Chapter 5 The Stone Age: The Early Man


The Palaeolithic Period: Hunters and Food Gatherers

THE EARTH is over 4000 million years old. The evolution of its crust shows four stages. The fourth stage is called the Quaternary, which is divided info Pleistocene (most recent) and Holocene (present) the for-mer lasted between 2,000,000 and 10,000 years before the present and the latter began about 10,000 years ago. Mari is said to have appeared on the earth in the early Pleistocene, when true ox, true elephant and true horse also originated. But now this event seems to have occurred in Africa about three million years back.

The fossils of the early men have not been found in India. A hint of the earliest human presence is indicated by stone tools obtained from the deposits ascribable to the Second Glaciation, which could be dated around 250,000 B.C. However, recently reported artefacts from Bori in Maharashtra may take the appearance of man as early as 1.4 million years ago, but the matter needs further research. At present it appears that India was settled later than Africa, although the lithic technology of the subcontinent broadly evolved in the same manner as it did in Africa. The early man in India used tools of stone roughly dressed by crude chipping, which have been discovered throughout the country except the alluvial plains of Indus, Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The chipped stone tools and chopped pebbles were used for hunting, cutting and other purposes. In this period man barely managed to gather his food and lived on hunting. He had no knowledge of cultivation and house building. This phase generally continued till 9000 B C.

Palaeolithic tools, which could be as old as 100,000 B.C., have been found in the Chotanagpur plateau. Such tools belonging to 20,000 B.C.10,000 B.C. have been found in Kurnool district in Andhra Pra-desh about 55 km from Kurnool. In association with them bone im-plements and animal remains have also been discovered. Animal re-mains found in the Belan Valley in Mirzapur district in Uttar Pradesh show that goats, sheep and cattle were exploited. However, in the ear-liest Palaeolithic phase man lived on hunting and food gathering. The Puranas speak of people who lived on roots and fruits; some of these people have been living in the old way in the hills and caves till modern times.

Palaeolithic culture of India developed in the Pleistocene period of the lee Age. Although human remains associated with stone tools found in Africa are considered 3 million years old, in India the first human oc-cupations, as clearly suggested by stone tools, is not earlier than the Middle Pleistocene or around 500,000 B.C. In the Pleistocene period ice sheets covered a great portion of the earth’s surface, particularly in the higher altitudes and their peripheries. But the tropical regions, ex-cepting the mountains, were free from ice. On the other hand, they un-derwent a. period of great rainfall.

The Early Man in India

Only a few fossils relating to human evolution have been discovered in the subcontinent. None the less, some of the earliest skull fossils have been found in the Siwalik hills covering India and Pakistan. However, it seems that further evolution from the Siwalik category of hominids came to a dead end in the subcontinent, and this species became extinct.

Nevertheless, an almost complete hominid skull was discovered in 1982 in the middle valley of the Narmada at Hathnora in MP. This fossilized skull was called Homo erectus or upright human, but is now anatomically recognized as archaic Homo sapiens.

So far the remains of Homo sapiens have not been found elsewhere in the subcontinent. However, the remains of a full-fledged modern man called Homo sapiens sapiens have been reported from Sri Lanka. The find place is called Fa Hien. They represent the hunting and foraging life which is attributed to the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene periods in Sri Lanka. Fa Hien cave seems to be the earliest Upper Palaeolithic site in the Indian subcontinent. In any case it seems that the earliest modern humans arrived in India from the South because of an early coastal migration around 50,000 years ago from Africa. They did not come from the North.

Phases in the Palaeolithic Age

The Palaeolithic Age in India is divided into three phases in accordance with the type of stone tools used by the people and also according to the nature of climatic change. The first phase is called Early or Lower Palaeolithic, the second Middle Palaeolithic, and the third Upper Palaeolithic. First phase may be placed broadly between 600,000 and 150,000 BC, the second between 150,000 and 35,000 BC, and the third between 35,000 and 10,000 BC.

