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