Revising the Indian Palaeolithic Sequence

Special Session to be held at 2010 ISPQS

(Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies)

“Revising the Indian Stone Age Sequence: Impact of Recent Findings”

The Indian stone age sequence has not been debated since the early 1960‘s (Allchin 1963,  Misra 1962).  At that time the debate centered around whether three sub-divisions (Earlier Stone Age, Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age) or four sub-divisions (Lower Palaeolithic, Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic) were more appropriate.  At the 2009 ISPQS dissatisfaction was expressed with the current Stone Age Sequence both by Vidula Jayasawal in her Presidential Address and by Sheila Mishra in the special ICHR session.  It has therefore been decided to hold a special session at the 2010 ISPQS at Lucknow, to be organized by Mishra to try and debate and resolve some of the issues with the present Indian Stone Age Sequence.

The intention is not only to debate the issue but also to evolve a new consensus.  I (Sheila Mishra) have come to the conclusion, largely on the basis of my own work, that neither a three nor a four stage sequence is appropriate, but rather there are only two important stages in the Indian Palaeolithic.  I argue this briefly below and will circulate a more detailed argument before early November.

  1. All members of ISPQS or non members who are working in the Indian Palaeolithic are invited to submit their own observations/opinions/suggestions also by 1st November.  Please send these to indianstoneage2010@gmail.com
  2. These will then be circulated by the middle of November.
  3. Final submissions will be made in the first week of December so each person has been able to consider and respond to other peoples submissions.
  4. The ISPQS meeting will be organized according to the submitted material.
  5. We hope to publish the proceedings of the session promptly

A more detailed argument in favor of a two stage sequence for the Indian Palaeolithic will be circulated. However to initiate the discussion a brief outline is presented below.

  1. The Indian Lower Palaeolithic with the exception of the Riwat and Pabbi Hills is exclusively “Large Flake Acheulian”(LFA)  This has been argued extensively  (Gaillard et al. 2010, Mishra 2007, Mishra et al. 2010). “Large Flake Acheulian” is defined by (Sharon 2007) and (Mishra et al. 2010)
  2. Some “middle palaeolithic” assemblages such as the “Nevasian” (Mishra 1986) and “Bhedaghat” (Allchin 1959, Mishra and Rajaguru 1993) are abraded flakes from gravels and are typologically indeterminate.  Middle Palaeolithic tool types certainly occur and there is even a phase without large cutting tools but this has clear continuity with the LFA and does not seem to have a long duration independent of the LFA  To make this a separate phase is to give a misleading idea of its relative importance.  It is better to consider this the final phase of the LFA.
  3. Most blade assemblages are microlithic.  The division between Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is only based on chronology and signifies no major technological change.  As such, the terms are misleading.  When the Upper Palaeolithic stage was inserted in the Indian Palaeolithic sequence this primarily signified the Pleistocene age of the blade industries.  Now this is well established and the blade versis microblade distinction also does not seem to have a great deal of chronological significance.  Microlithic assemblages in India already date to >40 kyr and may extend even further back in time.
  4. The argument for two phases in the Indian Palaeolithic is that there appears to be only one major discontinuity which is between the LFA/MP on one side and the UP/Mesolithic/Microlithic on the other.  Since the second phase has continuity upto the iron age it certainly represents Modern humans and maybe this discontinuity is related to the shift from Archaic to Modern Populations in the Indian context.
  5. “Early Palaeolithic” and “Late Palaeolithic” are the terms which come most readily to mind as labels for a two stage palaeolithic sequence.  However they also obscure the fact that the “Early palaeolithic” has an Acheulian character  as it is often used in relation to the non-Acheulian Chinese Lower Palaeolithic.  Late Palaeolithic as a term has already been used a few times by Indian Prehistorians but again does not convey the character of the phase (does it need to?).  Alternative labels are welcome.
  6. I think the merging of  Upper Palaeolithic” and “Mesolithic” might be easy to agree with.  I do realize that merging “Lower and Middle Palaeolithic” will be more controversial.  However please consider it before rejecting the idea.

