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

  1. Ruman Banerjee says:

    First of all, congratulations to Shanti Pappu, et al. for this towering innovation. The absolute chronology of 1.5 Ma from Attirampakkam would surely generate considerable acceleration in Indian Prehistoric studies. Also this discovery would definitely lead to the positive refinements in Human migration (with small brain and artefacts) and evolutionary theory. Although it is always great to have fossil remains which generate great interests and research funding in prehistoric studies; but the absence of it at least in Indian context has not been detrimental, particularly in the case of assigning absolute chronology for the acheulian assemblages. The consensus view has been partial and it essentially is the consolation of the specialist. In the future in mainland India if some dates turn out to be of 2.0 Ma or >2.0Ma for any given industry then the great custodians of hominid dispersal would have to reconsider their previous consensus view. Ironically the glamorous theoretical framework of human evolution and migration in Asia is gradually becoming homologous to Paris Fashion Week in its utilitarian mode.

    When I was in the end of my first semester in Deccan College; fortunately I got the chance to do a brief fieldwork in the Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa border. The Chopper-Chopping tool industry we had traced from the surface was fascinating and unique. What would be the absolute chronology for this assemblage? Typologically, morphometrically, occurrence, raw material and weatheringwise they were bound to be very ancient .One chopper specifically i remember was more than 30 cms and massive. We had to leave it at the border of the farmland. Other tools that i had collected are probably lost now, due to my colossal negligence and i am really sorry for that. The point is India is a terra incognita in terms of prehistoric studies and an open attitude is the sine qua non to appreciate its recent and forthcoming surprises which would inevitably change the perspectives in Indian and subsequently World Prehistory. The true potential of the Prehistoric Indian sub-continental landscape and its context is still hidden.

    The site of Attirampakkam has reinstated its importance in global prehistoric studies. The dating technique deployed at this site has been novel and courageous. If we take into account a brief history and origin of radioactive Beryllium dating, then we will see that B.Peters first proposed the formation of Be10 and its subsequent inclusion into Ocean sediment at TIFR Mumbai (Then Bombay). A team of scientists started expedition in Kashmir to trace and extract Be10 from glacial meltwater. Later Peters intuitively suggested the presence of radioactive Be7 in Mumbai rainwater. Part of the Kashmir group returned to successfully trace and demonstrate the presence of cosmogenic Be7 in all the eight samples.(Goel et al., 1956). Simultaneously Arnold and Al-Salih (1955) published their work on the discovery of radioactive Be7 in Chicago rainwater. Both groups detected Be10 in marine sediment, but Arnold fist published it in 1956. The literature from the Tata Institute group appeared late due to the delay of the publication in the press.(Goel et al., 1957). However, Dr. Peters was satisfied to see his predictions come true and in 1957 he proposed a set of methodology to the study and measurements of the oceanic sedimentation rate and cosmic ray intensities.(Faure, 1986). It is always nice to see the revival of invisible and below ground archaeology by means of cosmogenic radionuclides like Be10 and Al26 in Indian context.

    Arnold, J.R., and H. Al-Salih (1955) Beryllium-7 produced by cosmic rays. Science, 121, 451-453.

    Arnold, J.R. (1956) Beryllium-10 produced by cosmic rays Science, 124, 584-585.

    Goel, P.S., S.Jha, D.Lal, P.Radakrishna, and Rama (1956). Cosmic ray produced beryllium isotopes in rain water. Nuclear Physics, 1, 196-201.

    Goel, P.S., D.P.Kharkar, D.Lal, N.Narasappaya, B.Peters, and V.Yatirajam. (1957). Beryllium-10 concentrations in deep sea sediment. Deep-Sea Res., 4, 202-210.
    Faure, G. (1986). Principles of Isotope Geology. John Wiley & Sons, Second Edition, pp. 405-407.

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