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Georgian Homo Erectus Published May 11, 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

Editors note:

The May 12 edition of the journal Science presents the first scientific description of two 1.7-million-year-old crania excavated at Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. According to the article's authors the age and skeletal characteristics of the Dmanisi fossils link them to the early human species Homo ergaster, which some researchers believe is an African version of H. erectus. ARCHAEOLOGY reported the discovery, dated at that time to 1.8 million years, in its January/February 2000 issue and on its website.

The authors of the Science paper add, that while numerous fossil finds confirm that H. erectus was the first hominid species to leave the African continent, what prompted such a migration continues to be a topic of debate. Most believe that H. erectus, armed with an advanced tool kit, known as the Acheulean or hand-ax tradition, became the first human species capable of braving an array of challenging environments outside Africa. "The Dmanisi fossils, however, undermine this tale of the technologically triumphant hominid," says paper co-author Carl C. Swisher III of the Berkeley Geochronology Center. "Even though raw material suitable for making Acheulean tools was readily available," he says, "stone tools found with the two skulls are of a pre-Acheulean pebble-chopper type that appeared in Africa as early as 2.4 million years ago, arguing for early, pre-Acheulean migrations."

Herewith is our original report (January/February 2000):

Georgian Homo Erectus Crania
by Frédéric Lontcho

[image] Cranium found among stone tools and animal remains at Dmanisi (A. Justus) [LARGER IMAGE]

Discovery of two ca. 1.8-million-year-old crania belonging to early Homo erectus in Georgia is further evidence of the species' presence on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Excavated by a team from the Georgian Academy of Sciences and the Römisch-Germanisches Zentral Museum of Mainz, Germany, the fossils were found at Dmanisi, some 50 miles southwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, which in 1991 yielded stone artifacts, animal remains, and a well-preserved H. erectus mandible of similar date.

Among the new fossils, archaeologists recovered choppers and chopping tools and their cores, pollen, and the bones of more than a dozen kinds of animals including giraffe, gazelle, rhinoceros, and ostrich. Today, these species are found only in the African savannah and prove that the climate of the Black Sea region was warmer and drier in antiquity. The relationship between the human remains, tools, and animal bones has been difficult to establish and it is not clear whether they are contemporary. Rainwater may have displaced some of the material. The animal bones show no signs of butchery, suggesting that they may have died of natural causes. It is also unclear whether the Georgian hominids had mastered fire or were able to hunt large mammals like elephants, rhinoceroses, or hippopotamuses.

Other European sites have hinted at the diffusion of H. erectus across Europe. Equally ancient faunal assemblages have been recovered with tools from Tatoiu, Romania, and from Orce in Andalucia, Spain, and 1.6-million-year-old H. erectus fossils have been recovered in Indonesia. The extraordinary demographic success of H. erectus appears linked to a warming of southern Europe and Asia that rendered these regions more hospitable to the hominids and the animals they pursued, and to their mastery of certain stone tools that afforded them better chances of hunting success. The finds were dated by both paleomagnetism and potassium-argon methods by Carl C. Swisher of the Berkeley Geochronology Center.

* For more on Homo erectus see "Early Homo erectus Tools in China," January/February 2000; "Case of the Curious Cranium," October 20, 1999; "New Skull from Eritrea," September/October 1998; "First Mariners," May/June 1998; "Homo Erectus Survival," March/April 1997; "Yaws Origin," May/June 1996.
© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America