Ancient stone tools found in western Ukraine may offer the oldest known evidence of the presence of humans in Europe, according to new research.

The chipped stones, deliberately fashioned from volcanic rock, were excavated from a quarry in Korolevo in the 1970s. Archaeologists used new methods to date the layers of sedimentary rock surrounding the tools to more than 1m years old.

“This is the earliest evidence of any type of human in Europe that is dated,” said Mads Faurschou Knudsen, a geophysicist at Aarhus University in Denmark and co-author of the study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

He said it was not certain which early human ancestors fashioned the tools, but it may have been Homo erectus, the first species to walk upright and master the use of fire.

“We don’t have fossil remains, so we can’t be sure,” said Roman Garba, an archaeologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences and co-author.

The chipped stone tools were likely used for cutting meat and perhaps scraping animal hides, he said.

The researchers say the tools may be as much as 1.4m years old, but other experts say the study methodology suggests that they may be just over 1m years old, placing them in roughly the same date range as other ancient tools unearthed in Spain.

The earliest stone tools of this type yet found were unearthed in eastern Africa and date back to 2.8m years ago, said Rick Potts, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s human origins programme.

The Ukraine site is significant because “it’s the earliest site that far north”, suggesting that the early humans who dispersed from Africa with these tools were able to survive in diverse environments.

“The oldest humans with this old stone tool technology were able to colonise everywhere from warm Iberia [Spain] to Ukraine, where it’s at least seasonally very cold – that’s an amazing level of adaptability,” said Potts.

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