October 03, 2010

INDIA IN THE PALAEOLITHIC AGE


WHEN IT ALL BEGAN
Contrary to popular conception, the story of human life in India began thousands of years prior to the emergence of the first cities in the plains of Indus and its tributaries. The earliest traces that man left in this region date back millions of years ago, a period referred to as the Pleistocene period or the Great Ice Age, by the geologists. Like an overwhelming majority of prehistoric human societies around the world, these men lived as hunters/gatherers. As man had not yet discovered the art of farming or animal rearing, they survived by gathering various edible items like roots, fruits, honey and so on that nature had to offer or by killing animals, birds and fish available in the surroundings in which they lived. Much of our understanding about these ancient societies comes from the tools that these people made and used for their existence, the faunal remains of the animals they hunted and ate and the rock paintings that they have left behind. Unfortunately, in India, unlike in Europe, Africa and several parts of Asia, very few human remains have been found in association with these primitive tools. Hence our knowledge about these men is severely curtailed.

THE PHASES OF THE PALAEOLITIC AGE

The Palaeolithic Age - the longest age in the history of human civilization begins with the emergence of the first human societies in the last Ice Age and continues up to the starting of the Mesolithic Age in BC 8000. Considering the long extent of this age, historians have divided this period into three phases, on the basis of the kind of the tools used, the techniques used in giving them shape that give an invaluable insight into the advancement of the people as well as the changes in the climate and the environment. These are as follows:-
(1) The Lower Palaeolithic period with tools like hand axes, cleavers, choppers, chopping and tools 

(2) The Middle Palaeolithic period that is based on flakes

(3) The Upper Palaeolithic period includes burins and scrapers

THE PALAEOLITIC TOOLS

No study of the men in the Palaeolithic Age is worthwhile without acquiring enough information about the tools made and used by them. The details regarding some of the tools used in this period and the possible purposes they may have served are given below:-

(1) Hand axe: With a narrow working end a broader working end, it may have been used for cutting and digging purposes.

(2) Cleaver: This bifacial tool may have been employed for clearing and splitting objects like trunks of trees.

(3) Chopper: It is a massive core tool used for chopping purposes.'

(4) Chopping tool: It is a tool that is similar to the chopper and may have served the same purpose. However, unlike the chopper that is manufactured by unifacial flanking, the chopping tool is made by alternate flanking, thereby making it more efficient than the former.

(5) Flake: This most important tool of the middle Palaeolithic phase is crude shaped and produced by applying force on the stone. There are many Flaking Techniques like Free Flaking Technique, Step Flaking Technique, Block on Block Technique, Bipolar Technique etc.

(6) Side Scraper: Side Scraper is made of a flake or blade with continuous retouch along a border. It might have been used for scraping barks of trees and animal skins.

(7) Burin: It is like flake or blade and the working border is produced by the meeting of two planes. It was used for artistic purposes like engraving on soft stones, bones or walls of rock shelters and cores.

THE PALAEOLITIC SITES

The tools fashioned by the Palaeolithic man have been unearthed at various sites across the length and breadth of the country, indicating that several communities existed simultaneously in different parts of the country. The distribution of the tools tells us not only about the areas in which the hunter/gatherers lived and moved but also about their environment.

The Sohan valley located in the Siwalik region of modern day Pakistan is one of the most famous Palaeolithic sites in the Sub-Continent. From sites like Baliwal and Chauntra, tools like choppers and hand axes have been discovered. At Adial, on the bend of the Sohan River, hundreds of edged pebbled tools were discovered. Though no human remains have been ever found, the bearers of this culture – named as the Sohan culture or the Sohan stone industry were Homo erectus. Besides, several fossilized remains of animals like gazelle, giraffe, rhinoceros, rodents and crocodiles have been unearthed from these sites.

Most of these ancient sites have been found in the vicinity of rivers as water was readily available and also many animals would visit these places to quench their thirst, thereby plenty of opportunities for early men to prey upon them. This explains why the banks of Beas, Banganga, Sirsa and Luni have yielded so many Palaeolithic tools. In Rajasthan, Middle Palaeolithic tools implements have been found in the plains of Wadgaon and Kadamali rivers. These include a variety of scrappers, borers and points. Artefacts of this period were also found in Bhandarpur, near Orsang valley in Gujarat. While the river Bhader in Saurashtra is well known for its Palaeolithic assemblages, the Kutch region has produced many choppers, cleavers and hand axes.

