his research when he came upon this ancient stream that had been dug up. “It was just pure luck,” he says. All along the length of this stream, embedded in its exposed sections, he saw, were ancient stone artefacts. Anil returned the next day and dug a trench nearby. Over the next few months, digging up to a depth of 2.65 metres, Anil and his colleagues discovered a number of stone tools belonging to what is known as the Middle Palaeolithic Age. These stone tools were then dated through a procedure known as luminescence dating.
When the reports came back, they blew Anil’s mind. The tools were found to be as old as 247,000 years. The results of this investigation, published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science, along with another paper published a few years ago in Nature of Middle Palaeolithic stone tools discovered in Attirampakkam, not too far from Chennai, that were as old as 385,000 years ago, completely transforms our ideas of human evolution in this part of the world.
IT IS ESTIMATED that about 400,000 years ago, a massive technological breakthrough took place among our human ancestors. For about a million years, ancient humans had been using primitive stone tools like bulky hand-axes and cleavers, and other heavy-cutting core stone tools. But something happened around this 400,000-year mark when they began devising much more sophisticated stone tools. These tools were more diverse, smaller, pointed and sharper. They could be attached to shafts to make spears, darts, arrows and other projectile weapons; and they could be used to perforate and scrape more efficiently and better deal with wood, hide and other such raw materials. It was a major technological breakthrough for its time, and, according to some, reflects the kind of abstract thinking that perhaps points to the evolution of our own species—Homo sapiens.
But this has been far from a settled debate. For decades, the arguments over who created these tools, and how these replaced the earlier Acheulean culture at different locations across the globe, have raged. Many have suggested that Homo sapiens invented this new technology in Africa, and introduced it to other species when they encountered them after they moved out of Africa some 120,000 years ago. Others have argued that other ancient human species like the Neanderthals weren’t really as dim as they are often portrayed in popular culture and that different human species like them independently arrived at this new technological breakthrough. In the Indian subcontinent, it has long been believed that Homo sapiens brought this new technology as they reached these parts after moving out of Africa.
But this new discovery in Andhra Pradesh and the one before that in Tamil Nadu cast new light on these debates. Could Homo sapiens really have reached these parts so long ago? Or had other more archaic human species already been using these tools when Homo sapiens arrived?
FOR NEARLY 23 YEARS now, Shanti Pappu has been returning to Attirampakkam, digging up ancient stone tools that have transformed many of our ideas about human evolution in these parts of the world. Attirampakkam, which is about 60 km from Chennai, has over the years proved to be nothing less than a treasure trove of Palaeolithic artefacts. And Pappu, along with Akhilesh Kumar of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Chennai, has made many significant discoveries here. She, along with her colleagues, for instance, discovered Acheulean stone tools (the period before Middle Palaeolithic) dating back to about 1.5 million years.
She and Akhilesh have also been using various experimental strategies to come to a better understanding of these stone technology jumps that took place by trying to replicate the process of knapping, or creating stone tools the way our ancient human forebears did. “The only way to understand stone tools is to make and use them, with exactly the same raw materials and strategies used by prehistoric populations,” she says, pointing out that Akhilesh is now an expert knapper. “This has led to enormous insights into raw materials used, technological issues and how problems were solved, issues related to how we classify artefacts, issues of skill, cognitive abilities and much more.” Akhilesh is currently, in collaboration with the National Research Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, also working on understanding the use of ancient stone tools through the study of microscopic edge damage on artefacts.
In 2018, Pappu’s paper in Nature, reporting Middle Palaeolithic stone tools in Tamil Nadu as old as 385,000 years, created a stir in the field of palaeoanthropology.
Not everyone was convinced by her findings. Some suggested that the tools discovered may not belong to the Middle Palaeolithic period but perhaps to a transitional phase between Acheulean and the Middle Palaeolithic. Others felt more sites with equally old dates from the Indian subcontinent were required to support her findings.
