A spectacular haul of stone tools discovered beneath a collapsed rock shelter in southern Arabia has forced a major rethink of the story of human migration out of Africa. The collection of hand axes and other tools shaped to cut, pierce and scrape bear the hallmarks of early human workmanship, but date from 125,000 years ago, around 55,000 years before our ancestors were thought to have left the continent.
The artefacts, uncovered in the United Arab Emirates, point to a much earlier dispersal of ancient humans, who probably cut across from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian peninsula via a shallow channel in the Red Sea that became passable at the end of an ice age. Once established, these early pioneers may have pushed on across the Persian Gulf, perhaps reaching as far as India, Indonesia and eventually Australia.
Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at Oxford University who was not involved in the work, told the Science journal: “This is really quite spectacular. It breaks the back of the current consensus view.”
Anatomically modern humans – those that resemble people alive today – evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Until now, most archaeological evidence has supported an exodus from Africa, or several waves of migration, along the Mediterranean coast or the Arabian shoreline between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago.