On display at the Government Museum, Chennai, for a few days from June 11 are two stone tools discovered by geologist Robert Bruce Foote in May and September 1863 at the Brigade Ground at Pallavaram, Chennai, and Attirampakkam village in Tiruvallur district. He found a hand-axe at Pallavaram and a cleaver at Attirampakkam. They were paleolithic tools. Human beings fashioned them out of stones more than five lakh years to 15 lakh years ago.
Foote's discovery revolutionised the study of India's pre-history. For, it threw enormous light on how hunter-gatherers made these tools and used them to butcher animals, dig out tubers, tap sap from plants and so on. The pre-historic man was so skilful that he made a variety of these tools: hand-axes, cleavers, discoids, scrapers, choppers, knives and so on. (The word paleolithic comes from “paleo” which means old and “lithic” which means stone. Megalithic is big stone).
Although several organisations in India are preparing to celebrate the 150th year of Foote's (1834-1912) discovery of the “first paleolith of South India” next year, the Government Museum, Chennai, has chosen to “celebrate” it now and displayed these two stone tools he discovered at Pallavaram and Attirampakkam. The museum acquired his pre-historic collections in 1904.
Foote was a multi-faceted man. He was a geologist, archaeologist, ethnographer, palaeontologist, museologist and a landscape painter. He was the father of India's pre-history. He aimed for perfection in whatever he did. He systematically catalogued by 1910 all the stone tools he had discovered at Pallavaram, Attirampakkam and elsewhere. He proof-read the catalogue himself.
Shanti Pappu, specialist in Tamil Nadu's pre-history who conducted excavations at Attirampakkam and did insightful research on Foote's life and many-sided work, said: “There is no scholar of Foote's vision and perseverance in discovering India's pre-history and uniting different fields of science such as archaeology, geology, anthropology, museology etc.. into a comprehensive whole to turn the light on our past.” She called Foote “one of the most outstanding figures in India's archaeology.”
“I worked at Attirampakkam and it was a wonderful work that he did there 150 years ago. It was a humbling experience to work there.” Foote discovered a paleolithic artefact at “Pallavaram” on May 30, 1863. He and geologist W.King found more hand-axes, cleavers and scrapers from a dry stream-bed at “Atrampakkum” in September 1863. These phenomenal discoveries pushed back the antiquity of humankind in the Indian subcontinent and placed India in the world map of pre-history. While the stone tools found at Pallavaram were more than five lakh years old, Dr. Pappu estimated that those discovered at Attirampakkam were about 1.5 million years old.
In her scholarly article “Prehistoric Antiquities and Personal Lives: the Untold Story of Robert Bruce Foote” published in “Man and Environment,” Vol. XXXIII, No.1, 2008, Dr. Pappu says: “Through the years, literature written by and on Foote helps us gain insights into his personality — as a scientist and scholar and as a man standing in front of India's past with a sense of wonder and reverence… In his quest to unravel the mysteries of India's pre-history, we see a tale of great discoveries interwoven with the many joys and tragedies of personal life.”
He was a geologist of the Geological Survey of India, brought out publications on the tools found in the laterite formations in the then Madras and South Arcot districts, documented the antiquities of the Neolithic and Iron Age in Salem district in Tamil Nadu, wrote memoirs on the geology of the south Maharatta country and neighbouring districts, collected antiquities, painted landscape such as “View of Cape Comorin, the Kumla Kumari Pagoda…” and skilfully handled his finances.
Foote's grave is located in the graveyard of the Holy Trinity Church at Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. Nearby is the grave of his father-in-law Reverend Peter Percival, a scholar in Tamil and Telugu, who translated hundreds of Tamil proverbs into English, was a Registrar of the Madras University and Professor of Vernacular Literature in the Presidency College, Chennai.