Stone Tools Found in Ukraine May Be the Oldest Evidence of Early Humans in Europe

The 1.4-million-year-old rocks may have belonged to Homo erectus, and they shed light on migrations of human ancestors, a new study suggests

Land dug-up at an archaeological site with green trees on top
A view of the Korolevo archaeological site. Researchers used the decay of isotopes in rocks dug up from the site to determine the age of the stone tools. Roman Garba

Stone tools dug up in western Ukraine date to about 1.4 million years ago, making them the earliest evidence of human presence in Europe, researchers report Wednesday in the journal Nature. While modern humans likely didn’t make the tools, researchers suggest the closely related species Homo erectus did.

“Confidently dated early hominin sites are scarce in Europe,” Toshiyuki Fujioka, a geochronologist at the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Spain who did not contribute to the findings, tells Live Science’s Charles Q. Choi. “This study provides a much-needed, reliably dated chronological site to add fuel to our discussion on ancient human migration.”

The tools, created from volcanic rock, put a new pin in the map of human ancestors’ migrations on the continent. Researchers had previously found evidence of early humans in Georgia, at the border of Europe and Asia, that dates to 1.8 million years ago. And in France and Spain, the first evidence of hominins dates to 1.1 million to 1.2 million years ago. The new artifacts—which were found between these two other sites—support the theory that human ancestors spread from east to west into Europe at this time, the study authors write.

a hand holding a volcanic rock
One of the stone tools, thought to be 1.4 million years old, found at the Korolevo site in Ukraine. Roman Garba

“Until now, there was no strong evidence for an east-to-west migration,” Roman Garba, first author of the study and an archaeologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences, says to Nature News’ Giorgia Guglielmi. “Now we have it.”

The first human ancestors expanded out of Africa around 2 million years ago. They reached southern Eurasia at least 1.75 million years ago and southeast Asia around 1.6 million years ago, per the Australian Museum.

Archaeologists found the stone tools at a site called Korolevo in western Ukraine, near the country’s modern borders with Romania and Hungary, according to a statement from the Czech Academy of Sciences. Scientists have been digging at the site since the 1970s and found 33 artifacts in its oldest layer of sediment, which hadn’t been dated, writes Science’s Bridget Alex.

But the team determined the age of this layer, which contained the stone tools, using a technique called cosmogenic nuclide dating. When cosmic rays, or high-energy space radiation, hit exposed rock on Earth’s surface, they can create radioactive isotopes. These isotopes decay at known rates once they are buried underground, serving as a clock researchers can use to determine when the tools were buried. The team measured isotopes in quartz to date the soil to 1.4 million years old.

Based on this age, researchers hypothesize the tools were made by Homo erectus, a hominin species that lived between 1.89 million and 110,000 years ago—the earliest humans with body proportions similar to those of modern humans. But without fossil remains to confirm H. erectus was at the site, “we can’t be sure,” Garba tells Christina Larson of the Associated Press (AP).

The dates “appear to be highly reliable,” Véronique Michel, a geochronologist for the National Center for Scientific Research in France who did not contribute to the findings, tells Science.

“I think this new paper nicely fills a gaping hole in our current knowledge of early human migrations into Europe,” Richard Roberts, a human evolution researcher at the University of Wollongong in Australia who was not involved in the research, says to Live Science. “More well-dated sites are needed to increase our confidence in when Europe was first colonized and by which routes.”

A side-by-side of pictures of stone tools and black-and-white drawings of the tools
Stone tools dated in the new paper were likely made by Homo erectus, scientists say. Garba, R. et al. "East-to-west human dispersal into Europe 1.4 million years ago." Nature (2024)

Fabio Parenti, an archaeologist at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil who did not contribute to the findings, tells Science that the study is “quite weak”—the artifacts in the paper are badly described, he tells the publication, and the dates’ error ranges overlap with more recent sites in Europe.

The Korolevo site hasn’t been damaged since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it has become overgrown with vegetation, says Garba, who visited the site last year for the first time since the 2022 invasion, to Nature News.

Few scientists can currently conduct field research in Ukraine due to travel restrictions or because they have fled the country, Vitaly Usyk, a co-author of the study and archaeologist affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, says to Nature News.

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