Our earliest ancestors gave up hunter-gathering and took to a settled life up to 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to controversial research.
The accepted timescale of Man’s evolution is being challenged by a German archaeologist who claims to have found evidence that Homo erectus — mankind’s early ancestor, who migrated from Africa to Asia and Europe — began living in settled communities long before the accepted time of 10,000 years ago.
The point at which settlement actually took place is the first critical stage in humanity’s cultural development.
Helmut Ziegert, of the Institute of Archaeology at Hamburg University, says that the evidence can be found at excavated sites in North and East Africa, in the remains of stone huts and tools created by upright man for fishing and butchery.
Professor Ziegert claims that the thousands of blades, scrapers, hand axes and other tools found at sites such as Budrinna, on the shore of the extinct Lake Fezzan in southwest Libya, and at Melka Konture, along the River Awash in Ethiopia, provide evidence of organised societies.
He believes that such sites show small communities of 40 or 50 people, with abundant water resources to exploit for constant harvests.
The implications for our knowledge of human evolution — and of our intellectual and social beginnings — are “profound” and a “staggering shift”, he said.
Professor Ziegert used potassium argon isotopic dating, stratigraphy and tool typology to compile his evidence. He will publish his findings this month in Minerva, the archaeology journal.
The news divided scholarly opinion yesterday.
Sean Kingsley, an archaeologist and the managing editor of Minerva, said: “This research is nothing less than a quantum leap in our understanding of Man’s intellectual and social history. For archaeology it’s as radical as finding life on Mars.
“As a veteran of over 81 archaeological surveys and excavations . . . Ziegert is nothing if not scientifically cautious, which makes the current revelation all the more exciting.”
But others were far from convinced. Paul Pettitt, senior lecturer in palaeolithic archaeology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Are they truly the remains of huts and not a natural phenomenon? Do they really date 400,000 years or are they much more recent? The site formation, age and implications are all questionable.”
He said that Homo erectus was a highly mobile hunter, that human remains can accumulate for a number of reasons and that the evidence to be published by Minerva does not indicate a year-round settlement.
Further scepticism was voiced by Paul Bahn, an archaeologist who specialises in the palaeolithic period. Although he believes that Homo erectus was quite advanced and capable of building durable structures, occasionally coming together in large groups, he remains to be convinced about settlements.
He said: “Homo erectus could have been there for a few days. He wouldn’t have carried the tools around. Inevitably, they accumulate. If hunter-gatherers found no cave or rock shelter, it makes sense that they might have built a shelter for a few days or seasonally. Just the fact that they’re made out of stone doesn’t mean they were permanent settlements.
Nick Barton, a lecturer in palaeolithic archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: “No unequivocal dating evidence is presented except that based on the typology of the artefacts. It is entirely possible that the site represents a palimpsest of material spanning the palaeolithic to the neolithic.”
Homo erectus — a species that has been recognised since the late 19th century — lived from about 1.6 million to 200,000 years ago, ranging widely from Africa and Asia to parts of Europe. Most of the anatomical differences between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens relate to the skull and teeth, with the former having a jutting browridge, a wide nose and large teeth.
Professor Ziegert said: “The first archaeological revolution in fact was not triggered by anatomically ‘modern humans’ in the neolithic, or indeed in the technological and cultural revolution associated with the upper palaeolithic, but by Homo erectus, upright Man, an altogether different ancestral species making waves at the dawn of humanity.”
After decades of fieldwork, Professor Ziegert is convinced that future discoveries will uphold his conclusions. Under his direction, the University of Hamburg has scheduled a further programme of excavations at Budrinna and Melka Konture over the next four years.