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Introducing Indian Prehistory

by Shanti Pappu

To understand the origins of Indian prehistory, one must travel back to 19th century Europe.
Revolutionary ideas proposed by Darwin, Frere, Lyell, de Mortillet, Boucher de Perthe, and John Evans among others, overturned traditional beliefs of human origins and initiated the study of prehistoric stone tools and their makers. These ideas deeply influenced a young British geologist, Robert Bruce Foote, working in the heart of South India. In 1863, at the village of Pallaveram, Foote discovered and identified the first Palaeolithic tool in the Subcontinent, and established the science of Prehistory in India. He documented hundreds of prehistoric sites in Southern and Western India, and attempted to put forward hypotheses on past environments and ancient lifeways. Following his death, prehistoric research in India lapsed into obscurity, with attention diverted to spectacular discoveries in the Indus Valley. In was only in the 1930s that prehistoric research was stimulated by the Yale-Cambridge expedition, led by H. de Terra and T. T. Paterson. Subsequently, a growing number of archaeologists began to focus their attention on the discovery of new prehistoric sites, construction of culture sequences and reconstruction of palaeoenvironments. By the 1960s Indian prehistorians could confidently divide the Palaeolithic into Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic phases. Subsequent advances in archaeological theory and methodology inspired Indian prehistorians to adopt landscape oriented approaches, tackle issues related to site-formation, and adopt new approaches in examining stone tool technology. Modern techniques are increasingly being used to date sites and to study palaeoenvironments. Multidisciplinary projects involving excavations at well preserved sites have yielded a wealth of information on varied aspects of Indian prehistory, the principle phases of which are discussed here.

Lower Palaeolithic Traditionally, the Indian Lower Palaeolithic has been divided into two 'industrial or cultural traditions';- the Soanian and the Acheulian or 'Madrasian'. Soanian industries, found over parts of Pakistan and Northwest India, are dominated by pebble or core tools and are characterised as a predominantly chopper/chopping tool facies. The Acheulian found over much of the rest of India, is characterised by bifacially flaked artefactshandaxes and cleaversalong with denticulates, scrapers, spheroids, and picks amongst other tools. Some scholars believe that this difference need not be attributed to differing cultures, but may signify varied technological strategies, devised to suit different environmental conditions. Early hominids occupied almost all parts of India save for the densely forested areas of the Northeast and Kerala. In the arid wastes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan, they camped around small seasonal streams and playa lakes. Traces of ancient occupation can be found along the banks of the Narmada, Godavari and Krishna rivers and their tributaries, in the river valleys of

Central India, on the plateaus of Eastern India, in the rock shelters of Adamgarh and Bhimbetka, and along hill slopes of the Eastern Ghats; the southernmost extension being the river valleys of Northern Tamil Nadu. Very recently, tools have even been found in the heart of the Himalayas in Nepal. Recent excavations at Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu, have revealed Acheulian artefacts in a 4-meter thick deposit of laminated clay, indicative of a possible palaeo-swamp. This is the first evidence of its kind in India. Acheulian artefacts were made principally on hard and durable quartzites. In the Hunsgi valley of Karnataka, limestone was used; at Lalitpur in Central India, pink granite was chosen, while in parts of Maharashtra and Central India basalt was preferred. The purposeful and skilful quarrying of limestone by Acheulian hominids is seen at the site of Isampur, in South India. Recent excavations at Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu, have yielded evidence of transport of raw material and cores for up to three to four kilometers. Some scholars divide the Acheulian into early and advanced phases, on technological and typological grounds. Thus, the absence of the Levallois technique and predominance of handaxes, choppers, polyhedrons and spheroids, and presence of only a few crude cleavers are believed to characterise an earlier phase. A more refined phase is marked by the high proportion of flake tools, larger number of cleavers, and use of the Levallois and discoidal techniques. The discovery of pieces of haematite at Hunsgi, quartz crystal manuports at Didwana and markings on the rocks at Bhimbetka have raised interesting questions on the controversial issue of early hominid beliefs. Possible post-holes at Paisra, and rock alignments at Hunsgi, are interpreted as evidence of simple shelters. The greatest lacuna of the Indian Palaeolithic record is the paucity of fossil faunal or hominid remains. While faunal remains from excavated sites are rare, Sus namadicus, Equus namadicus, Hexaprotodon namadicus, and Stegodon insignis-ganea, have been obtained from contemporary Pleistocene deposits. Excavations at Attirampakkam have yielded fossil teeth of Bos sp. and Equus sp. The site has also yielded the significant evidence of animal hoof and foot impressions in association with Acheulian artefacts. The sole fossil evidence of an early hominid comprises a partial cranium of archaic Homo sapiens or Homo erectus, discovered at Hathnora in Madhya Pradesh, and christened the 'Narmada Man'. The Indian Lower Palaeolithic suffers from a paucity of reliable chronometric dates. Dates for the Acheulian range from >150 ka to >350 ka. In the Siwaliks of the Potwar plateau of Pakistan handaxes are dated between 700 ka and 400 ka. Although dates of around 2 million years in the Potwar region (Pakistan) and 1.4 million years in the Kukdi valley (India) have been questioned in the light of very early dates from Indonesia and China, the Indian Lower Palaeolithic may well be older than what present evidence suggests.

