Finding India’s Earliest Settlement

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    Around 60 kms north of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, you will find the small township of Attirampakkam, in the Tiruvallur district. Though most people would not have heard of either place, let alone be able to spot them on the map, archaeologists have been trooping here for over 150 years now. This is because the area in and around Tiruvallur has one of the densest prehistoric settlement clusters in the country with more than 40 localities spread across the area. Of these, Attirampakkam, is the most significant. It is here, that you will find the earliest traces of human existence on the subcontinent - going back to 1.7 million years ago!

    The story goes that almost 155 years ago in 1863 CE, a young geologist, Robert Bruce Foote, chanced upon a rough stone tool, strewn at the Parade Ground at the British cantonment of Pallavaram near Chennai. This chance find turned out to be the most significant one in Bruce’s lifetime. Later dubbed the ‘Father of Indian Prehistory’ Bruce would go on to lead extensive excavations across the region. So prolific were the stone tools found here, that archaeologists dubbed the whole genre of paleolithic tools in the Peninsular India- ‘Madras Hand Axes’. These tools were used for a variety of activities such as hunting, scraping meat from bones, splitting bones to extract bone marrow and so included hammers, scrappers, cleavers and choppers and were made of Quartzite rock found in abundance here.

    While Attirampakkam is an old site, it is only recently, after a series of excavations here, that we have been able to glean details about the site and the life of the people here.

    In March 2011, a detailed article was published in the Journal Science about this Paleolithic (Stone Age) site of Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu using the latest ‘Cosmogenic Nuclide’ dating method by which the stone tools are directly dated by counting the amount of Aluminium and Berillum elements in it since it was last exposed. Archaeologists realised for the first time, just how old this site was.

    This breakthrough discovery was a result of the meticulous effort of archaeologist, Prof. Shanti Pappu and her team for more than two decades. Excavation at the site of Attirampakkam reveals a variety of stone tools such as handaxe, cleaver, borer and knife. These tools might have been used by Early Man in day to day life activities such as cutting meat, processing of edible plants, working on wood and digging out edible tubers from the ground. The Quartzite found for making these tools, was probably sourced from the hills which are 2-3 kms away from the place where the stone tools were discovered. This suggests a wider extent of activity of early humans in Attirampakkam.

    Paleo-environmental and paleo-botanical studies have also shed light on the climate during this period. At Attirampakkam, at the depth of 3.6 m below the surface, archaeologists found large boulders and tools made of flakes, as well as animal foot prints. Along with these, three specimens of fossilized animal teeth were discovered at the site. Archaeologists identified them as the fossils of the water buffalo, the wild ass/horse (Equus) and the Nilgai, all of which suggest that this area was an open wetland during the time of the settlers who lived here 1.7 million years ago in the Acheulian period (the early old stone age or Palaeolithic period ).

    The term Acheulian is derived from the site at St. Acheul in France from where the first evidence of this type of stone tools were discovered. The Acheulian tool type generally includes the tools such as handaxe, cleaver, knife and borers. Settlements in the Acheulian period were fairly spread out across the world, except in America and Australia. The earliest Acheulian site in Europe is Damnasi in Georgia which dates back 1.2 million years. In the Middle-East the Acheulian sites include Gesher Benet Ya’aquov dated to around 1.4 million years. In Africa, the earliest date for the Acheulian tradition comes from Konso valley dating back to 1.7 million years ago. From Africa, a Pre-Acheulian culture namely Olduwan which is dated back to 2.5 million years and is mostly associated with the species Australopithecus or ‘Southern Ape’ have also been discovered. In Asia, lower Paleolithic sites are found in China, Japan, Indonesia and Korea apart from India.

    Sadly however, excavations in Attirampakkam haven't been able to unearth any fossil remains of the hominin group (the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors). The earliest ‘fossil remain’ was discovered in the 1980s at Hathnora, in Madhya Pradesh in the Narmada river Valley, discovered by Geologist Sonakia from the Geological Survey of India in 1980s.

    The oldest excavated Acheulian sites in India include ones in Kuliana in Odisha which were excavated in 1939-42 by N.K Bose and D. Sen. Others sites are Didwana in Rajastan and the famous Bhimbetka, Adamgarh and Tikoda in Madhya Pradesh.

    But of these many sites, it is the site at Attirampakkam that really is the oldest, which can be compared to the earliest Prehistoric antiquity across Africa, Europe, China and Java .

    Life in Attirampakkam

    The settlement pattern for the Attirampakkam and the region, can’t be explained definitively as the original landscape of the Acheulian or early Paleolithic times might have changed a lot during the last 1.7 million years. What we know from the cluster of stone tools found in this area is that the early hominins here might have lived in small groups of 15-20 people. This is a common phenomena observed in many of the other Acheulian sites in India. The similarity of stone tools across the region and through the time period also point towards some form of communication either verbal or non-verbal among the individuals this also helped the younger generations to learn the craft of stone tool making.

    In many Acheulian sites in India it is observed that the clusters of artifacts had distinct patterns which distinguished them from other clusters of artifacts from the same site. This implies the social patterning of hominin groups within the same place. The people of the old stone age might have also used weapons made of organic matters such as wood and bones. But in India due to the climatic factors and nature of the soil, such evidence has not survived.

    Based on evidence, some scholars believe that the people of this period were more ‘gatherers’ than ‘hunters’, lived in the open and might have made temporary shelters with twigs and hides of animals. The wide distribution of the stone tools which the hominid groups used also suggests a certain mobility. Based on this, Prof. Sheila Mishra former Professor of Geo-archaeology in the Department of Archaeology, Deccan College is of the opinion that they might have used certain accessories such as some kind of bags made of tree bark or animal hide to carry these stone tools, plants and objects which were useful by them in daily life.

    The lower-Paleolithic period was followed by the middle-Paleolithic, marked by the stone tools made of small flakes. In the following upper-Paleolithic many of the tool elements remain the same but with the addition of a tool type called blade. It is from this period onward that we have the evidence of the earliest rock art, indicating an evolution of aesthetic sense.

    The rock shelter site of Bhimbetka, the Kurnool caves in Andhra Pradesh and Jwalapuram are among the most famous example of this.

    Finding hominid fossils has been next to impossible, despite years of excavations in Attirampakkam. Let’s hope teams do find the missing link and probably lift the veil from the first hominid to have walked the ground, in the Indian subcontinent. Such evidence may just prove India to be one of the earliest homelands of humans.

    Cover Image: Prof. Shanti Pappu


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