Did Homo erectus Settle Down 400,000 Years bp?

According to a theory proposed by Professor Helmut Ziegert, and reported in today’s ‘Times’ our ancient forebears, Homo erectus, constructed the first settlements known to mankind, at a time when such behaviour has popularly been considered too advanced for Acheulian equipped people, who lived 400,000 years ago.

Helmut Ziegert, of the Institute of Archaeology at Hamburg University, says that the evidence can be found at excavated sites in North and East Africa, in the remains of stone huts and tools created by upright man for fishing and butchery.

Professor Ziegert claims that the thousands of blades, scrapers, hand axes and other tools found at sites such as Budrinna, on the shore of the extinct Lake Fezzan in southwest Libya, and at Melka Konture, along the River Awash in Ethiopia, provide evidence of organised societies.

He believes that such sites show small communities of 40 or 50 people, with abundant water resources to exploit for constant harvests.

Professor Ziegert used potassium argon isotopic dating, stratigraphy and tool typology to compile his evidence. He will publish his findings this month in Minerva, the archaeology journal.

Although at first this news might seem surprising, it has become apparent in recent years that Homo erectus, both in Africa and Asia, was far more technologically and culturally enterprising and sophisticated than thought possible. Moreover, there are other sites dating to a similar age where it can be demonstrated that people were capable of erecting shelters, with the site of Terra Amata, near Nice in France, dating to between 200,000 and 400,000 years, and there is evidence from post holes at the German site of Bilzingsleben, which may date back to between 350,000 – 400,000 bp.

Other evidence from Lake Fezzan pointing to advanced and sophisticated behaviour by Homo erectus is detailed here,

Of a substantially greater antiquity are the three similar ostrich eggshell beads from El Greifa site E, in Wadi el Adjal, Libya (Bednarik 1997d). They come from a substantial sequence of Acheulian occupation deposits representing many millennia of continuous occupation of a littoral site, on the shore of the huge Fezzan Lake of the Pleistocene. This site has exceptionally good preservation conditions, with insect remains and seeds found together with bone. The typical Late Acheulian stone tool forms, including ‘handaxes’, confirm the dating of the occupation strata by Th/U analysis to about 200 ka. These are the earliest known secure disc beads in the world, and there can be no reasonable doubt that they are indeed man-made beads, and not some chance product of nature (Figure 3d-f). In addition to the three found initially, several more beads have most recently been recovered from the same site and period (M. Kuckenburg, pers. comm. Jan. 2000). ‘Beads And The Origins Of Symbolism‘ R. Bednarik

Back in March 2ooo, the BBC carried a story, detailing the discovery of what was claimed to be the ‘world’s oldest building‘, dating back to 500,000 years bp. (N.B.  Thanks to Doug who commented below,  pointing out the whole Japanese ‘discovery’ was nothing more than a not very elaborate hoax)

The shelter would have been built by an ancient ancestor of humans, Homo erectus, who is known to have used stone tools. The site has been dated to half a million years ago, according to a report in New Scientist.

It consists of what appear to be 10 post holes, forming two irregular pentagons which may be the remains of two huts. Thirty stone tools were also found scattered around the site.

The Japanese site was discovered during the construction of a park. After digging through about two metres of river deposits, archaeologists found a layer of volcanic ash in which the shallow post holes were dug. Ofer Bar-Yosef, an anthropologist at Harvard University, says Japanese dating techniques using volcanic ash are usually reliable.

The holes were clearly distinct from the volcanic layer, says Kazutaka Shimada, curator of the Meiji University Museum in Tokyo. “They had well-defined edges.”

The remains could help explain how Homo erectus lived and hunted. “It’s evidence that they built structures but how permanent this was we don’t know,” says Dr Stringer. “Who knows whether this was a shelter they stayed in for one week, or one month.”

It is this uncertainty over whether such structures as the putative stone huts in Africa represent permanent or temporary shelters, which is fuelling the current debate – there appears to be some acceptance of the idea that Homo erectus was sufficiently cognitively advanced to construct shelters on land, which goes along with the idea that they were also capable of constructing ocean going rafts, by which various islands in Indonesia were occupied at least as far back as 840,000 bp.

