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Lost tools reveal early humans’ route out of Africa

The peripatetic human ancestor, Homo erectus, has been in the news lately as researchers have uncovered new clues about how it walked, what tools it used, and what its hips looked like. But one mystery has persisted—how did it leave Africa, where it probably arose about 1.8 million years ago? Researchers have found fossil bones from Georgia to Java in Asia, but no bones or undisputed stone tools along the routes this early human should have trekked on its migrations out of Africa. Anyone who could draw a line on a map between east Africa and the two oldest fossil sites in western Asia could guess that H. erectus passed through Turkey, for example, but in the absence of evidence, they couldn’t be sure.  And researchers have debated whether the species arose in Africa or Asia and how it moved between continents.

Now some long-awaited evidence has emerged in the form of a short trail of stone tools left behind by H. erectus as it passed through Turkey. In the current issue of Antiquity, a team of Turkish and American researchers reports about “unambiguous” stone tools and butchered animal bones dating to almost 1 million years ago. The stone tools, made mostly of milky white quartz, were found in a former lignite quarry near the village of Dursunlu in south-central Turkey. The site is relatively close to both Ubeidiya, Israel, where stone tools were left about 1.4 million years ago, and to Dmanisi, Georgia, where H. erectus bones date to 1.75 million years ago.

A team led by paleontologist Erksin Gulec of Ankara University in Turkey found 135 stone tools, including some retouched flakes and choppers. They have also found the bones of rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and horses with cut marks.  These tools “are the first clear material traces of hominin occupation in the region,” the authors write. Next task for those tracing H. erectus: Uncover tools left behind as it circumvented the Sahara Desert, crossed the Himalayas, and arrived on the Indonesian island of Java.