The new discovery in Andhra Pradesh now further bolsters Pappu’s findings at Attirampakkam. “It corroborates the evidence that Middle Palaeolithic assemblages in South Asia may be part of local innovations that emerged from the preceding Late Acheulean technologies,” says Anil.
For Pappu, the new study, along with hers, adds to the hypothesis that simplistic explanations of population migrations or diffusion of technological ideas do not hold. “We must attempt to understand the complexities involved in these processes,” she says. “Our research and this new paper both reflect on the complexity of understanding the evolution of new technological and behavioural strategies adopted during the Indian Middle Palaeolithic [Age]. We argued, in our paper, that the processes of change from the preceding Acheulean were slow and complex, and thereby needed new theoretical approaches to interpret.”
Pappu refuses to speculate about the species which could have made these tools so early in South Asia because of the lack of fossil discoveries. According to her, the Acheulean hominins, possibly Homo erectus, an archaic human species, were responsible for the earliest cultures found at Attirampakkam. Subsequently, over the early transitional phases between the Acheulean and the Middle Palaeolithic, and over the subsequent Middle Palaeolithic, behavioural transformations are reflected in the ways in which tools were made and used. While her findings might suggest a gradual transition from the Acheulean to the Middle Palaeolithic, this does not mean, she says, that influences from Africa or elsewhere did not exist. According to her, it is likely that different species did indeed interact in this part of the world, and that we might have underestimated the extent of mobility and diffusion of ideas in the past.
Anil and his colleagues discovered a number of stone tools belonging to what is known as the Middle Palaeolithic Age. These were then put through luminescence dating
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Prior to the discoveries at Attirampakkam and Hanumanthunipadu, the oldest Middle Palaeolithic tools discovered in India were found at Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh. The tools were found lying about a metre under the ash released from an ancient volcanic eruption (Toba in modern-day Sumatra in Indonesia is known to have erupted 74,000 years ago), and when dated, were found to be about 78,000 years old. These dates, along with their comparative similarity with tools belonging to the Middle Palaeolithic Age in Africa, led most to believe that this culture was brought to India by Homo sapiens.
“These arguments are based on the dates we have at our disposal,” says Ravi Korisettar, a well-known Indian archaeologist from Karnatak University in Dharwad, who was part of the team that had made those discoveries. “At the same time, we were cautious about the arguments over whether Middle Palaeolithic [Age] evolved independently or that it originated much earlier in Africa, and that there was a much earlier expansion of modern humans out of Africa.”
Sites like Attirampakkam also contain both Acheulean and the Middle Palaeolithic artefacts at different depths, suggesting that Middle Palaeolithic may not have necessarily been brought by a new species but evolved from the previous phase.
Interestingly, Korisettar points out that while older Middle Palaeolithic sites are being discovered, researchers are also finding that the earlier, more crude Acheulean tools are being found to last longer across several sites in south India. “This late survival of Acheulean and a parallel evolution of Middle Palaeolithic in some parts is a big possibility,” he says.
According to him, this suggests that there could be two distinct ancient hominin species behind these two technologies. “If we have Acheulean [tools] in present-day Andhra Pradesh surviving up to 140,000 years, and if we have Middle Palaeolithic [tools] in the same region going back 240,000 years, then it must be two different hominins,” he says.
If different human species did come up in the Middle Palaeolithic Age, as is now being suggested with these findings in India, and discoveries of tools in Europe that have been attributed to the Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens in Africa, the question that arises is how all of this could have happened at roughly the same time. “That’s the big question—three species, three continents and roughly the same time,” says Anil.
Perhaps changes in climate, where the weather became drier and ancient species had to travel farther to find food, resulted in this innovation for more portable and sharper tools. “It’s impossible to know why it happened, whether it was climate change or some change in cognition,” says Anil.
But it did happen, it now increasingly seems, in multiple human species. The massive jigsaw puzzle of human evolution with its many missing pieces just got a bit more complex.
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