The oldest stone tools found in Southeast Asia potentially rewrites our understanding of human origins

A hand axe found in Perak, peninsular Malaysia has been dated to 1.83 million years, making it the oldest stone tool discovered in the part of the world. More significantly, this find also raises some serious questions about the out-of-Africa hypothesis of human origin. The oldest modern man in Southeast Asia is dated to around 50-60,000 years ago, and the oldest hominid fossil, Java Man (homo erectus) is placed between 1 and 1.7 million years ago. It’s been all over the news this weekend, and I’m sorry for not posting this up sooner especially seeing how I am at the said Centre for Archaeological Research in Universiti Sains Malaysia (I’ve been away to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year).

The soil in which the tools were discovered in were dated by fission-track dating, but they do have a wide margin of error of about 600,000 years. At this stage, the results haven’t been independently verified.

Lenggong had early humans 1.8m years ago
The Star, 29 January 2009

Rewriting ‘Out of Africa’ theory
New Straits Times, 30 January 2009

Early axes found in Perak
The Star, 30 January 2009

Malaysian scientists find stone tools ‘oldest in Southeast Asia’
AFP, 31 January 2009

Malaysia Says 1.8 Million-year-old Axes Unearthed
Sin Chew Jit Poh, 31 Jan 2009

Evidence of human existence dating back 1.83 million years was uncovered at Bukit Bunuh in Lenggong, Perak recently.

Universiti Sains Malaysia Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia director Assoc Prof Dr Mokhtar Saidin said hand-axes which were unearthed showed evidence of the early existence of Homo erectus in the South-East Asia region.

He said the previous pre-historic hand-axes found in Africa dated back 1.6 million years.

“We found one of the hand-axes, made of quartzite rock, embedded in layers of suevite caused by meteorite impact.


11 comments to The oldest stone tools found in Southeast Asia potentially rewrites our understanding of human origins

  • cinnamonape

    Congratulations! Both on the New Year and the find. From the pictures the tools seem massive. Or is the one shown being used simply a core for flakes? Is the other object an “anvil”? Just how were these determined to be artifacts (statistically high numbers in a localized spot)?

    Lots of the media seem to be misstating the find. “Dated by carbon dating”, evidence for “out of Asia”, etc. To me the find actually would endorse an initial early migration of a descendant of “Homo habilis” (broadly speaking) into the region about 1.8 mya. We knew this already, from the dated finds in Java, but this connects the dots back to Dmanisi, and sites in Ethipia, Kenya and South Africa.

    I hope that the tools, and their associations, will tell us a bit more about what those Javan hominids were eating, where they were living, and the types of technology they had. Also I hope that the date gets narrowed down. A 610,000 range of error is very substantial and not be likely to convince anyone in debates where precision is critical. Still, they would be the earliest stone tools recognized in SE Asia!

    It has little impact on the Out-Of-Africa hypothesis that relates to anatomically modern H. sapiens.

  • Thanks cinnamonape! although I cannot claim any involvement with the find. I can’t remember if the tool in the picture was a core or simply a large handaxe. I’ve seen the rocks up close and there seem to be signs of wear and working that are definitely not natural. Yes, the 600ka margin of error is simply far too wide to make any reasonable model of how hominids made their way into Asia, but we’re awaiting the results of three more tests. Hopefully this will give a more definitive idea behind the implication of the find!

  • Just been catching up on this news after my Myanmar trip. Although the rock material is dated at 1.83 m yrs, how do they know that the axes were actually made at that time?

  • hmm… i actually don’t know that one. I’ll ask him when the new results come in

  • Any more news on this? It didn’t make much news in the international media???

  • Nope, nothing else. I did raise quite a stir in the first few days (I think BBC and AFP covered it), but I might have missed out some because it happened while I was out for the CNY holidays.

  • I just been googling it and it appears on several international blogs, with a lot of scepticism !

  • I’m sure! Part of the problem is that the claim is certainly sensational, and there isn’t any publishable data to scrutinise as well. Until more data comes in and is made available, the reaction is going to be tentative and skeptical.

  • adamb

    Does anyone have any further updates on the progress/status of this find, i.e. are final dates for the rock matrix in which handaxes embedded available? Many thanks in advance

    • No, I haven’t heard anything yet, but I’ll ask Dr Mokhtar about it when I next see him in the hallways. They’re exhibiting the meteorite matrix at the centre now, I was going to take a couple of shots up soon.

  • adamb

    That’s awesome, many thanks – look forward to hearing more about it. Do you know, also, where it is possible to find some good, close-up images of the handaxes from the site, the ones with the claimed age of 1.8 Ma? Are they available anywhere online? The main ones I have seen online are a large tan-coloured biface-looking thing held up by Dr Mokhtar, presumably at a press conference or something, and one of the handaxes from the suevite shown in a Malaysian TV news report posted onto youtube, but in both cases it is difficult to get a good look at the artefacts. any insight would be much appreciated, thanks

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