Two Acheuleans, two humankinds

Margherita Mussi, Department of Ancient World Studies
Social Sciences and Humanities

Human evolution is best documented in East Africa, where most of the relevant archaeological sites are located. The direct or indirect association of hominin remains with specific assemblages of lithic tools led to a narrative underlining that changes happened through time in a progressive and rather smooth way.

Margherita Mussi (Department of Ancient World Studies, Sapienza University of Rome), who directs archaeological research at Melka Kunture (Ethiopia) within the “Grandi Scavi” Sapienza scheme, challenges this scenario in a paper recently published with Rosalia Gallotti in Journal of Anthropological Sciences, focusing on the development of the Acheulean during the early Palaeolithic.

The Acheulean, first documented in East Africa, lasted from 1,800,000 to 100,000 years ago, i.e. over a substantial part of human evolution. Over time there were significant developments, and actually a qualitative leap in lithic tool production, which included large cutting tools, as the well-known, almond-shaped handaxes.

At Melka Kunture the sequence of Acheulean sites is one of the richest and more complex so far known. This allows differentiating quite sharply between the earlier and later Acheulean, i.e. the Acheulean less than 1,000,000-years old. In the earlier sites, notably, the lithic raw materials selected in the close surroundings are good enough to produce tools; while later on, the sophisticated techniques used to produces standardized handaxes and cleavers (another type of large cutting tools) requested specific raw materials, as for instance microdoleritic basalts, sought after at tens of km of distance.

Gallotti and Mussi hypothesize that the Acheulean did not develop smoothly through time. Rather, there were two distinct Acheuleans. The earliest Acheulean, found at Melka Kunture with fossil remains of Homo erectus, definitely originated in Africa. The later Acheulean, discovered at Melka Kunture with hominin remains close to Homo heidelbergensis – the common ancestor of both Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis – is not directly linked to previous developments and could well have originated elsewhere.

As a concluding remark, Mussi underlines that “a different origin for part of the Acheulean would agree with the suggestions of fellow scientists, who believe that Asia should re-enter the game, alongside Africa, as the place of origin of humankind”.


Team Leader
Margherita Mussi
Dip. di Scienze dell'antichità