Crucible for civilisation

Since over a million years ago, the Indian region has not been deserted at any time

February 15, 2018 12:15 am | Updated October 12, 2018 07:56 pm IST

This image provided by the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India in January 2018 shows a sample of artifacts from the Middle Palaeolithic era found at the Attirampakkam archaeological site in southern India. The discovery of stone tools at the site shows a style that has been associated elsewhere with our species. They were fashioned from 385,000 years ago to 172,000 years ago, showing evidence of continuity and development over that time. That starting point is a lot earlier than scientists generally think Homo sapiens left Africa. (Kumar Akhilesh, Shanti Pappu/Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India via AP)

This image provided by the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India in January 2018 shows a sample of artifacts from the Middle Palaeolithic era found at the Attirampakkam archaeological site in southern India. The discovery of stone tools at the site shows a style that has been associated elsewhere with our species. They were fashioned from 385,000 years ago to 172,000 years ago, showing evidence of continuity and development over that time. That starting point is a lot earlier than scientists generally think Homo sapiens left Africa. (Kumar Akhilesh, Shanti Pappu/Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India via AP)

In 1863, British geologist and archaeologist Robert Bruce Foote discovered the first Palaeolithic stone tools at Pallavaram and later at the Attirampakkam site, close to Madras. Since then, this site has been visited by many investigators, and considerably more knowledge about the civilisation has been obtained.

It was believed until recently that modern human ancestors moved out of Africa and settled in various places where they left their mark by introducing small tools, around 140,000-120,000 years ago. However, a recent paper published in Nature , ‘Early Middle Palaeolithic culture in India around 385-172 ka reframes Out of Africa models’, by Akhilesh Kumar, Shanti Pappu and others, has revealed stunning new evidence that small tools — as opposed to larger ones that characterised early human species — were being made at this site way before — nearly 385,000 years ago.

Does this then contradict the theory of humans migrating out of Africa? Perhaps not, but it is no less important in that it sets a time to when the transition from larger hand axes and cleavers, known technically as the Acheulean culture, to smaller tools such as scrapers, used in the Middle Palaeolithic culture, happened.

In the paper, the researchers have built up a picture of early hominins as hunter-gatherers who occupied this region on a seasonal basis. The reasons for visiting this area may have differed: once to acquire a specific resource, another time to make tools. The research is also cautious in stating that it does not actually identify who made the smaller tools — it may have been archaic hominins who had figured out that these were more useful than larger tools, or it could have been modern humans who coexisted with the last of the archaic hominins.

Ms. Pappu of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education says that the Attirampakkam puzzle is a complex one to solve. One reason is that close to this region, there is poor fossil record, owing to the prevailing soil conditions.

Cranium fossils from this period have been found in Hathmora near the Narmada region, but it is difficult to correlate this with the Attirampakkam findings. It is only through the discovery of additional material from this site that researchers can hope to determine why the technology transfer happened, and its relevance to understanding Indian and global civilisation. Such research takes time and patience, and it is not often that one gets to discover a complete “toolkit” such as in the present finding.

One thing is certain: since over a million years ago, the Indian region has not been deserted at any time and has been the crucible of numerous civilisations including the Acheulean, Lower Palaeolithic and Middle Palaeolithic, up to 5,000 years ago. As to deciphering the story of these civilisations, their behavioural changes, their adaptation to the environment, movement across countries and connection with the prehistories of West Asia and Southeast Asia, many more long-term and interdisciplinary studies are needed.

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