Why bother?

Question 1: Why is it important to revise the Indian Stone Age sequence?

Even where the northern and western European cultural sequence is being emulated, such as in India, … I have the impression that this is largely due to a polite deference to European models.”

– Robert Bednarik in A global perspective of Indian palaeoart –read it at


My involvement in Indian Prehistory began in 1976 as an MA student at Deccan College.  Even in 1976 it was obvious that the terminology of Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic did not fit the Indian data.  However, the view then was “not to bother”.  We used these ill fitting terms but in an altered sense.  I think most of us involved in Indian Prehistory in the 1980’s and 1990’s did understand the entities behind the terms “Middle Palaeolithic” “Upper Palaeolithic”  etc.  So the question is not actually “Why bother?” but rather “Why bother now?”.

I think I never did come to an adjustment with the term “Middle Palaeolithic”.  It is a term I always avoided.  Upper Palaeolithic was not as problematic.  I used it for “Pleistocene microliths”.  “Holocene microliths” were Mesolithic and undated sites could be either.  The fact that chronological information was needed to distinguish them shows their inadequacy as archaeological terms.

My change from “not bothering” to “bothering” started with reading Kennedy’s article in Mesolithic India where he states that the earliest dates for microlithic technology in India are from Baghor II in the Son Valley dating to ~10 ka while the earliest microlithic technology in Sri Lanka dates to ~30 ka from Fa Hien cave.  He speculates on why the Sri Lanka microliths are so much older than the Indian ones, not realizing that as all pre-Holocene microliths were called “Upper Palaeolithic” – 10 ka was just the date of the Holocene – Pleistocene boundary and not any archaeological boundary.  Patne (25 ka), Bori (30 ka), Mehtakheri (30 ka) are all dates for microliths.  If the wrong terminology had misled a person so intimately involved in Indian Prehistory then how many others are too?  Maybe the idea that everyone understands the “altered sense” (or polite deference) in which the terms are used is wrong.  Everyone does not know that Indian “Middle Palaeolithic” is not “Middle Palaeolithic”, that “Upper Palaeolithic” is a chronological and not archaeological term, that Indian Acheulian is not like European Acheulian etc.  There is no longer a single shared community of scholars who communicate and therefore know in what sense certain “jargon” is used. This sense of misunderstandings generated by the wrong terminology has only increased with recent accelerated pace of  publications.  After 35 years of involvement in understanding the Indian Palaeolithic I think the time has come to bother.  We cannot make progress unless some problems are thoroughly debated.  Individuals and groups can publish their papers, but a dialogue is needed.  Parallel discussions don’t resolve anything.  Let us consider alternative viewpoints be convinced and convince others by arguments.  Lets accept disagreement when (as too often) multiple explanations could explain the data.  It is this spirit that I invite everyone to participate in this discussion.

It is hardly surprising if the “European Terminology” does not fit the Indian evidence –  It no longer fits the European Palaeolithic Sequence!  Europeans have not formally debated the issue but terms like “Lower Palaeolithic” are increasingly being replaced by “Mode 1” and “Mode 2” and locality based terms like “Acheulian” and “Mousterian” or just “Palaeolithic” without a prefix.  More on this in question 11.

So let me know, do you think the Indian Stone Age sequence needs to be revised?  Why or why not…

My one sentence answer to this question:–

We need to bother because the terminology doesn’t fit the data and its continued use leads to serious misinterpretations of the Indian Palaeolithic.


Kennedy, K. A. R. 2002. “Mesolithic India,” in Mesolithic India. Edited by V. D. Misra and J. N. Pal, pp. 67-80. Allahabad: Department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, University of Allahabad.

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5 Responses to Why bother?

  1. Micheal Petraglia says:

    Acheulean. As you know, we have published a large number of articles on this topic, and we demonstrate the relative similarity of the Indian Acheulean to those in the West through quantitative comparisons. Additionally, through observations and experimentation, we demonstrate that this was a core (faconage) and flake (debitage) biface making industry. Thus, in our opinion, there is no need to revise the Acheulean terminology for India. For examples, see JHE which is a global comparison, and the Antiquity article which clearly indicates manufacture of bifaces from cores and flakes.

    Middle Palaeolithic. We have published a series of articles on the Middle Palaeolithic, now very precisely dated to between 80-35 ka in Kurnool. Thanks to Chris Clarkson’s systematic global research on core technology, we show that the core industries share similarity with Middle Stone Age industries in Africa. Overall, we are comfortable with the Middle Paleolithic designation in India. We also demonstrate a technological transition from the Acheulean to Middle Palaeolithic, see James and Petraglia 2009. See attached articles in Science and JAS for descriptions of the Middle Palaeolithic, and inter-regional comparisons.

