Older and younger Acheulean in India

6 minute read

Shanti Pappu and colleagues Pappu:2011 report on date estimates resulting from new excavations at the old site of Attarampakkam, India. The news element is that they date an Acheulean occurrence to as old as 1.5-1.6 million years ago. At the oldest, these dates would make the Acheulean in India equal in age to the earliest occurrences in Africa.

The dates themselves depend on the decay of cosmogenic nuclides in the artifacts themselves. This is a kind of exposure dating – as the artifacts are exposed to cosmic rays at the Earth’s surface, they build up radioactive isotopes of beryllium and aluminum (10Be and 26Al), which have half-lifes of 1.39 million and 717,000 years, respectively. When they are buried deep underground, their exposure to cosmic rays stops, and the radioactive isotopes can only decay. Then the ratio of the two isotopes in the sample reflects the time since deep burial. But like other exposure methods, in practice this depends on a model of exposure time, burial speed, and radioactivity within the soil, which lends substantial uncertainty to the dates. The lower 95% confidence interval of each of the date estimates reported in the paper is still over a million years, leading to the minimal conclusion that the site is that age or older.

Robin Dennell has written an accompanying short essay that gives a broader view of the Acheulian in South Asia Dennell:India:2011. The essay includes a great paragraph summarizing the now-obsolete idea that Acheulean reached India only a half million years ago:

How does this new evidence affect our understanding of the South Asian Acheulian? Previously, the general consensus was that the Indian Acheulian was less than 0.6 to 0.5 Ma (5) and was thus much younger than that in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean). There, the earliest dates of 1.4 Ma, from Ubeidiya in Israel, probably indicate a dispersal of hominins from Africa (6). A second influx of African immigrants is indicated by the discovery of African types of cleavers and hand axes at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (GBY), in Israel, dated to 0.78 Ma (7). This evidence implied that the Acheulian dispersed eastward toward South Asia only several hundred millennia after it first appeared in the Levant. It also implied that the spread of Acheulian bifacial technologies into South Asia was broadly contemporaneous with its first appearance in Europe, where the earliest sites date from ?0.5 to 0.6 Ma (8). Some have attributed this expansion of the Acheulian into South Asia and Europe to Homo heidelbergensis. This Middle Pleistocene type of hominin is known mostly from Europe, where it was first defined, but is also recognized by some (but not all) researchers at African sites such as Bodo, Ethiopia, and Kabwe, Zambia, and even at some sites in China (9).

The “Homo heidelbergensis” model is in such utter disarray right now, I’m not sure many paleoanthropologists have realized the full extent of the problems. You should know that I don’t believe in Homo heidelbergensis, never have. A couple of months ago, I was discussing some of the issues about mutation rate estimation with a very prominent geneticist, and the conversation turned to Homo heidelbergensis. What a shock the Denisova sequence should have been to those itching to see a H. heidelbergensis incursion into Asia!

Notice however, the intrinsic nuttiness of archaeological interpretation. Oh, we have the first evidence for Acheulean in India around 600,000 years ago? Well, that’s around the same age as the Bodo fossil from Ethiopia! What a coincidence! Maybe this new kind of hominin expanded from Africa and carried the Acheulean to India! And Sima de los Huesos is around 600,000 years old, too – and there’s a handax in the pit! My gosh, we need a name for those hominins!

Well, the nice thing about a hypothesis built on mere coincidence, is that it only takes one observation to falsify it. Million-year-old handaxes in India ought to do it, and how. That’s the message of Dennell’s essay, and the subtext of the paper by Pappu and colleagues. What I find interesting is the extent to which the fact was hinted by earlier discoveries in South Asia but hampered by weaknesses in stratigraphic control and dating. From Pappu and colleagues:

Sparse radiometric ages from sites in India have situated the Acheulian within the Middle Pleistocene, with a few dates suggesting an early Middle to Early Pleistocene age. However, these ages often exceed the limits of confidence of the methods used (2). They include an electron spin resonance (ESR) mean age of 1.27 0.17 Ma, assuming linear U uptake, on two herbivore teeth from Isampur (23); an ESR age of ~0.8 Ma (lacking uncertainty envelopes) on calcrete from the Amarpura formation, Rajasthan (24), which has been correlated with the Acheulian site of Singi Talav (4); dates ranging from ~1.4 to 0.67 Ma for the tephra at Bori (Kukdi river) (25); and paleomagnetic measurements with evidence of reversals at the sites of Bori, Morgaon, Gandhigram, Andora, and Nevasa (26). However, the reliability of these ages has, in each case, been questioned on various grounds (5, 27, 28). Likewise, the age and stratigraphic position of artifacts and faunal remains from the Early Pleistocene Dhansi formation along the river Narmada are yet to be firmly established (29). Based on data from controlled excavations and two independent dating methods, our ages from Attirampakkam show that the Acheulian in India is older than previously thought. Evidence from other sites in South Asia should be reconsidered and redated.

Much evidence already exists in the South Asian Acheulean that could be more accessible. The Acheulean in the region has been a long block of undifferentiated time, despite some very well-resolved sites. In addition to this much older dating for early Acheulean, India also has some of the youngest Acheulean assemblages anywhere – for example, Haslam and colleagues Haslam:2011 earlier this month reported on an Acheulean assemblage from around 130,000 years ago in northeastern India. That’s long after the large biface tradition begins to give way to Middle Paleolithic and MSA toolkits in Europe and Africa.

On the topic of Denisova, Haslam and colleagues were writing before that genome was reported. But they did know about the Neandertal genetic results, including the evidence of Neandertal ancestry within India. Nevertheless, they assert a scenario in which the makers of earlier and later Acheulean in South Asia are the same biological population, without substantial gene flow from regions to the west, including the Neandertals.

Recent reports of the draft Neanderthal genome suggest that Neanderthals and H. sapiens likely did interbreed successfully soon after the latter had left Africa (Green et al., 2010), with the probable location of such contact to the west of India, in the Middle East. The southern limit of the Neanderthal range is unknown (Dennell and Roebroeks, 2005), but we emphasise that the continuity seen in the Middle Pleistocene South Asian technological record suggests that taxa derived from earlier hominin dispersals, and not Neanderthals, were the creators of the Indian Late Acheulean. Greater biological separation between dispersing humans and resident Indian hominins may have precluded viable genetic mixing (although see Liu et al., 2010 for an alternate view from East Asia), while similarities in certain technological strategies may have rendered cultural exchange a somewhat more likely occurrence.

Well, the Denisovans didn’t have to live in India when the ancestors of Melanesians ran across them and intermarried. But Denisova and the Neandertal genomes now make it very likely that the inhabitants of South Asia were one or the other. And even if South Asians were yet a third group, as yet unattested from genomes, it is no longer credible to suppose that they were isolated from Europe or Africa for a million years previous. The tools just don’t have that much to do with the populations.