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In the footsteps of first humans

delhi Updated: Feb 23, 2010 00:24 IST
Anika Gupta

New evidence from southern Indian archaeological sites suggests that early humans, initially thought to have perished in a volcanic eruption, might in fact have survived.

About 74,000 years ago, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumatra exploded, sending up a cloud of ash and gas suffocating most of the life on Earth. The eruption was the most catastrophic event in human history.

Scientists have long believed that it wiped out early humans and changed the course of evolution.

But new archaeological findings, from a site in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, suggest early humans might have survived the epic explosion.

“We have discovered very good archaeological evidence that humans survived,” says Michael Petraglia, co-director of the Centre for Asian Art, Archaeology and Culture at the University of Oxford.

Petraglia and partner Ravi Korisettar, professor of archaeology at the Karnataka University in Dharwad, have been studying the archaeological remains at the Jurreru River Valley for seven years.

They’ve dubbed the site the “Pompeii of India” — after the Roman town buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD — because when the researchers dusted away layers of the ash, they found perfectly preserved remains of early human settlements.

They found stone tools, probably used for chopping and carving wood. The tools date to the days before the eruption and also to the period immediately after, suggesting that humans survived the explosion.

“This particular dating helps us establish clearly that the Indian subcontinent was an important geographical area between Southeast Asia and Africa,” said Korisettar.

“It brings to light the importance of this region, and will help us understand prehistorical migration.”

Previous theories of migration, derived from genetic testing, placed the first modern humans in India about 65,000 years ago. The new findings suggest humans arrived much earlier. If these humans indeed survived, they could be the ancestors of India’s modern-day tribes and also of those who moved from India into Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.