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New perspectives on the Indian Acheulian: A seminar to honor Dr. R.S. Pappu in his 80th year

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Dr. R.S. Pappus publications available for download

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Indian Quaternary Palaeoenvironments and Geoarchaeology: A seminar to honor Dr.S.N. Rajaguru in his 80th year. on 23rd Nov 2013

Indian Quaternary Palaeoenvironments and Geoarchaeology: A seminar to  honor Dr.S.N. Rajaguru in his 80th year. on 23rd Nov 2013

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“Consensus View?”

“Consensus View?”

I had planned to discuss the Haslam et al paper on the “youngest Acheulian” but Dennell’s statement in his perspective to the dating of Indian Acheulian to 1.5 myr (Pappu et al. 2011) that “the Indian Acheulian was less than 0.6 to 0.5 Ma” was the consensus view is disturbing me.  “Consensus” means agreed, discussed.  I was not part of this consensus.

There are a number of issues—

  1. Some people’s opinions are taken more seriously than others.  Obviously I am one of the people whose opinion is not taken seriously.  Pappu et al’s paper shows that my expectations of the results of further work were closer to reality than the “consensus”.  However my (now) justified interpretation of the data faced strong opposition and worse — ridicule.
  2. What is the consensus view?
  3. How did the “consensus” come to such a wrong view?

The first point is one I am long used to but the second and third have really been “bugging” me the last week.  I have been piecing together the “consensus view “ from the publications of Dennell-Chauhan-Petraglia et al.

What was the “consensus view”?

1. The Indian Acheulian was less than 0.6 to 0.5 Ma

This view is actually first expressed by Dennell (2009) in his book “The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe”, although he cites Chauhan’s comment on our paper (Gaillard et al 2010 Chauhan 2010) for it in his perspective piece.  Chauhan (2009 a & b) and Petraglia (2006) have not strongly endorsed an earlier age for Indian Acheulian, but neither did they categorically state that the Indian Acheulian was less than 0.6 to 0.5 ma years as Dennell has.

2. The earliest lithic assemblages outside of Africa are all non-Acheulian

This I have inferred from the papers by Dennell, Chauhan and Petraglia in the recently published book “Out of Africa 1” which I am reviewing.  I therefore had to really read the papers carefully.  None of the above authors actually makes the statement above, but all of them totally ignore the Indian Acheulian in their discussion of the earliest hominin evidence in India!  They concentrate only on the “mode 1” entities, like Soanian and Durkhadi-Mahdeo Piparia-Samnapur.  My conclusion is that their strong opinion that the Indian Acheulian is younger than 0.6 to 0.5 Ma is because they think Acheulian did not disperse out of Africa until that time. A basic premise seems to be that Out of Africa 1 is non Acheulian. This fits with the European scenario, but why did they apply it to the Indian sub-continent?  Although the dates are not very reliable or numerous all the available evidence was that the Indian Acheulian was older.

3. India was not occupied in the Lower Pleistocene as there are no Mode I assemblages

After making valiant attempts (really Chauhan is exhaustive!) to find “good” mode 1 assemblages in the Indian sub-continent and failing, Dennell, Chauhan and Petraglia each concludes, somewhat reluctantly, that India was not colonized in the Early Pleistocene or if so, only sporadically.  Explanations then shift to the unfavorable factors within India for early hominins…. Large rivers, lack of stone etc.

This view which I have reconstructed from Dennell 2009 and the papers in the Out of Africa 1 volume is surprising.  The actual evidence from India is so contrary to this.

So why was the Pappu et al date not a surprise to me?

  1. I interpreted the absence of mode 1 in the Indian sub-continent in a different way from the “consensus” .  I explain the absence of mode 1 as due to the early presence of mode 2.  I think the first lithic tradition in India is Acheulian.  I don’t think it is preceded by mode 1.  I don’t expect to find mode 1. Since Acheulian dates to around 1.6 ma in Africa, it could easily be similar in age in India.  I expected it to be a similar age.
  2. The Indian and African Acheulian is different from the European Acheulian.  It is “Large Flake Acheulian” (LFA). It is not about “shaping” but about carrying artefacts habitually (see my earlier post of the Indian Acheulian, link in references) Most probably this difference in the LFA from European Acheulian is due to it being older.  Thus while the “consensus” thought the Indian Acheulian couldn’t be older than 0.5-0.6 Ma, I thought it couldn’t be younger.
  3. Pappu et al. is not the only date for the Indian Acheulian.  All the dating evidence indicates probability of an age similar to that of Africa.  There never is a last word in research and the dates could be wrong and some Acheulian could be young (even youngest), but that is hardly a basis to conclude that all the Indian Acheulian is younger than half a million years.

So how did the “consensus” come to that particular view?

Perhaps they will tell me in the “comments” section…

I think since all the other “earliest” assemblages are non Acheulian  and the only Acheulian site comparable in age to the African Acheulian is Ubeidya, they concluded that the earliest dispersal from Africa was with mode 1 technology and mode 2 technology is a later dispersal. I think the further inferences followed from this interpretation of the available data.


Chauhan, P. R. 2010. “The Indian Subcontinent and ‘Out of Africa I’,” in Out of Africa I, Edited by J. G. Fleagle, J. J. Shea, F. E. Grine, A. L. Baden, and R. E. Leakey, pp. 145-164-164: Springer Netherlands

Chauhan, P. R. 2010. Comment on ‘Lower and Early Middle Pleistocene Acheulian in the Indian sub-continent’ by Gaillard et al. (2009) (Quaternary International). Quaternary International 223-224:248-259.

