Handaxes trailing up the coastline

2 minute read

In The Conversation this week, archaeologist Amanuel Beyin and his colleagues Ahmed Hamid Nassr and Parth Chauhan describe their work surveying the Red Sea coast of Sudan for early archaeological sites: “Red Sea stone tool find hints at hominins’ possible route out of Africa”.

This is valuable work and I’m happy to see the authors sharing it. They are exploring for evidence of ancient hominin activity in a place where hominins should logically have been abundant in the Pleistocene, and they’re finding sites:

Recently we led a research team to fill the existing evidence gap about our ancestors’ route out of Africa. Our focus was on the western periphery of the Red Sea. This area links the fossil-rich Horn of Africa and the Sinai Peninsula, which is the only land bridge that could have facilitated direct hominin movement between Africa and Eurasia in the past two million years.
We found evidence of hominin settlement in the area in the form of stone artifacts that suggests this region was a key early dispersal corridor – and possibly the first. That evidence includes stone tools, colloquially referred to as handaxes or bifaces. These were associated initially with the first fully bipedal (upright walker) hominin species, Homo erectus, and subsequently with other species.

Handaxes are highly recognizable evidence because they were not commonly produced in Africa after 150,000 years ago. For the archaeologist, they give a rapid indicator that sites of Early or Middle Pleistocene antiquity are present—although handaxes can erode out of older sites and lie on the surface for a very long time. In any event, the presence of a network of ancient populations on the Red Sea coast is a logical prediction and great to find. This may be a region that was important to the repeated connections between African and Eurasian populations during the Middle Pleistocene.

I’m skeptical about the concept of “dispersal corridors” for hominins. I’ll reflect on that idea at greater length some other time, I don’t want to detract from the value of these authors sharing their work. All I’ll say is that I was worried when I saw the headline of this piece pointing to the “possible route out of Africa” that the work would have a lot of the usual nonsense about “southern route” and “northern route” possibilities for modern humans. So I was very pleasantly surprised that the authors were taking a broader view and filling in some important unknowns with respect to much earlier archaeological material.