New research challenges existing views on manufacture of stone tools 325 thousand years ago

Dr Keith Wilkinson, Reader in Environmental Archaeology in the University of Winchester’s Department of Archaeology, has co-authored a paper published in Science arguing that humans in Europe and Asia improved and developed their method of making tools rather than – as previously thought – adopting a more advanced method that was brought by migrating populations from Africa.

Dr Wilkinson has coordinated the Armenian project since 2008 alongside Dr Daniel Adler, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, who is lead author on the paper, as well as archaeologists of the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The team examined thousands of stone artefacts retrieved from a fossilised floodplain of the Hrazdan river at Nor Geghi 1, a site 30km north of the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. Lavas that sandwich the floodplain were dated by the team to 200,000 and 441,000 years ago, while volcanic ash lying above the artefacts produced an age of 308,000 years ago. Further geological evidence then narrowed the date of human activity down to c 325,000 years before present.

The stone tools provide the earliest evidence for the simultaneous use of two distinct technologies: Lower Palaeolithic bifacial technology; and Levallois technology, a more intellectually advanced stone tool production method commonly associated with the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic.

Archaeologists have previously argued that Levallois technology replaced bifacial tools as humans migrated from Africa into Europe and Asia roughly 300,000 years ago, marking the transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic period.

“Nor Geghi demonstrates the two technologies existed together in one place and at the same time,” said Dr Wilkinson. “Some archaeologists have attributed Levallois technology to early forms of our antecedents migrating from Africa, but our data suggest this is unlikely to be case as at Nor Geghi because we have found Levallois artefacts alongside the earlier tool forms.”

“The data suggests instead that the new technology is a development of the old, rather than having been introduced into Eurasia by new colonists from elsewhere.”

Dr Wilkinson added: “The other major significance of Nor Geghi is the precision with which the site has been dated. The association of the artefacts with volcanic deposits meant that we could apply the argon-argon technique, and thereby date the site to 325,000 years ago plus or minus a few thousand years. Although this may not sound impressive for those used to reading about radiocarbon dating, this level of precision at such a distant period in the past, has only previously been achieved on African sites that are also associated with volcanic deposits.”

The study published in Science is the first to report the age and significance of the Nor Geghi 1 site.

The research conducted at the site is a collaboration with the University of Connecticut, and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Yerevan. Argon-Argon dating was carried out by Dr Darren Mark of the NERC Argon Isotope Facility, University of Glasgow, while intellectual contributions to this research were made by an international team of collaborators from Armenia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, and the United States.

Funding for this research was provided by the University of Connecticut (the Norian Armenian Programs Committee, the College of Liberal Arts and Science, the Office of Global Affairs, Study Abroad, and the CLAS Book Committee), the UK Natural Environment Research Council (IP-1186-0510), the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, the Irish Research Council, and the University of Winchester.

This research is published today in the journal Science: www.sciencemag.org