Oldest Acheulian from India? Youngest Acheulian from India?

In the same month in 2011, two papers were published dating the Indian Acheulian (Pappu et al. 2011, Haslam et al 2011).

Pappu et al. 2011 reported on dating the classic site of Attirampakkam to over 1 million years old, and potentially equal to or older than the oldest dates for Acheulian in Africa while Haslam et al. 2011 reported some of the youngest dates anywhere in the world for the Acheulian. For reasons I will go into below I had long expected such an old date for the Indian Acheulian. I was not sure if the Acheulian could also be as young as MIS 6, but it didn’t seem impossible. However, again, right from the work on some of the same sites in the Middle Son Valley by the team of Sharma and Clark in the 1980’s I felt there was some confusion about the quaternary record in the Middle Son Valley. Since then, new dates (Kumar et al 2018) and my understanding of the Palaeolithic record in India (Mishra 2017) has only strengthened my conclusion that the Acheulian in India ended much earlier, probably before 500 kyr.

Why I expected the Indian Acheulian to be similar in age to the oldest Acheulian in Africa before any absolute dates were obtained.

The “Acheulian” occurs in Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India. It therefore had to originate in one of these places. I think Europe can be eliminated from consideration due to the younger age of the earliest Acheulian in Europe compared to Africa. I confess I did not consider the Middle East separately but I still don’t think Acheulian originated there. The fact that the earlier Acheulian sites in the Middle East resemble the African ones while the later Acheulian is somewhat similar to the European ones, argues against it being a separate entity, but rather either part of Africa or part of Europe. Therefore Acheulian originated in either India or Africa. The Large Flake Acheulian is found both in India and Africa. I still think the Acheulian could have originated in either continent. The appearance at the same time (as far as the precision of dating methods allows) of Acheulian and Homo erectus at all the sites in East and South Africa, sometimes co-existing with the pre-existing hominins and their stone tools is indicative of origin elsewhere than Africa and India is the logical alternative. I think the Acheulian probably originated in India/SE Asia. I thought this long before the 2011 papers, based on the simple reasoning given above. So far each and every report on dating Acheulian in India supports this conclusion.

I have written a number of papers elaborating on some of the points given above and give references below. You can find all the papers including most of the other people’s I have given below from researchgate or academia.

In 2020, I think the equivalence in age of the Indian and African Acheulian is well established and should be the “consensus view” Whether it originated in India or Africa is not known, and while it is still generally assumed to be Africa, this is merely because most people are quite ignorant about the Indian Acheulian. Logically India has a better case as I have given above. I am content to wait for the evidence to come in, as it will, eventually. The similarity of the LFA (Large Flake Acheulian) everywhere it is found I think argues for a common origin, as argued by Shipton 2020 although Sharon (2019) has recently argued the opposite.

Reasons why the youngest Acheulian in India may not be as young as Late MIS 6-Early MIS 5.

In 2011 I did consider that this was possible. The Indian Middle Palaeolithic as so unknown and undefined as I have discussed in previous blogs. Logically if Acheulian originated in India, perhaps it was so well adapted that it didn’t change here as fast and so survived longer. In 2011, the only fixed knowledge was that at 16 R, near Didwana, Rajasthan, the Last Interglacial horizon was “Middle Palaeolithic” so Acheulian ended sometime earlier than MIS 5. That was one reason I also did not completely reject the entry of Modern humans into India as late as 60 kyr since the Middle Palaeolithic shows quite a few continuities with the Acheulian. If the change from Acheulian to Microblades occurs within only a few 10’s of thousands of years it probably is not an insitu development.

Since 2011 however both in my own review of the Narmada archaeological record and Akilesh and Shanti’s dating of Early Middle Palaeolithic to 200-400 ka (rounding of to the nearest lakh years!), I think the improbability such a late date for Acheulian is increased.

