Tool find sug­gests hu­man an­ces­tors left Africa ear­lier

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - International -

The As­so­ci­ated Press

NEWYORK — Stone tools re­cov­ered from an ex­ca­va­tion in China sug­gest that our evo­lu­tion­ary fore­run­ners trekked out of Africa ear­lier than we thought.

Un­til now, the old­est ev­i­dence of hu­man-like crea­tures out­side Africa came from 1.8-mil­lion-year-old ar­ti­facts and skulls found in the Ge­or­gian town of Dman­isi. But the new find pushes that back by at least 250,000 years.

“It’s ab­so­lutely a new story,” said ar­chae­ol­o­gist Michael Pe­traglia of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for the Sci­ence of Hu­man His­tory in Jena, Ger­many, who did not par­tic­i­pate in the study. “It means that early hu­mans were get­ting out of Africa way ear­lier than we ever re­al­ized.”

That exit came long be­fore our own species, Homo sapi­ens, even ap­peared. The re­searchers be­lieve the tools were made by an­other mem­ber of the Homo evo­lu­tion­ary group.

The items in­cluded sev­eral chipped rocks, frag­ments and ham­mer stones. The 96 ar­ti­facts were dug up in an area known as the Loess Plateau, north of the Qin­ling moun­tains, which di­vide north and south China.

Some of them were as old as 2.1 mil­lion years, ac­cord­ing to the study in Wed­nes­day’s jour­nal Na­ture.

“We were very ex­cited,” said Zhaoyu Zhu, a pro­fes­sor at the Guangzhou In­sti­tute of Geo­chem­istry, who led the field work. “One of my col­leagues sud­denly no­ticed a stone em­bed­ded in a steep out­crop. Af­ter a short while, more ar­ti­facts were found — one af­ter an­other.”

The tools were dis­trib­uted through­out lay­ers of dirt, sug­gest­ing our uniden­ti­fied an­cient rel­a­tives came back to the same site over and over, pos­si­bly fol­low­ing an­i­mals to hunt. Re­searchers also found bones of pigs and deer but were not able to pro­vide proof that the tools were used for hunt­ing.

Some ex­perts not in­volved in the re­search think that the find­ings need to be taken with cau­tion.

“I am skep­ti­cal,” said Ge­of­frey Pope, an an­thro­pol­o­gist from Wil­liam Pater­son Univer­sity in New Jersey. “I sus­pect this dis­cov­ery will change very lit­tle.”

The prob­lem, he said, is that some­times na­ture can shape stones in a way that they look as if they were man­u­fac­tured by hand. Sci­en­tists know, for ex­am­ple, that rocks smashed to­gether in a stream can ac­quire sharp edges.

But So­nia Har­mand, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Stony Brook Univer­sity in New York, dis­agreed.

“This could be, frankly, one of the most im­por­tant [ar­chae­o­log­i­cal] sites in the world,” said Ms. Har­mand, who stud­ies stone tools.

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