Archaeological site near Chennai shows the long process of human evolution

stone
At Attirampakkam, we see a distinct transition from the Acheulian culture to the Middle Palaeolithic culture as reflected in the artefacts at around 380,000 years, says Shanti Pappu. – Photo: Sharma Centre for Heritage Education.

At Attirampakkam archaeological site near Chennai, India, over 7,200 stone artefacts recovered reflect a distinct transition from the Acheulian culture to the Middle Palaeolithic culture at around 380,000 years ago, which is much earlier than was previously thought. The findings could prompt a re-examination of the conventional view of early human migration out of Africa.

Based on over 7,200 stone artefacts collected from the archaeological site at Attirampakkam in the Kortallayar River Basin about 60 km northwest of Chennai, researchers suggest that hominins in India may have developed a Middle Palaeolithic culture phase around 3,85,000 years ago and continued up to around 172,000 years ago. According to earlier evidences, the Middle Palaeolithic culture in India was dated to around 1,25,000 years ago. The findings could prompt a re-examination of the conventional view of early human migration out of Africa.

The Middle Palaeolithic is an important cultural phase, associated as it is globally with both modern humans and Neanderthals or other archaic hominins, with complex histories of interaction, cultural transitions and change, and dispersals. Based on stone tools and fossil studies, the Middle Palaeolithic culture (called the Middle Stone Age in Africa) is associated with modern humans in Africa, while it is associated with both modern humans and Neanderthals in Israel. But in Europe, the Middle Palaeolithic culture is associated only with Neanderthals.

“In case of India, we cannot say who made the tools as no hominin fossil remains have been found till now. So we must be more cautious in correlating species with culture in the case of India,” says Prof. Shanti Pappu from the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Chennai and corresponding author of a paper published in Nature.

Dispersal out of Africa

“The Middle Palaeolithic culture is thought to have originated in Africa. When we look at the Indian site at Attirampakkam, which is far away from Africa, we see a similar cultural change occurring. The number and nature of dispersal of populations bearing a Middle Palaeolithic culture from Africa is not a simple, linear model but is far more complex,” Prof. Pappu says.

In 2011, Prof. Pappu and her team reported the discovery of 1.5-million-year-old stone artefacts belonging to the Acheulian of the Lower Palaeolithic (Acheulian) culture from Attirampakkam. These occur buried in sediments at the lowest levels in the excavation. In the top 3 metres of the soil, the same site has yielded artefacts that reflect a distinct Middle Palaeolithic culture. The tools were recovered and reported earlier but the dating was completed only recently and published now in Nature.

“We see a distinct transition from the Acheulian culture to the Middle Palaeolithic culture as reflected in the artefacts at around 380,000 years, along with appearance of new tool types and techniques, that continued here for another 200,000 years,” she says.

At Attirampakkam, during the Middle Palaeolithic, there is a distinct shift away from large flake technologies such as handaxes and cleavers that were predominant during the Acheulian. There is a proliferation of tools made from small flakes during the Middle Palaeolithic.

One of the technologies that was preferred during the Middle Palaeolithic is called the Levallois, which was used to shape flakes and points. Blade technologies also began to proliferate and develop during this time.

Stratigraphic continuum

“This research presents a paradigm shift in thinking about the origin and spread of Middle Palaeolithic cultures in South Asia, suggesting a far greater antiquity and more complex story than we thought. At Attirampakkam, we have a wonderful sequence contained in a single stratigraphic continuum and showing a long process of evolution,” Prof. Pappu says. But there is a huge hiatus between the Acheulian, which ends at 1 million years ago, and the Middle Palaeolithic that begins at 3,85,000 years ago at Attirampakkam. But sites of Late Acheulian phase are seen elsewhere in the region and in India.

The Middle Palaeolithic at Attirampakkam shows two phases. Phase I shows a few archaic tools reflecting of Acheulian technologies along with new tool types and technologies indicating a cultural transition. Phase II shows a proliferation of Middle Palaeolithic stone tools, marking a distinct evolution in Middle Palaeolithic technological strategies.

Published in The Hindu on January 31, 2018

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