The Lower Palaeolithic or the Early Old Stone Age covers the greater part of the ice age. The Early Old Stone Age may have begun in Africa around two million years ago, but in India it is not older than 600,000 years. This date is given to Bori in Maharashtra, and this site is considered to be the earliest Lower Palaeolithic site. People use hand axes, cleavers, and choppers etc. more or less similar to those of western Asia, Europe, and Africa. Early Old Stone Age sites have been found in the valley of river Son or Sohan in Punjab, now in Pakistan. Several sites have been found in Kashmir and the Thar desert. Lower Palaeolithic tools have also been found in the Belan valley in UP and in the desert area of Didwana in Rajasthan. Didwana yielded not only Lower Palaeolithic stone tools but also those of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic ages. Chirki-Nevasa in Maharashtra has yielded as many as 2000 tools, and those have also been found at several places in the south. Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh is an important site, and the caves and rock shelters of Bhimbetka near Bhopal also show features of the Lower Palaeolithic age. The rock shelters may have served as seasonal camps for human beings. The people of the Lower Stone Age seem to have principally been food gatherers. They took to small game hunting and lived also on fish and birds. The Early or Lower Stone Age in India may be associated with the people of the Homo sapiens group.

The Middle Palaeolithic industries were largely based upon flakes or small pieces of stone which have been found in different parts of India with regional variations. The principal tools comprise blades, points, borers, and scrapers, all made of flakes. The artefacts of this age are found at several places on the river Narmada, and also at several places, south of the Tungabhadra river. The Belan valley (UP), which lies at the foothills of the Vindhyas, is rich in stone tools and animal fossils including cattle and deer. These remains relate to both the Lower and Middle Stone ages.

In the Upper Palaeolithic phase we find 566 sites in India. This may be due to the general presence of grassland dotted with few trees. The climate was less humid, coinciding with the last phase of the ice age when the climate became comparatively warm. In the world context, it marks the appearance of new flint industries and men of the modern type (Homo sapiens sapiens). In India, we notice the use of blades and burins, which have been found in AP, Karnataka, Maharashtra, central MP, southern UP, Jharkhand and adjoining areas. Caves and rock shelters for use by human beings in the Upper Palaeolithic phase have been discovered at Bhimbetka, 45 km south of Bhopal. An Upper Palaeolithic assemblage, characterized by comparatively large flakes, blades, burins, and scrapers has also been found in the upper levels of the Gujarat sand dunes.

The Mesolithic Age: Hunters and Herders

The Upper Palaeolithic age came to an end with the end of the ice age around 10,000 BC. In 9000 BC began an intermediate stage in Stone-Age culture, which is called the Mesolithic age. It intervened as a transitional phase between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic or New Stone ages. The Mesolithic people lived on hunting, fishing, and food gathering; at a later stage they also domesticated animals. The first three occupations continued the Palaeolithic practice, whereas the last developed in the Neolithic culture. Thus the Mesolithic age marked a transitional phase in the mode of subsistence leading to animal husbandry.

The characteristic tools of the Mesolithic age are microliths or tiny tools. Mesolithic sites abound in Rajasthan, southern UP, central and eastern India, and also south of the river Krishna. Of them, Bagor in Rajasthan is very well excavated. It had a distinctive microlithic industry, and its inhabitants subsisted on hunting and pastoralism. Adamgarh in MP and Bagor in Rajasthan provide the earliest evidence for the domestication of animals in the Indian part of the subcontinent. The Mesolithic culture continued to be important roughly from 9000 to 4000 BC, and undoubtedly paved the way for the rise of the Neolithic culture.

Art in the Old Stone Age

The people of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic ages practised painting. Prehistoric art appears at several places, but Bhimbetka in MP is a striking site. At Bhimbetka, the rock paintings extend from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic age and in some series even up to recent times. Many birds, animals, and human beings are painted which indicate the signs of hunting/gathering economy.