Middle Palaeolithic Succeeding the Acheulian is the Middle Palaeolithic. Dates for this period range from around 1,50,000 to 30,000 before present (BP); a period characterised in general by aridity. Open-air

sites along streams, on hill slopes, stable dune surfaces and rock shelters continued to be used. From Sanghao cave in modern Pakistan, to the Luni river basin in Rajasthan, to the sand dunes of Didwana, to the Chambal, Narmada, Son and Kortallayar river valleys, to the plateaus of Eastern India to the Hunsgi valley in the south, Middle Palaeolithic hominids largely continued to occupy areas inhabited during the Lower Palaeolithic. However, in some parts of India, such as Tamil Nadu, rock shelters began to be occupied for the first time. Technologically, there was a decrease in the use of bifaces (which become increasingly smaller in size), and heavy-duty chopper-chopping tools. Scrapers of various types, denticulates, borers and points predominate. Many tools were also made on large blade-like flakes. An expanding knowledge of the properties of stone led to increased use of Levallois and discoidal core techniques. Fine-grained siliceous rocks, such as chert and jasper, were now preferred for tool-making, and raw material was often transported over several kilometres. In most regions, quartzites continued to be used, and in such cases, Lower Palaeolithic elements continue into the Middle Palaeolithic. Artefacts were smaller in size, and in many cases, natural chunks and spalls were sporadically retouched and used. Studies in assemblage variability have also led to the distinction of possible quarry and 'factory' sites. Our knowledge of palaeoenvironments during this phase is severely limited. Faunal remains comprising Equus namadicus, Bos namadicus, Hexaprotodon palaeindicus, Elephas hysudricus, Stegodon insignis-ganesa and Cervus sp. have been found in deposits of the river Narmada. Evidence from Rajasthan points to fluctuating monsoons, with weakening of drainage systems. In Tamil Nadu, the presence of colluvial ferruginous gravel beds also indicates a semi-arid environment. Much work remains to be done on this phase, which remains the least well known of the Indian prehistoric sequence.

Upper Palaeolithic Towards the end of the Pleistocene, around 30,000 years ago, a distinct change in tool types and technology is noted. Over most of India, this phase is marked by a very arid climate. Sand sheets spread over large parts of Northwest India, and drainage channels fell into disuse. Decrease in vegetation led to the accumulation of colluvial deposits over much of Maharashtra and Karnataka, while studies in coastal areas point to a drastic lowering of sea levels. Ostrich egg shells found in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, testify further to intense aridity. Although aridity restricted settlement in the interior dunes of Rajasthan, elsewhere Upper Palaeolithic sites are abundant. Tools were made on a wide range of raw materials and were for the most part on long thin blades. Evidence for long distance transport of fine grained chert and chalcedony is widespread, testifying to the vast distances traversed by, or interactions between Upper Palaeolithic communities. Artefact types include a wide range of scrapers, backed blades, points, choppers, and burins, and regional variability in blade technology and assemblage structure may now be clearly identified. For the first time, bone tools appear in the limestone caves of Kurnool. In Central and Western India, ostrich shells were made into beads, engraved on or probably used as receptaclestantalizing facts pointing to a rich and exotic material culture. Analogies have

often been drawn between elements in the material culture of modern Indian tribes, and that of Upper Palaeolithic communities. Grinding stones and ring stones used by modern communities, for food processing and fishing respectively, cannot be distinguished from their Upper Palaeolithic counterparts. At the site of Baghor, in the Son valley in Central India, a curious triangular stone with concentric circles resembles modern shrines dedicated to mother goddesses. In comparison with the wealth of information from Europe and West Asia, the Indian Upper Palaeolithic is relatively less well known. The origins of this phase, its relationship with the Middle Palaeolithic and Mesolithic remain unclear. Such issues may be tackled by excavations at stratified well-preserved Upper Palaeolithic sites.

