Excavation in Turkey could yield major findings on early man

What could be signs of early man - so-called pebble tools and what appears to be a hearth - have been discovered in a cave in western Turkey. Preliminary examination indicates that the geological material in which the pieces were found dates back at least 1 million years. If the findings are valid, the excavation at Yarimburgaz cave, near Lake Kucuk Cekmece, 30 kilometers west of Istanbul, would be one of the oldest discovered sites of early man outside of Africa. Because the materials are in a cave and have been sealed for hundreds of thousands of years in geological layers, the findings could yield a detailed look at how early man lived and developed.

The excavation originally started as a salvage operation in the upper layers of the cave, which was been occupied by man during the early metal era (5000 BC) to early Greek to Byzantine times, when the roof was domed out to look like a basilica. Because the cave has been open to the public, it has been looted. A movie crew had even brought in a bulldozer to dig a trench for a film scene.

Mehmet Ozdogan, an associate professor of prehistory at Istanbul University, was leading students in the excavation. He was interested in finding evidences of Chalcolithic (early metal) occupation but decided to do a test in the older layers.

``At first we didn't realize what we were finding,'' said Dr. Ozdogan in a telephone interview from Istanbul. ``We had not at all expected to find such early layers. It was evident from the tools that it was quite early.''

What Ozdogan believes he has found is pebble, or chopping, tools made by simply chipping off portions of the stone; flake tools; a kind of living floor area, with cobbles that appear to have been brought in from outside the cave, and some animal bones. There also seems to be evidence of fire, says Ozdogan, though he points out that detailed chemical analysis and dating have not been done.

The Yarimburgaz site also has caught the interest of Robert Braidwood, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, who said in a prepared statement that ``if, indeed, very early hominids did develop first in Africa and only then spread up into Europe and further Asia, Yarimburgaz may well promise our first detailed look at them.''

Ozdogan called in two Turkish geomorphologists, who estimated that the age of the deepest part of artifact-bearing deposits were at least 1 million years old.

``It is too early to give an exact date,'' says Ozdogan, who now hopes that a specialized team - including geologists, paleontologists, sedimentologists, and paleobotanists - come in to study the cave find.

``A good team will be able to do a fantastic job,'' says Helat Cambel, a prehistorian at Istanbul University who has been the codirector of the Istanbul-Chicago universities' joint project in Turkey. She points out that because the breccia layer under which the materials were found has not been disturbed, the tools and bones will be well preserved.

News of the discovery was greeted with great interest by other archeologists and prehistorians.

``That would be much older than anything we've had from Turkey,'' said James Muhly, professor of ancient history at the University of Pennsylvania. ``If it is true, it would be most extraordinary.''

Harold Dibble, a Penn professor who specializes in the Pleistocene period, says the find could be ``fairly significant,'' and he adds that it is not unthinkable. Although most early Pleistocene men were concentrated in Africa, there is also evidence of his spread in Israel and along the Mediterranean Sea.

Most experts say the news should be treated with caution until specific facts are established, such as the age of fossils or rocks. Archeologist Arthur Jelinek points out that pebble tools can be formed naturally and that what looks like fire can often be manganese stains.

One concern among archeologists is the destruction of such prehistoric sites. Experts are searching for ways to spur governments to help preserve such sites.

Dr. Cambel says, ``What we are opening up is the life of our ancestors.''

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