Early tools found in India suggest our ancestors may have migrated out of Africa much earlier than previously suspected.

Indian and French researchers say hominins in India may have developed a Middle Palaeolithic culture around 385,000 years ago — much earlier than was previously thought.

The findings could prompt a re-examination of the conventional view of early human migration out of Africa.

When hominins left Africa, at least 1.7 million years ago, they took with them their signature item of technology — the Acheulian hand axe.

Given that skeletal material is extremely scarce, the evolution of humans across Europe and Asia is often charted by changes in toolkits.

Shanti Pappu and colleagues studied more than 7,000 stone artefacts from the archaeological site of Attirampakkam in southern India, which collectively document a shift away from Acheulian technologies towards Middle Palaeolithic strategies such as the distinctive Levallois stone-knapping technique.

Together, the finds suggest that a Middle Palaeolithic culture emerged in India at around 385,000 years ago — roughly the same time that it is known to have developed in Africa and in Europe.

Understanding the transition to the Middle Palaeolithic outside Europe and Africa is vital to the study of the lives and times of hominins in Europe and Asia, especially the appearance and subsequent migrations of anatomically modern humans within and out of Africa.

These new finds suggest the presence of a fully-fledged Middle Palaeolithic culture in India long before any modern human migrations out of Africa may have dispersed Middle Palaeolithic technologies, which might imply that these migrations occurred earlier than has previously been thought and/or that local influences had a role in the development of the Middle Palaeolithic in India.