1.4 Million-Year-Old Stone Tools Shed Light On Early Human Migration

A new study of ancient stone tools discovered in western Ukraine suggests they may be the oldest known trace of human presence in Europe, yielding insights into how early humans dispersed across the continent.

The study was published March 6 in Nature by a multinational research team. “We were very excited about this and we could see that it was possible to calculate an age that would be robust with relatively low uncertainties,” Mads Knudsen, a geoscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark and co-leader of the study, told Hyperallergic

Using a dating method based on cosmogenic nuclides — rare isotopes created in rocks and sediment from reactions produced by cosmic rays — the researchers estimated the tools to be about 1.4 million years old. Prior to this discovery, the oldest evidence of human ancestors in Europe comprised fossils and stone tools found in Spain and France, according to previous research. Those artifacts are 1.1 million to 1.2 million years old. 

The “core and flake” tools carved in the ancient Oldowan style were originally discovered in the 1970s at the Korolevo archaeological site, but up until now dating them had proven difficult due to technical limitations, said study co-leader Roman Garba, an archaeologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

This particular surface-dating method using buried sediment from the site is only about 10 to 15 years old, Knudsen said, and allowed the researchers to date the sedimentary stratum in which the tools were found.

“This is the perfect scenario to apply this dating method on a site that was discovered 50 years ago,” Garba said.  

Though that same stratum did not yield human fossils to offer clues as to which species of hominin created the tools, the researchers speculate that it may have been Homo erectus due to the Korolevo tools’ similarities to those found in the Caucasus Mountains on the Europe-Asia border. The tools discovered at those archaeological sites — an area southeast of Korolevo — have been connected with Homo erectus and dated to about 1.8 million years ago, Knudsen said.

“With this site in Ukraine, you get a point on the map that both in time and space bridges the gap between the site in the Caucasus and then southwestern Europe,” Knudsen said.

Dating the Korolevo tools has helped the archaeological community flesh out their understanding of early humans’ migration across Europe. While it was widely regarded that the continent was colonized from the east, there was another hypothesis proposing that early humans entered Europe from the south, crossing from Morocco to Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar. 

This new evidence for east-west dispersion points to our ancestors’ ability to adapt to different climate niches, Knudsen said. Due to lengthening climate cycles that happened 900,000 to 1 million years ago, it was previously believed that Europe wasn’t colonized until after that point. But the burial age of around 1.4 million years ago corresponds to interglacial periods when the climate warmed, suggesting that the hominins were better at exploiting these opportunities of warmth than once thought.  

“There are many things about human history that we don’t know. And we just have to piece it together from very small, few, sporadic glimpses of knowledge,” Knudsen said.

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