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Tool use and manufacture reveal the Mid Pleistocene migration patterns of western Europe

Despite controversies within the ‘out of Africa’ theory of hominin colonisation of Europe, the continent’s cyclical climatic changes can explain migratory patterns. The WEAP project offers more detail by comparing regional tool manufacture.

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One of the most notorious debates about prehistoric human evolution concerns the migratory ‘out of Africa’ events which led to European colonisation. Over the last decade, it has become clearer that the earliest human dispersals into north-west Europe started around 1 million years ago (Ma) along the Atlantic seaboard from the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. This route should therefore provide evidence of north-south cultural links. The EU-supported WEAP project, hosted by the British Museum in London, examined human presence in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, 700 to 250 thousand years ago (Ka). It did so by analysing Acheulean technology from 10 different archaeological sites. Previously, differing systems of analysis and categorisation made it difficult to compare data between countries, resulting in superficial comparisons between major western European sites. WEAP took advantage of new technologies and a common methodological approach, to make more accurate comparisons of lithic tools between sites, evidencing several technological identities for the western European Acheulean.

What handaxes reveal

The beginning of the Acheulean period, 1.7–1.5 Ma in Africa, witnessed the production of new tools. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these is the handaxe – the first bifacially shaped tool which is considered a prime example of advanced human cognition. Handaxes are not evident in Europe until after 1 Ma and not persistently until after 700 Ka. However, due to their variety, they can be linked to different traditions of manufacture and so, hominin patterns of movement. “WEAP investigated local factors, such as available raw materials, that might influence handaxe design, giving us a more regional perspective beyond the characteristics of individual sites,” explains Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow Paula García-Medrano. 3D scanning allowed WEAP to analyse tool morphometry, covering a vast time period between 700 Ka and 250 Ka and including 10 archaeological sites in western Europe in the United Kingdom, (Brandon Fields, Boxgrove, Elveden, Swanscombe-UMG) and France (La Noira, Cagny La Garenne, Saint Pierre and Menez Dregan). The findings supported research that shows environmental changes affected human survival opportunities in Europe. This is reflected by migratory patterns. For example, the period from 1.2 to 0.9 Ma witnessed climatic changes varying in duration and intensity. The relatively humid conditions, especially in Mediterranean and western Europe, increased varieties of habitat and dispersal. The longer, more stable interglacials starting 900 Ka enabled a more sustained occupation of north-west Europe but saw retreats or local extinctions as climate cooled. Starting 0.6 Ma, more sustained occupation of northern latitudes is evidenced by the increase in sites containing large assemblages of stone tools, with innovations such as the handaxe. “WEAP’s results have added details to the classical interpretation of Europe colonisation. As the technology reflects its manufacture, the similarities and differences of features, such as oval or pointed shapes, reflect the movements of people across the Acheulean,” says García-Medrano.

Ideas into reality

WEAP helps provide a more detailed understanding of how early humans adapted and dispersed in cooler European climates. Examining tool manufacturing differences also helps to underline how hominins were capable of following a ‘mental template’, transferring ideas into reality. The next step is to adopt WEAP’s methodology for additional sites in the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and north Africa. Once the time and space connections of technologies are defined, the aim is to explore which routes could have been used by the hominins to colonise this part of the continent.


WEAP, hominins, handaxe, Acheulean, Mid Pleistocene, migration, interglacials, climate, 3D scanning

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