Earliest Human Organization

How were humans organized socially? It is not clear whether they lived in a band or pre-band society. Bands were formed for hunting, and the maximum number of persons could be around 25. There could have been a form of alliance between various bands for mutual aid. Rituals could have been conducted to ratify such an alliance. Eventually the band turned into an exogamous group called clan in the Neolithic phase. Members of a clan would always marry outside the clan, but bands established mutual aid relationships. In the Upper Palaeolithic phase, members of a band shared the fruits of hunting and food gathering in a society based on these occupations. Formation of bands and groups of bands may have been facilitated by the use of language which seems to have originated in the Upper Palaeolithic phase, and communication may have played an important role in keeping the people together.

The Neolithic Age: Earliest Rural Settlements in Baluchistan

In the world context, the New Stone or the Neolithic age began in 9000 BC. The only known Neolithic settlement in the Indian subcontinent, attributed to 7000 BC, is in Mehrgarh, which is situated in Baluchistan, a province of Pakistan. Mehrgarh is located on the bank of the Bolan river in the Kochi plain which is called the ‘bread basket’ of Baluchistan.

The settlement lay on the edge of the Indus plains. It is called one of the largest Neolithic settlements between the Indus and the Mediterranean. The Neolithic people of this area produced wheat and barley from the outset. They domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats in the initial stage. The period 4500–3500 BC saw considerable agricultural expansion from the Kochi plain area into the Indus plain area, and also saw progress in pottery. Up to 5000 BC, the people did not make pots but after 4500 BC, the potter’s wheel was known. Pots rapidly multiplied and they began to be painted. In the dried basin of Hakra, a tributary of the Indus, forty-seven Later Neolithic settlements have been found. Evidently they paved the way for the rise of the Harappan culture.

Some Neolithic sites found on the northern spurs of the Vindhyas are considered as old as 5000 BC but generally Neolithic settlements found in south India are not older than 2500 BC; in some parts of southern and eastern India they are as late as 1000 BC.

The people of the Neolithic age used tools and implements of polished stone. They particularly used stone axes, which have been found in large numbers in a substantial part of the hilly tracts of India. The stone axe was put to various uses by the people, and ancient legends represent Parashurama as an important axe-wielding hero.

Based on the types of axes used by Neolithic settlers, we notice three important areas of Neolithic settlements—north-western, north-eastern, and southern. The north-western group of Neolithic tools is distinguished by rectangular axes with a curved cutting edge; the north-eastern group by polished stone axes with a rectangular butt and occasional shouldered hoes; and the southern group by axes with oval sides and pointed butt.

Use of Bone Tools in the Sites of Burzahom and Chirand

In the north-west, Kashmiri Neolithic culture was distinguished by its dwelling pits, wide range of ceramics, the variety of stone and bone tools, and the complete absence of microliths. Its most important site is Burzahom, which means ‘the place of birch’, situated 16 km north-west of Srinagar. The Neolithic people lived there on a lake-side in pits, and probably had a hunting and fishing economy, and seem to have been acquainted with agriculture. The people of Gufkral (literally the ‘cave of the potter’), a Neolithic site, 41 km south-west of Srinagar, practised both agriculture and animal husbandry. The Neolithic people in Kashmir used not only polished tools of stone, but also numerous tools and weapons made of bone. The only other place which has yielded considerable bone implements in India is Chirand, 40 km west of Patna on the northern side of the Ganges. Made of antlers (horn of deer), these implements have been found in a late Neolithic settlement in an area with about 100 cm rainfall. The establishment of the settlement was made possible by the open land available at the junction of four rivers, the Ganges, Son, Gandak, and Ghaghra and is marked by a paucity of stone tools.

The people of Burzahom used coarse grey pottery. It is interesting that at Burzahom, domestic dogs were buried with their masters in their graves. This practice does not seem to be evident in any other Neolithic culture in India. The earliest date for Burzahom is about 2700 BC, but the bones recovered from Chirand cannot be dated earlier than 2000 BC and possibly belong to the late Neolithic phase.

We may place the Baluchistan and Kashmir valley Neolithic settlements in the north-western group.