Chauhan, P. R. 2009. “The South Asian Paleolithic Record and Its Potential for Transitions Studies,” in Sourcebook of Paleolithic Transitions: Methods, Theories, and Interpretations. Edited by M. Camps and P. R. Chauhan, pp. 121-140. New York: Springer

Chauhan, P. R. 2009. The Lower Paleolithic of the Indian subcontinent Evolutionary Anthropology 18:62-78.

Dennell, R. 2011. An Earlier Acheulian Arrival in South Asia. Science 331 1532-1533.

Dennell, R. 2010. ““Out of Africa I”: Current Problems and Future Prospects,” in Out of Africa I, Edited by J. G. Fleagle, J. J. Shea, F. E. Grine, A. L. Baden, and R. E. Leakey, pp. 247-273-273: Springer Dorchect

Dennell, R. W. 2009. Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaillard, C., S. Mishra, M. Singh, S. G. Deo, and R. Abbas. 2010. Lower and Early Middle Pleistocene Acheulian in the Indian Sub-Continent. Quaternary International 223-224:234-241

Mishra, S. 2010. Review of “The Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia”. Man and Environment 35:119-122.

Mishra, S. 2008. The Lower Palaeolithic: A Review of Recent Findings. Man and Environment 33:14-29.

Mishra, S. 2007. The Indian Lower Palaeolithic. Bulletin of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute 66-67:47-94.

Petraglia, M. D. 2010. “The Early Paleolithic of the Indian Subcontinent: Hominin Colonization, Dispersals and Occupation History,” in Out of Africa I, Edited by J. G. Fleagle, J. J. Shea, F. E. Grine, A. L. Baden, and R. E. Leakey, pp. 165-179: Springer Netherlands

Petraglia, M. 2006. “The Indian Acheulian in global perspective,” in Axe Age. Edited by N. Goren and G. Sharon, pp. 389-414. London: Equinox.

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March 2011: Epoch making month for Indian Palaeolithic studies—the Oldest and the Youngest Acheulian in the World?

On Friday , the 25th of March, Shanti Pappu and her colleagues (Pappu et al 2011) published dates for the Acheulian from Attirampakkam, – in Science. They used a relatively new technique of cosmic – ray exposure dating in which the time elapsed since the burial of quartzite artefacts is estimated. The results are stunning—a minimum burial age of 1.51 ± 0.07 Ma. This is supported by palaeomagnetic studies which show the sediments were deposited in a reversed magnetic field. As the Jaramillo and Olduvai events are not present in the section, the palaeomagnetic data independently determines the age as between these two events, and therefore older than 1.07 ma. This is finally the “breakthrough” paper we have all been waiting for, which will force a re-evaluation of the importance of the India in human evolution.

Dennell has written the “perspective” on the paper and he states that “Previously, the general consensus was that the Indian Acheulian was less than 0.6 to 0.5 Ma and was thus much younger than that in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean).” This viewpoint has been erased by this paper. Calling it a “consensus” view is midleading. It was never one that I shared and I first encountered it in Dennell’s book, which I reviewed, finding it a shocking misreading of the available data. I don’t think this view was shared by many other Indian archaeologists. Dennell lists the demolition of this “consensus view” as the major consequence of the Attirapakkam date. Three additional consequences suggested by Dennell are
1. The density of hominin occupation of the Indian sub-continent is even less than previously thought
2. Acheulian in China is no longer older than the Indian Acheulian, making it more reasonable to relate it to Acheulian
3. finally it is important to “find out what type of hominin first brought Acheulian artifacts to South Asia”

I would like to suggest some alternative implications of the Attirampakkam dates:-

1. Acheulian originated in India rather than Africa
2. Emergence of Acheulian and Homo erectus are related phenomenon
3. Out of Africa I predates the earliest stone tools, if it was Out of Africa at all

I will be writing more on the points above. The point I want to make is that the implications of the Attirapakkam date are much greater than suggested by Dennell.

Not only is Attirampakkam now the oldest Acheulian site in India, but it is also the best excavated and studied site. The Supplementary Online Material gives important details about the excavated assemblage. Inspite of the large number of artefacts (3528), complete chaine operatoires are absent. Large flakes of quartzite were transported to the site from areas of gravel outcrop kilometers away from the site. The giant cores are absent. A large number of small flakes are present showing that retouching and shaping of the tools did occur on the site and that these flakes might be tools in their own right. This fits well with the idea that the really important innovation of the Acheulian was the ability to carry things rather than the complexity of the tools themselves. A monograph on the Attirapakkam excavation is awaited and from the small sample of results in this paper, the site is important for much more than the dates. The importance of the date cannot be underestimated, but that it being accepted is to a large extent due to the meticulous excavation procedures which did not leave any room for doubt about what was being dated. Shanti Pappu’s achievement is all the more remarkable as she had to create her own institutional support. She has obtained the collaboration of the dating experts and seen that new and innovative dating techniques were applied to her site and the results published in the most prestigious journal. I applaud her as well as her collaborators for sticking with the problem.

The Youngest Acheulian? I will turn to it in the next post.

Dennell, R. W. 2009. Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dennell, R. 2011. An Earlier Acheulian Arrival in South Asia. Science 331 1532-1533.

Mishra, S. 2010. Review of “The Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia”. Man and Environment 35:119-122.

Pappu, S., Y. Gunnell, K. Akhilesh, R. Braucher, M. Taieb, F. Demory, and N. Thouveny. 2011. Early Pleistocene Presence of Acheulian Hominins in South India. Science 331:1596-1600. DOI: 10.1126/science.1200183

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