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Discovery of ancient stone tools rewrites the history of technology in India

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The 385,000-year-old tools were made with a sophisticated technique that experts thought had arrived much later in India

Stone tools recovered at the Attirampakkam site in India.
Stone tools recovered at the Attirampakkam site in India.
Photo: Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India

A new discovery of stone tools from about 385,000 years ago has anthropologists rethinking the history of technology. The stone tools, found at a site in southern India, were sophisticated blades chipped from chunks of quartz, which is a technique that experts previously thought came to India only about 125,000 years ago.

Archaeologists analyzed more than 7,200 stone tools and found that this sophisticated tool-making technique, called Levallois, began replacing clunkier and more primitive stone tools between 449,000 and 321,000 years ago. This discovery is the earliest evidence of Levallois technology in India, according to a study published today in the journal Nature. It also pushes back the technological timeline there roughly 250,000 years.

Ancient human relatives — collectively known as hominins — started making heavy stone tools at least 1.75 million years ago. But roughly 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, hominins in Africa and Europe went through a technological revolution and began chipping blades and points off of portable stone cores. These Levallois tools were much easier to produce in large quantities, and they could be attached to sticks to make spears. Previous digs suggested that this more advanced technology didn’t catch on in India until much later, after around 140,000 years ago. So one theory said that modern humans brought their tool-making know-how with them to India when they first started leaving Africa around 125,000 years ago (give or take a few thousand years).

“These data show that was wrong,” says John Hawks, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the study. Today’s findings reveal that Levallois tools emerged in India roughly 385,000 years ago — right around the same time they started showing up in Africa and Europe. That means “India is part of this network of cultural innovation that included Neanderthals and Africans,” Hawks says. Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute in Germany who also did not participate in the research, agrees that the discovery is a key piece of the puzzle. “It fills an important gap in our knowledge of an important crossroads,” he says.

Stone tools recovered at the Attirampakkam site in India from the middle paleolithic — including Levallois technology.
Photo: Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India

Over the past 20 years, archaeologists from the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in India have unearthed a treasure trove of tools from a creekside site in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. There are no bones at the site, so the research team doesn’t know which ancient human species lived there. But these stone tools can provide another window into the lives of ancient hominins during this key period of technological change. “India is often ignored,” says Shanti Pappu, one of the archaeologists who led the study. “We know we don’t have the fossils. It’s a matter of luck to find them. But we thought, ‘Let’s do as much as we can with what we have.’”

By analyzing thousands of stone tools and dating the layers of soil where they were found, Pappu and her colleagues were able to reconstruct how technology changed over nearly 2 million years. The timeline they came up with goes like this: between 1.7 and 1.07 million years ago, the hominins living at this site made primitive hand axes and cleavers by chipping away at large rocks to make a cutting edge. Then, after a period with few artifacts, there was an abrupt shift: between 449 and 321 thousand years ago, Levallois points and flakes — and the cores they came from — took over, although a few of those earlier, clunky stone tools persisted. Over the next 200,000 or so years, these hominins improved their technique, as they got even better at making Levallois flakes, blades, points, and scrapers.

While the new timeline means the old story about technology isn’t as convincing, it’s not clear what replaces it. One possibility is that there were earlier hominin migrations out of Africa that brought the technology with them. But it’s also possible that the discovery emerged simultaneously in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as hominins riffed on their standard stone tool-making strategies.

That’s Petraglia’s favorite explanation. “My view is that this doesn’t have anything to do really with an Out of Africa event,” he says. But he adds that it’s hard to say more until archaeologists uncover more clues. Today’s findings add to an emerging picture: ancient humans were a lot more like us than we assumed. “We carry our ideas with us, and trade ideas and exchange genes,” Hawks says. “They did that, too, even though the technology was much more basic than we use today.”