Places in Maharashtra, associated with this Age include Chikri near Nevasa, from where hand axes, choppers, cleavers, scrappers and borers have been reported. The other important sites are Chandoli, Koregaon and Shikarpur. In Eastern India, the Palaeolithic tools found from Singhbhum region mainly includes hand axes and choppers. The distribution of tools in the valleys of Damodar and Suvarnarekha is influenced by topographical features. Also, the Buharbalang valley in Mayurbhang, Orissa has many Early and Middle Palaeolithic tools like hand axes, points, flakes etc. From the Ghatprabha basin in Karnataka, Acheulian hand axes have been found in large numbers. Anagawadi and Bagalkot are two most important sites on the Ghatprabha where both Early and Middle Palaeolithic tools have been found. The rivers Palar, Penniyar and Kaveri in Tamil Nadu are rich in Palaeolithic tools.
However, the most famous Palaeolithic site in the country lies in the Heart of India – Madhya Pradesh. The Bhimbetaka Rock Shelters in the Vindhya ranges in Raisen district of MP, with its thick vegetation, perennial water supply, rich vegetation and natural shelters was an ideal place of the Palaeolithic man. Over the years, archaeologists have found nearly 700 rock sites in the region and a closer study has revealed a continuous sequence of Stone Age cultures, from Upper Palaeolithic to Medieval period. The caves have evolved over time into excellent rock-shelters, ideal sites for aboriginal settlements. Apart from the central place the aboriginal drawings have in human history, the caves themselves offer interesting material for a study of the Earth's history. 

The rock shelters and caves of Bhimbetka have a number of interesting paintings which depict the lives and times of the people who lived in the caves, including scenes of childbirth, communal dancing and drinking, and religious rites and burials, as well as the natural environment around them. Executed mainly in red and white with the occasional use of green and yellow with themes taken from the everyday events of aeons ago, the scenes usually depict hunting, dancing, music, horse and elephant riders, animal fighting, honey collection, decoration of bodies, disguises, masking and household scenes. Animals such as bison, tigers, lions, wild boar, elephants, antelope, dogs, lizards, crocodiles etc. have been abundantly depicted. The superimposition of paintings shows that the same canvas was used by different people at different times. It is a marvel that the paintings have not faded even after thousands of years.

SUBSISTENCE PATTERN

The rock paintings and carvings on the walls of cave shelters give an insight into the subsistence pattern as well as the religious and social life of the early man. The Period I of Bhimbetka belongs to the Upper Palaeolithic Age. They reflect that Palaeolithic people lived in small band (small groups) societies whose subsistence economy was based on exploitation of resources in the form of both animal and plant products. Hunting is reflected as the main subsistence pursuit in the carvings and paintings. These paintings, done primarily in red and dark green colours are predominantly of bison, elephants, tigers, rhinos and boars. It is sometimes possible to distinguish between men and women on the basis of anatomical features.

There is a rich assemblage of animals both of indigenous and foreign origin. Primates, many giraffe-like forms, musk deer, goats, buffaloes, bovids and pigs seem to be of indigenous origin. The camel and the horse had North-American connection. Hippopotamus and elephants migrated to India from Central Africa. The abundant faunal remains seem to indicate that the Palaeolithic man was in hunter/gatherer stage. The people would have made extensive use of faunal and floral resources in their immediate vicinity. Hunting practices were concentrated on large and middle sized mammals especially ungulates. There is no evidence of selective hunting in this period. In some assemblages few species dominate; it is so because of their abundance in the area or because they were easy to hunt.
It seems that the subsistence pattern of hunter-gatherers was geared to a dry season/wet season cycle of exploitation of plant and animal foods. It is likely that the Palaeolithic people subsisted on such animals as ox, bison, antelope, wild boar, a variety of birds, and tortoises and fishes and on honey and plant foods like fruits roots, seeds and leaves.


SOURCES

(1) Wikipedia - Palaeolithic Age (Link)

(2) IGNOU Notes on Indian History (Chapter 3)