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A Brief History of India: Prehistory

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011

The earliest habitation on the Indian subcontinent dates at least to around 500,000 years ago. This was established after traces of hominid habitation by Homo erectus were discovered here.

The prehistoric antecedents of Homo sapiens in India are also some 75,000 years old, their existence substantiated by the discovery of remains in northern India. Vestiges of the ice ages (the second ice age to the fourth) have been detected in the form of large flakes which have been found embedded in boulder gravels in parts of north-western Punjab, the Siwalik foothills, Poonch, and Jammu.

The earliest immigrants to arrive in India were from the African continent, perhaps a little ahead of the main migration of modern humans into the Near East between about 70,000-60,000 years ago. They arrived in southern India probably via the coastline along the northern Arabian Sea, and gradually migrated northwards from there. In all probability there were many subsequent waves of migration over tens of thousands of years. This led to the inhabitation of the Indian subcontinent by several early human groups. They would have varied from early Negroids, proto-Australoids, proto-Mongoloids, Caucasian-Mediterraneans, Alpines, etc. These groups intermingled and their admixture seems to have formed the basis of much of the present Indian population.

Naturally this process of continual migration took tens of thousands of years to achieve, and continued throughout the early ice age, the Middle Stone Age, and Bronze Age, and continued until the Iron Age.

Stone Age

Indologists classify the Stone Age as lasting in India between about 30,000-10,000 BC.

It began with the arrival of early Palaeolithic man. He was probably a Negroid. He dwelt in natural caverns and his sustenance depended upon his hunting and upon the fruits he could find, plants which grew in abundance in the dense forest lands of India.

The discovery of his rather large, crude tools and implements - pebble tools, flake and coral tools, etc - has occurred in almost all parts of India including Rajputana, Gujarat, the Upper Narmada Valley, Bengal, parts of Bihar, Orissa, the Deccan, and southern India (in fact everywhere except, for some reason, the fertile Gangetic plains).

Mesolithic Age

The Mesolithic (Middle Stone) age was a transitional period connecting the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic. This age was characterised by small silicate based tools called 'microliths'.

Like his predecessor, Mesolithic man was a hunter-gatherer. His imprint on the land in the form of fossils, skulls, and cave drawings have been discovered in places such as Bhimbhetka (MP), Kurnool (AP), Edakal (Kerala), Sanghao (Pakistan), Langhnaj (Gujarat), Adamgad (MP), and Mahadaha (UP). The average life expectancy of these people may have been the late twenties (with a typical life ending anywhere between fifteen to forty). There were constant migrations in search of food, and many individuals would have died of exhaustion, malnutrition, and even osteoarthritis.

Neolithic Age

During this (New Stone Age) period, proto-Australoid man appeared. [1]

His tools were more sophisticated, polished and varied. He started using chisels, hammers, saws, spears, bows, arrows, and even swords made of polished stone (fine grained dark green trap, diorite, basalt, slate, chlorite, sandstone, etc) in his hunting and in conflicts too. Evidence for the existence of Neolithic man in India has been found at Galighai in Swat (Pakistan), further south in Sarai Khola, Baluchistan, on the Loess Plateau in Kashmir, and in Punjab, Gujrat, Rajputana, Chirand in Bihar, Belan Valley (UP), Manipur, Orissa, and the Godavari and Krishna valleys in southern India, to mention just a few locations. He subsequently learnt agriculture, domesticating animals, pottery, and even the painting of objects.

Chalcolithic to Bronze ages

The Chalcolithic age converged with the Bronze Age. In this age, stone tools were not completely abandoned but discoveries were made in the smelting of metals such as copper and bronze. Microlithic tools like those with parallel-sided blades continued to be used, but there was more reliance on metal in tool-making. This age also saw the use of pictorial scripts. Evidence from the Chalcolithic has been discovered mainly in Burzahom and Gufkral (Kashmir), Swat, the Damodar and Ajay valleys (Bengal), and Jorwe and Inamgaon (Maharashtra), amongst other locations.

Bhimbetka Caves
Bhimbetka rock paintings of approximately 30,000 years ago in caves in Madhya Pradesh which exhibit the earliest traces of culture in India

[1] Today, proto-Australoids are still found amongst adivasi/ aborigine tribes such as the Irulas in southern India, the Oraon in eastern india, the Korku in western India, and the Munda and Santal in central India. The Bhils and the Gonds are also considered to be proto-Australoids by many, but the Gond language appears Dravidian while the Bhil language leans more towards Indo-European. This is also the case with the Oraon. Their language, Kurukh, appears to be Dravidian.

The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age. This age saw the advent of Caucasoid races such as the Dravidians and Aryans (the latter are generally known outside of India as Indo-Europeans and, more specifically, Indo-Aryans, thanks to misuse of the title 'Aryan' during the Second World War). There was also an influx of Mongoloid races from Central Asia. [2]

Bronze Age man learnt metal smelting and converted a major part of his weapons and tools from stone to bronze and copper. Even the use of 'noble metals' such as gold and silver started during this period. Weapons and tools from this period have mostly been unearthed in northern India (with a few exceptions in southern India).

Subsequently, Bronze Age man discovered a stronger and more malleable metal called iron and his tools changed accordingly. This kick-started the Iron Age, a precursor to what we call the historical period.

[2] Today, the Mongoloid races are typically found in the north-eastern regions of India, while Dravidians generally occupy the southern landscape.


Main Sources

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.