Published in the journal Science, the researchers examined thousands of stone artefacts from the Nor Geghi 1 site in Armenia.
The tools were found in layers of floodplain sediments and ancient soil trapped between two lava flows dating from 200,000 to 400,000 years. The researchers then dated volcanic ash found within the sediments, allowing the researchers to correlate the stone tools with a period between 325,000 and 335,000 years ago.
Two types of stone tool technology were found at the site. Firstly, they found biface technology, typically associated with the Lower Paleolithic era, in which a mass of stone is shaped through the removal of flakes from two surfaces in order to produce a tool such as a hand axe.
But they also found Levallois technology, a method in which flakes of predetermined size and shape are detached. Unlike in biface technology, where the detached flakes are treated as waste, the flakes produced through Levallois technology are the desired products.
Small and easy to carry, archaeologists suggest that Levallois technology is optimal in terms of raw material use – all important issues for the highly mobile hunter-gatherers of the time.
But previously, the researchers say, archaeologists had argued that Levallois technology was invented in Africa and spread to Eurasia with expanding human populations, replacing local biface technologies in the process.
This paper argues instead that “the co-existence of the two technologies at Nor Geghi 1 provides the first clear evidence that local populations developed Levallois technology out of existing biface technology”.
Based on comparisons of archaeological data from sites in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, the study also suggests that the innovation occurred independently within different human populations who shared a common technological ancestry, said Daniel Adler, lead author of the study. In other words, Levallois technology evolved out of pre-existing biface technology in different places at different times.
This conclusion challenges the view held by some archaeologists that technological change resulted from population change during this period. “If I were to take all the artifacts from the site and show them to an archaeologist, they would immediately begin to categorize them into chronologically distinct groups,” Adler said.
In reality, Adler argues, the artefacts found at Nor Geghi 1 reflect the technological flexibility and variability of a single population during a period of profound human behavioural and biological change and highlight the antiquity of the human capacity for innovation.
In addition, chemical analysis of many of the artefacts shows that the obsidian used came from outcrops as far as 120 kilometers (75 miles) away, suggesting they must also have been capable of exploiting large, environmentally diverse territories.
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