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African exports: migration of Acheulean technology to Europe and Asia from 1.76 mya (million years ago) to 130 tya

Acheulean, derived from the french word acheuléen, is the archeological study of stone tools and their manufacturing, especially characterized by oval or pear-shaped hand axes. These were particularly associated with Homo Erectus and their derived species like Homo Heidelbergensis. Acheulean tools were primarily produced during the Lower Palaeolithic era across Africa, and much of West Asia, South Asia, and Europe. These tools are normally found with other Homo Erectus remains.  The term Acheulean does not represent a common culture of a close knit community, rather it is a basic method for making stone tools that was shared across much of the Prehistoric World.

Although there is no evidence of art in the modern sense before 50,000 years ago, when the modern Homo Sapiens emerged, it has been debated whether or not to classify Acheulean tools as ‘art’ or not.

However in recent times, most museums and historic societies have opted not to classify these tools as pure ‘art’; but let their status be as artifacts, and not just limited to simple tools.
acheulean tools and art - pic1


The first ever discovered site for Acheulean tools (otherwise known as type site) was Saint-Acheul, a suburb of Amiens, the capital of the Somme department in Picardy, France, where artifacts were found in 1859. The tools discovered here were later dated to be from around 700,000 years ago. The tools derive their name from this site itself. Later more such sites were discovered around Spain and South Asia, which were all later related to each other, classified as under Acheulean tools.

The oldest accepted Acheulean samples were discovered in the West Turkana region of Kenya and were first described by a French-led archaeology team. These particular Acheulean tools were recently dated through the method of magneto-stratigraphy to about 1.76 million years ago, making them the oldest not only in Africa but the world.

These Turkana samples led researchers to conclude that these tools originated in the African continent, and then spread far and wide, from South Asia to West Europe, with sites discovered all across these regions. It is postulated that Acheulean tools were first developed around 1.76 million years ago, and was derived from, and was an improved version of, the more primitive Oldowan technology. Oldowan technology was primarily associated with the Homo Habilis, which were the predecessors to Homo Erectus.

After their initial innovation, these tools spread across the prehistoric world in the hands of migrating tribes. From geological dating of sedimentary deposits, it is theorised that the Acheulean tools spread to Asian, Middle Eastern, and European areas sometime between 1.5 million years ago and about 800,000 years ago.

In the regions with accepted Acheulean sites, this dating can be considerably refined. For example, recent research demonstrated that Acheulean hand-axes from Spain were made more than 900,000 years ago.  Acheulean tools in South Asia have also been found to be dated as far as 1.5 million years ago.

This implies that the European spread of these tools was considerably delayed as compared to the South Asian spread.

acheulean tools and art - pic2
Locations of major sites of Acheulean tools (source)

The Acheulean tools are thought to have been popularly used all throughout this era, until about 250,000 years ago, when it is postulated that the Mousterian tools began to take over, and by 130,000 years ago, all Acheulean tools had been phased out in favour of the more sophisticated Mousterian tools.

It is important to note that while during the Lower Paleolithic era is when the Acheulean tools were popularly used, they had a considerable overlap with other tool making techniques as well, especially with the earlier and less sophisticated Clactonian techniques and the more sophisticated Mousterian tools.

Acheulean tools classification

Stone tools have been classified into 4 different stages, from Mode 1 to Mode 4, with Mode 1 being the most primitive, and Mode 4 being the most modern. Acheulean tools are classified under Mode 2.

The Mode 1 techniques created rough flake tools by striking a stone core with a hammerstone, a blunt heavy stone used for hammering. This would cause sharp flakes to come off of the stone core, which were then used for various purposes.

The Mode 2 techniques, like Acheulean, focus on the stone core itself. The stone core was struck with a hammerstone, like in Mode 1, but instead of using the sharp flakes that came off of the core, the core itself was refined in shape and form using pieces of wood, bone, antlers, other stone tools etc. This awarded the tools with a very refined and sharp edge. Acheulean technique also involved working on the stone in a symmetric fashion: shaping both sides equally, which resulted in a stronger tool. This indicates a much more intricate workmanship for the tools, and a greater care and effort in the production of the same.

The Acheulean techniques, as mentioned earlier, had a significant overlap with other techniques as well, most notable the Mode 3 techniques like Mousterian and Levallois Techniques. These started emerging around 600,000 years ago, and started eclipsing the Mode 2 techniques, but Acheulean tools were still in use until around 130,000 years ago before they finally passed into history.

Migration of Acheulean technology

As discussed previously, Acheulean technology was first used by the hominids in the African continent. These tools have been subsequently found in geographical locations all around the African-Asian-European prehistoric world. The geographic distribution of Acheulean tools, and thus the peoples who made them, is often interpreted as being the result of palaeo-climatic and ecological factors, such as glaciation and the desertification of the Sahara Desert.

Acheulean tools have been found throughout the continent of Africa, with the notable exception of the rainforests around the Congo River, which is an area thought to not have been inhabited by hominids until much later.

The Acheulean tool users then migrated from Africa towards north and east, into Asia and Europe, from Anatolia through the Arabian Peninsula towards South Asia, and from the Middle East to Europe.

This current scientific theory of the early human migration patterns matches the linguistic development of human languages and Indo-European languages.

proto-human language tree
Homo Sapien family tree of languages proposed by Professor Christopher Ehret


acheulean tools and art - 1920px-IndoEuropeanTree.svg
The Indo-European family tree of languages

Evidence suggests that Chennai, in south India, saw the beginning of the Acheulean age around 1.51 million years ago, much earlier than North India and Europe.