My argument for the end of the Acheulian being before 500 kyr is based on evidence from Samnapur. Samnapur is a non Acheulian flake and core assemblage, occuring in a rubble which overlies a thick black soil developed on a reddish alluvium. This reddish alluvium is the horizon in which Acheulian occurs in the Narmada valley. The soil and rubble above it represent a long time gap. The yellowish alluvium overlying the rubble may be part of the unit containing tephra at a number of localities in the Jabalpur Narsimhapur stretch. Although it is assumed that the tephra is YTT, the archaeological associations with the tephra from excavations carried out by Badam are neither Acheulian as at Morgaon and Bori in Maharasthra, nor Middle Palaeolithic as in the Jurerru valley in Andhra Pradesh. Instead, small Kombewa flakes were found. Cores for these flakes occur in the Samnapur assemblage. On this basis I suspect that the tephra which occurs in the unit overlying the Samnapur rubble is not YTT (~75kyr) but MTT (~500 kyr). The implications are that Large Flake Acheulian has ended sometime before 500 kyr.

This is what I think now and it opens up a huge gap in our knowledge of Indian Palaeolithic. Our well known entities are the LFA which ended probably at the end of the Lower Pleistocene and the Microblades for which the earliest dates are close to 50 kyr. We have very little knowledge for almost half a million years. This has been my view for the last 5 years.

Final point–There could be some differences about what to call Acheulian. The diminutive handaxes from the Son Valley are not found in the Large Flake Acheulian but are part of the Early Middle Palaeolithic dated by Kumar et al 2011. The younger dates could apply to them and in some sense then the label “Acheulian” could be used. In Europe the “Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition” is part of the youngest Middle Palaeolithic technologies. However these diminutive handaxes and cleavers are not part of the Large Flake Acheulian anywhere except as reported in the Son Valley.

The discussion of the data presented in the various papers on the Middle Son Valley will be done in the next post. I have an alternative explanation about what is being dated there.

References

Clarkson, C., Harris, C., Li, B., Neudorf, C. M., Roberts, R. G., Lane, C., . . . Shipton, C. (2020). Human occupation of northern India spans the Toba super-eruption~ 74,000 years ago. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-10.

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

Shipton, C. (2020). The unity of Acheulean culture. In H. S. Groucutt (Ed.), Culture History and Convergent Evolution:Can We Detect Populations in Prehistory? (pp. 13-27): Springer.

Sharon, G. (2019). Early Convergent Cultural Evolution. In K. A. Overmann & F. L. Coolidge (Eds.), Squeezing Minds From Stones: Cognitive Archaeology and the Evolution of the Human Mind. Oxford: OUP.

Haslam, M., Roberts, R. G., Shipton, C., Pal, J. N., Fenwick, J. L., Ditchfield, P., . . . Petraglia, M. (2011). Late Acheulean hominins at the Marine Isotope Stage 6/5e transition in north-central India. Quaternary Research, 75(3), 670-682.

Kumar, Akhilesh, Pappu, S., Rajapara, H. M., Gunnell, Y., Shukla, A. D., & Singhvi, A. K. (2018). Early Middle Palaeolithic culture in India around 385–172 ka reframes Out of Africa models. Nature, 554(7690), 97.

Mishra, S., Gaillard, C., Deo, S. G., Singh, M., Abbas, R., & Agrawal, N. (2010). Large Flake Acheulian in India: Implications for understanding lower Pleistocene human dispersals. Quaternary International, 223-224, 271-272.

Mishra, S., Gaillard, C., Hertler, C., Moigne, A.-M., & Simanjuntak, H. T. (2010). India and Java: Contrasting Records, Intimate Connections. Quaternary International, 223-224, 265-270.

Mishra, S. (2011). Comparing the Earliest Stone Tools from Africa, Europe, China and India: Implications for the Timing of “Out of Africa 1”. Paper presented at the Suyanggae International Symposium, in Yangyan County, PRC 14-21 August 2011.

Mishra, S. (2014). The Palaeolithic in the Indian Subcontinent: its significance for understanding human evolution. In N. Sanz (Ed.), Human origin sites and the World Heritage Convention in Asia (pp. 106-118). Paris: UNESCO.

Mishra, S. (2017). The Narmada River in Indian Prehistory. Puratattava, 46, 36-47.

Misra, V. N., Rajaguru, S. N., Ganjoo, R. K., & Korisettar, R. (1990). Geoarchaeology of the Palaeolithic site of Samnapur in the Central Narmada Valley. Man and Environment, 15(1), 107-116.

Pappu, S., Gunnell, Y., Akhilesh, K., Braucher, R., Taieb, M., Demory, F., & Thouveny, N. (2011). Early Pleistocene Presence of Acheulian Hominins in South India. Science, 331, 1596-1600.

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