The idea has been put forward that these constructions could have been seasonal hunting camps, rather than occupied full-time by a sedentary population; in later prehistory, it is easier to spot what were once permanent settlements by the tell-tale middens, or refuse mounds that are found in situ, and I’m not aware of any that have been found in the context of these Homo erectus sites. For example, if there was a permanent settlement at Lake Fezzan in Libya, from where there is evidence of the manufacture of shell beads from around 300,000 bp, we might expect to see evidence of mollusc consumption, in the guise of middens comprising discarded shells – but given the vast stretch of time that has elapsed, it is possible that any middens that may have existed, have themselves now disappeared.

There is mention of the Ethiopian site at Melka Konture, described in the following context, from here

While the earliest dated evidence of huts is controversial and most likely will remain so, the evidence is accumulating that hut-making was a common activity at this time. The earliest one was discovered by Mary Leakey at the DK site in Olduvai Gorge, dated 1.8 MYR ago.16 She found a circular pattern of stones, 12 feet in diameter resembling what is left from modern nomadic huts. At Melka Konture, Ethiopia, the living level was strewn with tools except for a cleared area 8 feet in diameter. In this region the surface was slightly raised above the rest of the area. Once again a few stone piles remained suggesting the presence of poles.17 Gowlett states:

“Ethiopia has a major share of early sites for, in addition to Hadar, there are other important sequences at Melka Konture, and Gadeb. Melka Konture has a number of different levels ranging from Developed Oldowan through to Late Acheulean. On one site, aged about 1.5 million years, there are indications of a cleared area, probably lying within a wind-break, and the excavator, Jean Chavaillon, suspects that fire was in use.”18 (John A. J. Gowlett, Ascent to Civilization, (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993), p. 58.)

Such sites as these are hotly contested, with objectors claiming that what appear to be artificial constructs are in fact the result of various dynamic forces like flood-waters disturbing rock and stone, and depositing them in accumulations which appear to be unnatural. But when found in the context of stone tools, the likelihood that very early humans were making constructions, whether as camps or permanent abodes, appears to grow stronger. I’m not sure whether a permanent base in the Acheulian offered any real advantage over temporary camps. Permanent settlements in the modern era, i.e. the Holocene, appear to have arisen as part of the move towards agriculture, an activity that required a year-round human presence for its maintenance and success as a provider of necessary resources.

Although there is no evidence that Homo erectus peoples practised agriculture, there is no reason to suppose that they were unable to cultivate certain roots, plants or trees which they were able to exploit for their own ends, without the need for the constant care and attention required by sown crops, or for that matter, domesticated farm animals; I think the activity of hunting prey at different sites at different times of the year would have been sustained permanently, rather than specific settlements from which hunting parties set out from and returned to, all the year round.

So although there was probably little need for Homo erectus to construct permanent settlements, it may have made sense to build permanent constructions which could be visited on frequent bases, as a component of a wider set of camps and shelters across the landscapes they roamed.

After decades of fieldwork, Professor Ziegert is convinced that future discoveries will uphold his conclusions. Under his direction, the University of Hamburg has scheduled a further programme of excavations at Budrinna and Melka Konture over the next four years.

As ever, it is the advent of more data and research that will throw more light on just how advanced Homo erectus was – Robert Bednarik has described the taphonomic problem of there being so little in the way of remains dating from the Lower Palaeolithic, that the people of that era are considered to have produced or achieved very little; but as both he and Professor Ziegert attest, the more we discover from this distant era, the more we come to recognise the truly pioneering advances that were made by the first true, and in fact, behaviourally modern humans, Homo erectus. (TJ)

4 thoughts on “Did Homo erectus Settle Down 400,000 Years bp?

  1. Hi Doug – thanks a lot for the heads-up, and sorry for my much delayed reply – now you mention it, I remember the guy and the scandal, but hadn’t recalled it as I posted this article – best, Tim

  2. Jan, 18, 2008

    May I have the e-mail dress of Mr. Jean Chavaillon? I´m very interested, because I want to send him several acheulian pieces found, and to obtain his opinion about. I´m sure that pieces will be very interesting to Mr Chavaillon too.
    Thanks in advance.

  3. Varela, thanks for your comment, but unfortunately I do not have access to the email address you mention.

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