Someone produced human instruments in India 400,000 years ago. But who?

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Stone tools from Attirampakkam. They were lying on the banks of a local river, along which the hominids probably lived for about 1.7 million years. | photo: Sharma Center for Heritage Education
Stone tools from Attirampakkam. They were lying on the banks of a local river, along which the hominids probably lived for about 1.7 million years. | photo: Sharma Center for Heritage Education

Findings from central India show that someone built stone tools typical of a modern man. But they might have come here some hundred thousand years later.

Our perceptions of human development have been “on the brink” in recent years. Interesting new discoveries suggest that people are more diverse ( “Hobbit” from Flores Island), their genetic history more varied ( crossing with Neanderthals and mysterious Denizens), and the course of their departure from Africa less clear than previously thought (a possible discovery of 300,000 years old Homo sapiens in today’s Marokko).

In the latest issue of Nature magazine, there are more to these attractions. Specifically, these are stone tools from Attirampakkam(located near the east coast at about half the height of the subcontinent). There were about seven thousand stone tools that documented the transition from simple procedures and tools to finer and more precisely crafted flint – and thus the replacement of locally less developed human ancestors with the first modern Homo sapiens.

When this is to happen, it is not entirely clear. According to some theories, the first people came to the site somewhere between 80 and 130 thousand years ago. The modern humans survived the explosion of the Survulkan Toba and had “ruled” the place since then. According to other opinions, it is more likely that people have come to the site after the explosion. A terrible event that caused great ecological damage in much of Southeast Asia could help push out the indigenous people.

The newly released results itself cannot solve this question – on the contrary, they add another interesting unknown to the equation. The authors of the work, which is the first signed by Kumar Akhilesh, have succeeded in showing that the finer flint found on the site apparently comes from the time some 380 to 170 thousand years ago.

An example of tools from the older Paleolithic so-called Acheulian type. Typical tools were large stone fist wedges, axes (pictured). Smaller flint tools (eg flint tips) are created later by Levallois techniques.
An example of tools from the older Paleolithic so-called Acheulian type. Typical tools were large stone fist wedges, axes (pictured). Smaller flint tools (eg flint tips) are created later by Levallois techniques.

The result was provided by a so-called luminescence method, which can determine when the material in question was exposed to light (specifically, in this case infrared), how long it is on Earth. The scatter is quite large, but as you have noticed, the anticipated age of the instruments does not even cover the estimate of the arrival of Homo sapiens to India. In many cases, this is a tool-based procedure (Levallois technique) that is otherwise considered to be characteristic of modern Homo sapiens.

Paleontologists in India face an interesting puzzle. Did these “modern” spikes produce other types of hominids than modern Homo sapiens? And if so, did the knowledge come from somewhere? Could it be from Africa, where modern Homo sapiens appeared about a hundred thousand years earlier? Or are our simple ideas about the link between biology and culture (ie kind and technology) bad? Or is it rather evidence that people of today’s type arrived in India much earlier than we had previously assumed on the basis of other findings (in other words, our incomplete mapping of their progressive “progress” to Asia according to findings at different locations)?

This hypothesis has the advantage that it can support another result, perhaps discovering 170-190 thousand years old Homo sapiens jaws from Israel. He also suggests that the people of Israel could leave some 50-80 thousand years before it is generally assumed.

Unfortunately, at this point, we do not have the most important: bones. There are no skeletal findings from India at that time (let alone bones with preserved DNA) that would allow determining what kinds of humans were present at the time. As long as it does not change, the mystery will almost certainly remain unclear – and for quite a while.

The history of man’s long past is working with a really very fragile material; good and unambiguous findings are very few and the anthropologists of their hypotheses often form only very incomplete “input data”. The reason is that the right conditions for preserving the most interesting (ie primarily bones) are scarce and, of course, the fact that much of the world is still undetected in this respect. In general, India is not the best place to find fossils because of the climate and long history of settlement, so there is a need for much more patience and a lucky dose of happiness for local professionals if they are to get answers.