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16 March 2010
Homo sapiens may have reached India 74,000 years ago

Newly discovered archaeological sites in southern and northern India have revealed how people lived before and after the colossal Toba volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago. The research team, led by Oxford University in collaboration with Indian institutions, has uncovered what it calls 'Pompeii-like excavations' beneath the Toba ash. The seven-year project examines the environment that humans lived in, their stone tools, as well as the plants and animal bones of the time. "This suggests that human populations were present in India prior to 74,000 years ago, or about 15,000 years earlier than expected based on some genetic clocks," said project director Michael Petraglia, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford.
     The digging sites are in Jwalapuram village and bilasurgam caves in Kurnool and Dhaba village in middle Son valley. "We have beautifully preserved occupation surfaces. We can trace occupation surface across the buried landscape, where we see that the tools are lying on surfaces above wetland areas. The ash has helped to preserve that living surface," Petraglia said. "We need fossils to be absolutely certain, and that is why we are working in the caves, which have fossilised animal bones," he said, adding that they wanted to dig for another five years.
     According to the team, a potentially ground-breaking implication of the new work is that the species responsible for making the stone tools in India was Homo sapiens. Stone tool analysis has revealed that the artefacts consist of cores and flakes, which are classified in India as Middle Palaeolithic and are similar to those made by modern humans in Africa. "Though we are still searching for human fossils to definitively prove the case, we are encouraged by the technological similarities."
     The fact that the Middle Palaeolithic tools of similar styles are found right before and after the Toba super-eruption, suggests that the people who survived the eruption were the same populations, using the same kinds of tools, says Petraglia. Although some scholars have speculated that the Toba volcano led to severe and wholesale environmental destruction, the Oxford-led research in India suggests that a mosaic of ecological settings was present, and some areas experienced a relatively rapid recovery after the volcanic event.

Sources: Bernama (23 February 2010), Deccan Herald (14 March 2010)

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