References

Allchin, B. 1959. The Indian Middle Stone Age: Some New Sites in Central and Southern India and their Implications. Bulletin of the London University Institute of Archaeology 2:1-36.

—. 1963. The Indian Stone Age Sequence. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 93:210-234.

Gaillard, C., S. Mishra, M. Singh, S. G. Deo, and R. Abbas. 2010. Lower and Early Middle Pleistocene Acheulian in the Indian Sub-Continent. Quaternary International 223-224:234-241.

Mishra, S. 1986. Archaeological Assemblages and Basalt Weathering : a Re-evaluation of the Nevasian. Man and Environment 10:91-96.

—. 2007. The Indian Lower Palaeolithic. Bulletin of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute 66-67:47-94.

Mishra, S., C. Gaillard, S. G. Deo, M. Singh, R. Abbas, and N. Agrawal. 2010. Large Flake Acheulian in India: Implications for understanding lower Pleistocene human dispersals. Quaternary International 223-224:271-272.

Mishra, S., and S. N. Rajaguru. 1993. Quaternary Deposits at Bhedaghat near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Man and Environment 17:7-12.

Misra, V. N. 1962. Problems of Terminology in Indian Prehistory. Eastern Anthropologist 15:113-124.

Sharon, G. 2007. Acheulian Large Flake Industries:Technology, Chronology, and Significance. Oxford:BAR.

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One Response to Revising the Indian Palaeolithic Sequence

  1. Claire GAILLARD says:

    Actually I agree with you, Sheila. Seen from Europe (especially Western Europe) the Indian / South Asian Palaeolithic does not have the same structure as far as the technical evolution is concerned. The change observed between Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in Europe, although gradual in the details, is (was) considered rather clear: disappearance of the large cutting tools (LCTs), standardisation of the flake production, especially with the discoid and Levallois methods, standardisation of the small tools (retouched), usually on flakes. Moreover the subsistence behaviours are different between these 2 periods, which also correspond to Homo erectus / Ante-neanderthals on the one hand and to the Neanderthals on the other hand. This change takes place over a long period, between 250 ka (even 300 ka at Orgnac-3) and150 ka depending on the sites and regions.

    In India, the LCTs seem to continue quite late. However the dates do not show that they still occur after 150 ka (maybe 100 ka), almost like in Europe and East Africa. The main difference with Europe is the nearly absence of Levallois method and the non standardisation of the retouched tools in what could be the Middle Palaeolithic. This is at least what I feel from the little I have seen. The lack of large nodules of flint or chert in South Asia may be one of the reasons for this technical difference. In the Siwaliks, Riwat 55, the Late Soanian of the Sirsa valley, Arjun-3 represent this so called Middle Palaeolithic. It seems that sites belonging to this technical stage are not many compared to the Acheulian phase (unlike Europe).

    Microlithic assemblages may be linked with the selection of chert nodules, which are always small in size, in the Deccan at least. Selection of such materials, instead of basalt or quartzite, is indicative of a technical shift. However we have to keep in mind that there are some cases of “microlithic Middle Palaeolithic” especially in North-eastern Europe. The production of blades is definitely a significant technical change. In Indian prehistory “Microlithic” is often used to qualify the assemblages but it is quite confusing and unclear as far as the technology is concerned. However, as Sheila says, the blade assemblages are often microlithic and therefore there is not much difference between “Upper Palaeolithic” and Mesolithic.

    Anyway, in the 1960s, Indian prehistorians decided to shift from the (East and North) African terminology to the European terminology. 50 years later it appears that none of these terminologies really fits to the actual state of the art in South Asia. I would suggest, as Indian subcontinent is closer to Africa, both geographically and paleo-technologically (at least for the Acheulian phase), to keep the term “Stone Age” and to add qualifiers that would mean a two-fold subdivision: Lower / Upper (but how to erase the concept of “middle” in between?), phase 1 / phase 2 (but what about phase 3?), old / young maybe OK (provided there is no confusion with the Toba Tephras!) …
    Claire Gaillard

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