Another area from which Neolithic tools have been recovered is situated in the hills of Assam. Neolithic tools have also been found in the Garo hills in Meghalaya on the north-eastern frontier of India. The second group may include the settlements in the Vindhyas and the Kaimur hills; we also find a number of Neolithic settlements on the northern spurs of the Vindhyas in Mirzapur and Allahabad districts of UP. Neolithic sites such as Koldihwa and Mahagra in Allahabad district are known for the cultivation of rice in the fifth millennium BC. Senuwar in Rohtas district in the Kaimur hilly area is the most important site. Also notable is the site of Taradih close to the Bodh-Gaya temple.

Neolithic Settlements in South India

An important group of Neolithic people lived in south India, south of the Godavari river. They usually settled on the tops of granite hills or on plateaus near the river banks. They used stone axes and also a kind of stone blades. Fire-baked earthen figurines suggest that they kept a large number of cattle, besides sheep and goats. They used stone querns for grinding corn, which shows that they were acquainted with the art of producing cereals. South India has the largest number of Neolithic settlements, because of the easy availability of stone, with over 850 settlements spread across AP, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.

Some of the important Neolithic sites or those with Neolithic layers that have been excavated include Maski, Brahmagiri, Hallur, Kodekal, Sanganakallu, Piklihal, and Takkalakota in Karnataka, and Paiyampalli in Tamil Nadu. Utnur is an important Neolithic site in AP. The Neolithic phase in south India seems to have covered the period from about 2400 to about 1000 BC.

The Neolithic settlers in Piklihal were cattle-herders. They domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, etc., and set up seasonal camps surrounded by cowpens made with posts and stakes in which they accumulated dung. When it was time to move, the entire camping ground was set afire and cleared for the next session of camping. Both ash mounds and habitation sites have been found in Piklihal.

Farming and Cereals

The Neolithic settlers were the earliest farming communities. They broke the ground with stone hoes and digging sticks at the end of which ring stones weighing one to half a kilogram were fixed. Besides polished tools of stone, they used microlith blades. They lived in circular or rectangular houses made of mud and reed. It is held that the primitive people living in circular houses owned property in common. In any case, these Neolithic people led a settled life and produced ragi and horse gram (kulathi), and even rice. The Neolithic people of Mehrgarh were more advanced. They produced wheat and barley, and lived in mud-brick houses.

During the Neolithic phase, several settlements became acquainted with the cultivation of cereals and the domestication of animals. So they needed pots in which they could store their food grains, and also pots for cooking, eating, and drinking. Pottery, therefore, first appears in this phase, with handmade pottery in the early stage. Later, the Neolithic people used foot wheels to make pots. It seems that the potter’s wheel came to Baluchistan from western Asia and from there it spread across the subcontinent. The Neolithic pottery included black-burnished ware, grey ware, and matimpressed ware.

Neolithic celts, axes, adzes, chisels, and the like, have also been found in the Orissa and the Chhotanagpur hill areas, but traces of Neolithic settlements are generally few in parts of MP and the tracts of the upper Deccan. These tracts lack the types of stone which easily lend themselves to grinding and polishing.

Progress in and Limitation of the Neolithic Phase

The period between 9000 and 3000 BC saw remarkable technological progress in western Asia. The people developed the arts of cultivation, weaving, pot-making, house building, stock raising, writing, and the like. This process, however, started a little late in India. The Neolithic age in the Indian subcontinent began around the seventh millennium BC. Some important crops, including wheat and barley, came to be cultivated in the subcontinent, and villages were established in this part of the world. What distinguished the Neolithic people was their use of stone celts which were edged and pointed. These celts mostly served as tilling tools such as hoes and ploughshares. They were meant for digging the ground and sowing seeds. All this meant a revolutionary change in the mode of subsistence. People no longer depended on hunting, fishing, and gathering, with cultivation and cattle husbandry providing them with food. With their tools, they also built dwellings. With new means of food and shelter, they were on the threshold of civilization.

The people of the Stone Age suffered from one great limitation. As they had to depend almost entirely on tools and weapons made of stone, they could not found settlements far away from the hilly areas. They could settle only on the slopes of the hills in rock shelters and the hilly river valleys. Also, even with great effort, they were unable to produce more than they needed for bare subsistence.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *