Some exciting news about 60 km from where I live in Pune. Archaeologists from Deccan College, Pune have discovered stone tools at Morgaon. These tools of Early to Middle Pleistocene age have been dated to about 800,000 years based on magneto-stratigraphic dating of volcanic ash deposits associated with these tools. These tools belong to the lower Paleolithic Acheulean industry, a style of tool making where both surfaces of the tools are flaked to produce symmetrical hand axes of distinctive pear and disc shapes.
Image to the left shows the Acheulean tools from Morgaon (source Times of India). The age of these tools indicate that these tools were made by representatives of the now extinct species Homo erectus. This is an inference based on our overall understanding of human evolution and not due to the preservation of Homo erectus remains alongside the stone tools at this site. In India remains of Homo erectus are extremely rare. In fact, only one unequivocal fossil from the Narmada basin has been discovered. There could be many reasons for this such as the low preservation potential of terrestrial species to begin with or these fossils are preserved in very specialized geological contexts, or an interesting suggestion by anthropologist Parth R. Chauhan that hominin fossils many not be recognized as such since most such work in India is carried out by geologists or archaeologists and not physical anthropologists who are better trained to recognize hominin fossils. There is however quite a rich archaeological record of stone tools in India. The oldest unequivocal evidence is from Isampur in Karnataka, where again Acheulean style tools of around 1.2 millions years ago have been discovered. The Paleolithic tool finds in India have been nicely summarized here. Whatever the reasons for the lack of fossils, this presents a good example of the sometimes infuriating situation a field of study can find itself in. An abundance of one type of evidence and a virtual lack of a complimentary type. In this case, a rich collection of tools, but no signs of its maker. The lack of hominin fossils has certainly hampered studies of human evolution in the south Asian context. Tools indicate an early presence of the genus Homo in India (at least 1.2 million years ago), but we know little of the subsequent evolution of this species in India in terms of morphological changes interpreted in the context of changing climates and environments. Did Homo erectus evolve into a more modern form, know as the archaic modern human morphology as has been observed in Europe and Africa? Can the changing tool technology through the Indian Paleolithic record be interpreted in the context of such evolutionary changes? There is a potential here to make important contributions to the Multi-Regional vs Out-of-Africa debate on modern human origins, but at present that potential is unexploited.
In any case this is an exciting and important discovery. It supports our overall understanding of the evolution and migration of populations of Homo erectus which is considered the first member of the human family to have migrated out of Africa. The earliest evidence of this genus is from Africa dated to nearly 2 million years ago. The earliest evidence outside Africa is from Dmanisi in Georgia (central Asia) dated to about 1.7 million years ago. The Isampur tools indicate that populations of Homo erectus migrated into India at least 1.2 million years ago maybe even earlier. This latest discovery adds to our slowly increasing knowledge of the distribution of Homo erectus populations in India and the variation in stone tool technology prevalent at that time. It is another piece in an accumulating database, but by no means an earth-shattering find.
The Indian media should view this discovery as such and not launch into breathless, nationalistic "we got here first" or " we have the oldest stone tool technology" interpretations. There are hints this is already happening. From the front page of Times of India:
"The evidence - mostly Acheulean artefacts and tools made of basalt stone - comes relatively close to that of the oldest evidence of such tools found in Africa and dating 14 lakh years". How is a gap of more than half a million years close? And don't forget Isampur in Karnataka, which has already pushed back the date of Acheulean stone tools in India to 1.2 million years.