Beyond Stones and More Stones: Defining Indian Prehistoric Archaeology Volume 1 review: Looking for lost footprints

Eighteen scientists from different disciplines bring our understanding of early human occupation of South Asia up to date

Published - March 24, 2018 07:51 pm IST

Beyond Stones and More Stones: Defining Indian Prehistoric Archaeology Volume 1
Edited by Ravi Korisettar
The Mythic Society, Bengaluru

Beyond Stones and More Stones: Defining Indian Prehistoric Archaeology Volume 1 Edited by Ravi Korisettar The Mythic Society, Bengaluru ₹1,200

The last decade has been eventful in terms of our understanding of human evolution and the peopling of the world. Along with new archaeological discoveries, the rapidly advancing science of population genetics and ancient DNA sequencing are filling in a lot of the blanks and are turning what were once hypotheses into theories based on facts. For example, we now know that all modern human populations outside of Africa came from a small sub-section of the African population that moved out into Eurasia around 70,000 years ago. We also know that the earliest evidence for modern humans, Homo sapiens, goes back to 300,000 years ago, earlier than previously thought. We have found out that Homo sapiens interbred with their genetic cousins, Neanderthals and Denisovans, and that most of us today carry some of their genes.

What about India?

Amidst all this, how much has our understanding of the peopling of India, whether by our hominin predecessors or modern humans, improved? The book that will answer the question is titled Beyond Stones and More Stones: Defining Indian Prehistoric Archaeology and it is a collection of 11 papers by 18 highly regarded names from around the world in fields such as archaeology, anthropology and genetics. It is edited by Prof. Ravi Korisettar, well-known for his role in excavating Jwalapuram in the Jurreru valley of Andhra Pradesh. That excavation led to the discovery of stone tools under and over layers of volcanic ash left behind by the Toba eruption of 74,000 BC. The volcanic eruption, which happened in the Indonesian island of Sumatra, had impacted life all the way from East Asia to Africa, and has now become an archaeological marker.

As is pointed out in the book, the biggest challenge in trying to grasp Indian pre-history is the measly availability of fossils. Therefore, much of our understanding is based on the discovery, analysis and interpretation of stone tools and settlement areas. This causes a problem because stone tools were made by hominins such as Homo erectus and modern humans the Homo sapiens, and through much of prehistory it is not easy to make out which tool was made by whom.

The earliest securely dated stone tools found in the Indian subcontinent range from about 1.5 million years ago (Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu) to 1.2 million years ago (Isampur in Karnataka), says Korisettar in the opening chapter. This could be the likely work of Homo erectus that evolved in Africa around two million years ago and then quickly spread through the world. In India, there is a profusion of stone tools, especially in the period 800,000 to 200,000 years ago, and these indicate that archaic humans preferred places like the Siwaliks, the Vindhyan basin of central India, the forested zones of Chhota Nagpur, and the Bhima, Kaladgi, Cuddapah and Kortallayar basins of southern India — all of them with plentiful supply of raw materials for making stone tools, dependable sources of water, and easy availability of animals and plants.

By the time Homo sapiens came out of Africa in what can be called the Out of Africa 2 episode, the descendants of Out of Africa 1 had split into multiple families: Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo floresiensis, to name some. There has been some debate about when modern humans moved out of Africa. Genetics says that all modern humans outside of Africa trace their origin to a single migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago, but archaeology based on fossils suggests there were multiple earlier incursions of Homo sapiens into Asia even as early as 180,000 to 120,000 years ago. These two findings are not necessarily in conflict though: the earliest Homo sapiens who moved out of Africa may have failed and not left behind a genetic lineage. And the ones that did succeed in leaving behind enough of their brood to populate the rest of the world may have done so around 70,000 years ago.

The earliest fossil evidence of Homo sapiens in South Asia is not in India, but in Fa Hien caves in Sri Lanka, dated to 38,000 years ago. In India, the earliest fossil dates between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago and is from Jwalapuram — cranial fragments and a tooth. A chapter co-authored by archaeologists Michael Haslam and Korisettar and geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer makes the case that a successful dispersal into South Asia may have happened around 65,000-60,000 years ago, and these early Indians may have used both coastal and riverine pathways, “reaching different parts of the subcontinent at different times.”

Modern find

In Jwalapuram, the authors note the first appearance of stone microblades around 38,000 years ago and their persistence from then on. (Microblades are often used to make composite tools such as knives with a wooden or bone handle.) These tools are closely associated with modern humans and the authors say that modern humans could have moved into the area 40,000-35,000 years ago. Did they meet the earlier inhabitants when they moved in? It would have been infinitely interesting to know, but there’s no answer as of now.

This book may not be an easy read for anyone without an abiding interest in archaeology but for others, it is a treasure because of the many gems it contains: such as anthropologist Sheela Athreya’s chapter that deals with the relationship of modern day tribal populations to the earliest inhabitants of South Asia or Sushama G. Deo and S.N. Rajaguru’s chapter dealing with the question of whether there are paleolithic settlements submerged in the continental shelf. Some chapters are highly technical, such as those dealing with the chronology of Toba tuffs or the monsoon changes in the subcontinent over the last 200,000 years, but highly useful as well. This book stops short of the transition to Neolithic and the beginnings of agriculture in South Asia, but that is only because these have been kept for Volume 2.

Beyond Stones and More Stones: Defining Indian Prehistoric Archaeology Volume 1 ; Edited by Ravi Korisettar, The Mythic Society, Bengaluru, ₹1,200.

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