These Acheulean tool users eventually made their way into Europe much later, probably because of the cold climate. Evidence found in Spain suggests that the Acheulean users only arrived there around 900,000 years ago.

Other evidence suggesting migration of African Technology

African technology, Acheulean in particular, is touted as the root of all prehistoric technology spread across most of the Asian and European continents. This assertion is supported by a lot of evidence other than just finding Acheulean tools among Homo Erectus remains. The most conclusive evidence to support the migration of African technology and people is found in modern human DNA.

Mitochondrial Haplogroups

The human DNA consists of many protein strands, called alleles, interlinked together in a double helix structure. These alleles and their linkages defines the many different traits that human beings have, from physical traits like hair or eye colour, height, skin tone, etc, to personality traits. Among these alleles are two subsets, inherited from each parent. These subsets are called Haplogroups. Hence one haplogroup represents all the alleles inherited from one parent.

Scientists have classified the haplogroups inherited from the mother into 24 subsets, with a number attached to them for further classification. The names of these haplogroups runs from A to Z.

A vast survey done over a number of decades have helped scientists in creating a phylogenetic tree, which is the list of, and relation between all female, or mitochondrial haplogroups, in the world.

This phylogenetic tree shows that all of the mitochondrial haplogroups derive from the ‘L’ haplogroup, which is attributed to “Mitochondrial Eve”. Eve is said to be the female ancestor of every single Homo Sapien, or human being, alive.

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Map showing the distribution of all haplogroups in the world (source)

Now according to research, it has been found that the ‘L’ haplogroup and its subsets, ‘L0’ to ‘L6’, are the origins for all the other haplogroups. This implies that every single human being’s ancestry can be traced back to the ‘L0’ to ‘L6’ haplogroup. Out of this vast group, ‘L3’ and its subsets are found in Europe, and Asia, with the further subsets spanning across the entire world. This implies that the entire world population, excluding Africa, derives from the ‘L3’ haplogroup.

Africa has all 6 ‘L’ haplogroups in its population, derived directly from the original ancestor of humanity, ‘L’, or Eve.

Since Africa has been conclusively proved to be the origin of the ‘L’, haplogroups, and all of humanity has been conclusively proved to have been derived only from the ‘L’ haplogroups; it has been stated confidently that every single human originated from their ancestors in Africa. This supports the theory of migration of African technology more than finding Acheulean tools in Homo Erectus camps across the world can.


Pappu, Shanti (2011-03-25). “Early Pleistocene Presence of Acheulian Hominins in South India | Science”. Retrieved 2016-12-01.

Ashton, NM, McNabb, J, and Parfitt, S, Choppers and the Clactonian, a reinvestigation, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 58, pp21–28, qtd in Butler, 2005

Rishishwar L, Jordan IK (2017). “Implications of human evolution and admixture for mitochondrial replacement therapy”. BMC Genomics. 18 (1): 140. doi:10.1186/s12864-017-3539-3. PMC 5299762. PMID 28178941.

van Oven M, Kayser M (February 2009). “Updated comprehensive phylogenetic tree of global human mitochondrial DNA variation”. Human Mutation. 30 (2): E386–94. doi:10.1002/humu.20921. PMID 18853457.

Further reading


  • John J. Shea (2015) Making and Using Stone Tools: Advice for Learners and Teachers and Insights for Archaeologists. Lithic Technology 40 (3): 231-248.
  • Stutz, A. J., J. J. Shea, J. A. Rech, J. S. Pigati, J. Wilson, M. Belmaker, R. M. Albert, T. Arpin, D. Cabanes, J. L. Clark, G. Hartman, F. Hourani, C. E. White, and L. Nilsson Stutz. 2015. Early Upper Paleolithic chronology in the Levant: new ABOx-SC accelerator mass spectrometry results from the Mughr el-Hamamah Site, Jordan. Journal of Human Evolution 85 (8): 153-173.
  • John J. Shea (2015) Timescales and Variability in Hominin Technological Strategies in the Jordan Rift Valley: What Difference Does 1.3 Million Years Make? In Michael Shott (ed.) Works in Stone: Contemporary Perspectives on Lithic Analysis. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, pp. 33–45.
  • John J. Shea (2014) Sink the Mousterian: Named stone tool industries (NASTIES) as obstacles to investigating hominin evolutionary relationships in the Later Middle Paleolithic Levant. In Huw Groucutt and Eleanor Scerri (Eds.) Lithics of the Late Middle Palaeolithic: post MIS-5 technological variability and its implications. Special Issue of Quaternary International 350: 169-179.
  • John J. Shea (2013) Lithic Modes A-I: A New Framework for Describing Global-Scale Variation in Stone Tool Technology Illustrated with Evidence from the East Mediterranean Levant. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20 (1): 151-186.
  • Shea, J. J. 2011. Homo sapiens is as Homo sapiens was: Behavioral Variability vs. “Behavioral Modernity” in Paleolithic Archaeology. Current Anthropology 52:1-35.
    Shea, J. J. 2011. Refuting a Myth of Human Origins. American Scientist 99:128-135.


  • Stone Tools in Human Evolution: Behavioral Differences among Technological Primates, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic of the Near East: A Guide. Cambridge University Press, New York 2013, ISBN 978-1-107-00698-0
  • with John G. Fleagle et al. (ed.): Out of Africa I: The First Hominin Colonization of Eurasia. Springer, 2010, ISBN 978-90-481-9035-5
  • with Ghufran Sabri Ahmad: Reconstructing Late Pleistocene Human Behavior in the Jordan Valley: The Middle Paleolithic Stone Tool Assemblage from Ar Rasfa. Archaeopress, Oxford (UK) 2009, ISBN 978-1-4073-0618-6

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