Mesolithic During the Holocene, with amelioration in climate and increase in humidity, hunter-gatherer communities spread rapidly over India, colonising many areas that were hitherto deserted. They occupied cave and rock shelters in Central and South India, spread over the Vindhyan hills and the Eastern Ghats, camped on the sand dunes of the Thar and the red 'Teri' dunes of Tamil Nadu, and on the banks of the ox-bow lakes of the Ganga plains. Microliths comprising tools made on blades and bladelets predominate and include burins, lunates, crescents, triangles and many more such tools; which were subsequently hafted onto bone or wooden handles to form composite tools. Pottery appears in later phases at the sites of Lekhaia and Baghai Khor. Humped cattle, gaur, buffalo, deer, fox and jackal, as well as a wealth of aquatic fauna were consumed, as indicated by charred bones at a number of sites in the Gangetic plains and Western India. Rhinos, deer and elephant were also hunted. This was the period when the first tentative steps towards domestication occurred. At Bagor in Rajasthan, bones of domesticated sheep and goat, are dated to around the 5th century B.C. Grinding stones, practically indistinguishable from those used in modern villages, occur at most sites. Ring-stones, found at many sites, were possibly used for primitive cultivation or fishing. Human burials from the site of Langhnaj, in Gujarat, and from numerous sites in the Ganga valley, with offerings of stone and bone tools, haematite, and meat, point to belief systems still prevalent among some caste and tribal groups. In later phases, Mesolithic communities traded with the Harappans, whose copper arrowheads were recovered from Mesolithic layers at Bagor, Rajasthan. Such interactions between forest foragers and settled village and town communities still prevail in parts of modern India. In the caves and rock shelters of the Central Indian hills, Mesolithic rock paintings depict people hunting game, gathering plant resources, trapping animals, eating together, dancing and playing instruments. Microliths are shown hafted to form spears, bows and arrows. Women carry baskets with fruit, use rubbers and querns, and tend children. Painted net traps for fishing, and for hunting small game, highlight the richness of material culture of which no trace survives in the archaeological record. These colours of the past form a visual record of a period, the remnants of which still survive in Indias tribal heritage.

Mesolithic communities were gradually succeeded by the first farmers of India during the Neolithic, where pastoralism and agriculture supplemented hunting-gathering as the prevalent mode of subsistence.

The Future of the Past Where is Indian prehistory headed? Prehistory is a science, whose meagre database does not readily lend itself to the construction of ideologies or symbols which fulfill a need in the national psyche, or which can be manipulated for political and religious ideologies. Stones and bones are overshadowed by the rich and diverse material culture of later phases of India's archaeological record, and popular interest in the subject is minimal. The small number of university departments specialising in prehistory, lack of job opportunities, and paucity of funding agencies, has led to a steady decline in prehistory research projects, during the last decade. Accordingly, prehistoric archaeology is today one of the most neglected branches of Indian archaeology. Prehistoric sites, distinguishable only by scatters of stone tools, are being steadily destroyed in the face of expanding agriculture and construction. The relative inaccessibility of caves with rock art has shielded them from the curse of modern graffiti, but increasing tourism, and the ravages of time are working rapidly towards washing away the colours of the past. Despite advances being made by scholars, often working in conditions unimaginable to Western prehistorians, the future of the past remains bleak. India requires specialised centres for prehistoric research; bodies that should ideally combine research objectives, with the generation of popular interest in the discipline. Till then, evidence of India's earliest inhabitants must remain buried, forever in the shadow of more 'glorious' vestiges of the pastor face destruction under tractors and bulldozers.

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Shanti Pappu was graduated with a B.A. in History from the University of Madras, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute (Deemed to be a University), Pune (1991 and 1997, respectively). An active archaeologist, Dr. Pappu has held numerous awards and fellowships. She is currently a Homi Bhabha fellow for research into the Palaeolithic archaeology of Tamil Nadu, and a member of the board of editors of Project South Asia, a digital library of teaching resources for colleges and universities.

Copyright 2001 Teaching South Asia (ISSN 1529-8558) and Shanti Pappu. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted in any form without written permission from Teaching South Asia or Shanti Pappu.