Luminescence dating at the stratified prehistoric site of Attirampakkam, India, has shown that processes signifying the end of the Acheulian culture and the emergence of a Middle Palaeolithic culture occurred at 385 ± 64 thousand years ago (ka), much earlier than conventionally presumed for South Asia1. The Middle Palaeolithic continued at Attirampakkam until 172 ± 41 ka. Chronologies of Middle Palaeolithic technologies in regions distant from Africa and Europe are crucial for testing theories about the origins and early evolution of these cultures, and for understanding their association with modern humans or archaic hominins, their links with preceding Acheulian cultures and the spread of Levallois lithic technologies2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20. The geographic location of India and its rich Middle Palaeolithic record are ideally suited to addressing these issues, but progress has been limited by the paucity of excavated sites and hominin fossils as well as by geochronological constraints1,8. At Attirampakkam, the gradual disuse of bifaces, the predominance of small tools, the appearance of distinctive and diverse Levallois flake and point strategies, and the blade component all highlight a notable shift away from the preceding Acheulian large-flake technologies9. These findings document a process of substantial behavioural change that occurred in India at 385 ± 64 ka and establish its contemporaneity with similar processes recorded in Africa and Europe2,3,4,5,6,7,8,10,11,12,13. This suggests complex interactions between local developments and ongoing global transformations. Together, these observations call for a re-evaluation of models that restrict the origins of Indian Middle Palaeolithic culture to the incidence of modern human dispersals after approximately 125 ka19,21.
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S.P. and K.A. thank the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation, the Earthwatch Institute, the Homi Bhabha Fellowships Council (S.P.: 2000–2002; K.A.: 2014–2016) and the ISRO-GBP program for funding various aspects of the research project, and the Archaeological Survey of India and Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu, for issuing licenses. Y.G. benefited from an Institut Universitaire de France grant for field and analytical work. A.K.S. acknowledges the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Atomic Energy, India, for a J. C. Bose national fellowship and for Raja Ramanna fellowships, respectively. H.M.R. was supported by the contingency grant of the J. C. Bose fellowship awarded to A.K.S. S.P. and K.A. thank M. Taieb for his encouragement.