Stone Tool Discovery in India Raises Questions About Spread of Ancient Technology

The tools may suggest that humans dispersed from Africa earlier than previously believed. But not all experts agree

Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India

Humans have been making stone tools for some 2.6 million years, but roughly 400,000 years ago, our ancestors’ technique improved drastically. In place of the clunky implements of their predecessors, they began making smaller, sharper tools using a style of flint knapping known as Levallois. The emergence of Levallois technology is associated with what is known as the Middle Stone Age in Africa and the Middle Paleolithic era in Europe and western Asia.

Researchers have suggested that the Levallois technique spread to diverse geographic regions around 125,000 years ago, when humans began dispersing from Africa. But as Rhitu Chatterjee reports for NPR, a new study documents Levallois tools found in India that date to as early as 385,000 years ago, raising complex questions about the history of this ancient technology.

Archaeologists at the Sharma Center for Heritage Education analyzed a trove of stone tools from Attirampakkam, an archaeological site in southern India. The oldest artifacts found at the site are 1.5 million years old, and were made in Acheulian styles associated with the Early Stone Age. But the archaeologists have also discovered more than 7,000 tools that were made with the Levallois technique, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature.  

Using luminescence dating, researchers determined that the Levallois tools dated between to 385,000 and 172,000 years ago. If their analysis is correct, the Attirampakkam tools are more than 200,000 years older than other Middle Paleolithic tools found in India, reports Kate Wong of Scientific American.

According to the authors of the study, these findings are significant because they may suggest that an early group of humans—and perhaps even Homo sapiens—moved out of Africa much earlier than previously believed, bringing their tool-making technology with them.

But not all researchers agree with the team’s interpretation. Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany tells Wong that he does not believe the Attirampakkam tools should be classified as Middle Paleolithic. “At best, I see them as transitional between the Acheulean and the Middle Paleolithic,” he says. “They could even be classified as Late Acheulean.” 

And an early migration from abroad is not the only way to explain the technological advances observed among the artifacts at Attirampakkam. It is possible that archaic humans in India developed sophisticated techniques independently of influences from Africa.

Either way, the questions raised by the study call for further investigation into early human activity in India—an area that is “often ignored,” Shanti Pappu, one of the study’s lead archaeologists, tells Rachel Becker of the Verge.

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