Ancient toolkit offers new clues to humans' journey

Afp
Sunday 30 January 2011 01:00
Comments

An ancient toolkit unearthed in the United Arab Emirates suggests modern humans may have left Africa over 100,000 years ago, much earlier than typically thought, researchers said Thursday.

The findings by a team of British and German archeologists have sparked debate among scientists over whether they provide sufficient evidence that homo sapiens could have traveled directly from Africa to Arabia.

The stone tools found in the archaeological site at Jebel Faya include basic hand axes, blades and scrapers, indicating that the user likely had a primitive level of skill, said the study published in the journal Science.

That would "imply that technological innovation was not necessary for early humans to migrate onto the Arabian Peninsula," it said.

The team also examined climate and sea-level records for the region dating back 130,000 years and found that low sea levels meant the Bab al-Mandab strait that separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula would have been narrower and easier to cross.

Unlike the harsh desert conditions of today, the land would have been wetter and filled with more vegetation, lakes and rivers, making a journey by foot more feasible for early humans.

Using a technique called luminescence dating to determine the age of the toolkit, scientists believe it is between 100,000 and 125,000 years old, according to lead author Simon Armitage from Royal Holloway college, University of London.

Most other evidence has suggested modern humans left Africa around 60,000 years ago and made the trek along the Mediterranean Sea or the Arabian Coast, but some finds in recent years have suggested otherwise.

The journal Science noted that some early homo sapien skulls and tools have also been found in Israel and scientists have been able to estimate their age at 100,000 to 130,000 years old.

"At Jebel Faya, the ages reveal a fascinating picture in which modern humans migrated out of Africa much earlier than previously thought, helped by global fluctuations in sea-level and climate change in the Arabian Peninsula," said Armitage.

The site, located about an hour's drive from the city of Sharjah, is marked by a rock shelter at the edge of a mountain.

Previous artifacts uncovered in the area have been dated to the Iron, Bronze, and Neolithic periods as well as the Middle Paleolithic era, some 300,000 to 30,000 years ago.

But not all experts are convinced that the toolkit is what the authors believe it is.

"I'm totally unpersuaded," said archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge.

"There's not a scrap of evidence here that these were made by modern humans, nor that they came from Africa," he said. "Everything hinges on whether that material is explicitly African and I don't see that."

Study co-author Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, said the tools were not the kind used by Neanderthals, who were not believed to have been in Arabia at the time.

"That makes the African origin likely by process of elimination," he said.

The tools do not resemble artifacts found in Israel or tools from the same era in North Africa, suggesting there may have been multiple waves of migration from Africa and that these could have been made by homo sapiens who left East Africa, Marks said.

Archaeologist Mark Beech, a visiting fellow at the University of York, praised the paper but added: "One site does not confirm the out of Africa-via-Arabia hypothesis."

The international team of researchers was headed by Hans-Peter Uerpmann from Eberhard Karls University in Tubingen, Germany.

Uerpmann agreed that more evidence, such as fossil bones, would be necessary "before we can be absolutely sure" the tools were made by homo sapiens.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in