    Upper Palaeolithic/Late Palaeolithic. Some time ago, we argued that the Upper Palaeolithic designation was not adequate and we came up with the Late Palaeolithic term (see James and Petraglia, 2005, Current Anthropology). The Late Palaeolithic was developed to capture the industrial variability in India at a late stage (prepared cores, unidirectional blade technology, microlithic). Since that time, we have now dated the Indian microlithic industries back to 35 ka in India in the stratified rockshelter deposits of Jwalapuram 9 (paralleling the age of the Sri Lankan caves and microblades there). Thus, the “Mesolithic” designation to describe Late Pleistocene microliths appears problematic. Importantly, we view the transition from Middle Palaeolithic to Microlithic as regional, the technological innovations arising due to demographic and environmental pressures. We do wonder about the utility of the Upper Pallaeolithic designation, as these are clearly different from industries in western Europe. For further information, see articles in Antiquity and PNAS, among others.

    I do hope this helps. If anyone would like additional articles, I would be very happy to send more pdfs, but I did not want to overload your emails! You can also see a sampling of some recent articles here:


    Thanks for keeping us informed of developments, and good luck with the conference!

    All the best,

    Michael D. Petraglia, Ph.D.
    Senior Research Fellow & Co-Director, Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art & Culture
    School of Archaeology, RLAHA
    University of Oxford
    28 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX1 2HU, UK

    Phone: +44 (0)1865 275373

  2. Bishnupriya Basak says:

    Understanding the blade-using traditions in the Indian subcontinent: An alternative vision?
    Bishnupriya Basak
    Senior Lecturer
    Department of Archaeology, Calcutta University,
    Kolkata, India
    Email. basak.bishnupriya@gmail.com

    Increasing research in Indian prehistory has shown that blade-using traditions have a wide chronological range from 40, 000BP or more to the nineteenth century. Although obvious morphological and technological differences exist between the large ‘flake-blade’ or blades defined as Upper Paleolithic and the finely knapped chert blades found at the Harappan sites or the smaller microliths found at the Mesolithic sites of Bagor and Tilwara in Rajasthan, it is generally difficult to assign separate cultural labels to these artefacts only on the basis of the above parameters. Archaeological cultures of the Terminal Pleistocene chiefly marked by blade industries have been grouped broadly as Upper Palaeolithic and Epi-palaeolithic or late Palaeolithic while those of the Holocene have been classified as Mesolithic. These classifications were done by following European nomenclatures of cultures belonging to the same periods. Inherent in this scheme is the notion of a unidirectional typological evolution of cultures, stratigraphically which are seen to succeed each other. The basic flaw in a classification based on morphology is that it ignores the whole assemblage and only looks at a part of it i.e., the ‘finished tool’. Also recent research has brought to light diversity in the blade using traditions where size may not always be a chronological marker. The continuity of microlithic tradition into later times and its association with early village communities is another aspect that has been pointed out by earlier scholars.

    In this paper I am arguing that in prehistoric research in the Indian subcontinent we are usually trapped in a typo-technical classification of artifacts. The very diversity in the blade-using tradition shows that archaeological cultures are complex entities in themselves. One needs to look at the entire assemblage and assess the role of an artifact in the entire functioning system; the location of sites, if they have any symbolic significance with respect to natural features in the landscape; the differences between sites and within in terms of assemblage and site location; eventually trying to interpret the past use of landscape from such variables. I shall be discussing two case studies from the western upland of West Bengal to illustrate my argument.

  3. Parth Chauhan says:

    To lump or to split?: Considering a techno-chronological re-classification
    of the Indian prehistoric record

    It has been long debated – but never directly addressed in recent years- whether the Indian lithic evidence should adhere to the Stone Age division (Early, Middle, Late) of Africa or the Paleolithic division (Lower, Middle, Upper) of Europe. Our biggest hindrance in this debate has been and continues to be the dearth of well-excavated cultural sequences, associated absolute dates and detailed technological studies. All early classifications were initially based on evidence in mainly surface or secondary contexts thus making it impossible to accurately ascertain many Indian assemblages to a techno-chronological phase. Until we have consistent absolute dates from primary-context sites and through different dating methods, we will be unable to reliably classify such assemblages, nor provide a meaningful comparison with other regions. Due to these lacunae, it may be premature to separate the entire Indian sequence into only two Paleolithic phases. This two-fold division – of Early and Late Paleolithic – is appropriate in East Asia where there is an absence of the ‘classic-and-abundant’ Acheulean and the Levallois technique; however, both of these entities are prominent in India. Moreover, many techno-morphological facets in the Indian Paleolithic overlap with records from both Africa and Europe at different levels. That being said, the Indian Levallois is not as ‘typical’ as its European and African counterparts in that the preferential Levallois technique and projectile points are all largely absent, thus making a two-fold scheme potentially applicable. Even if a two-fold scheme is considered for the Indian Paleolithic, it should be different from the East Asian version of ‘Early vs. Late Paleolithic’.

    Thus, we are basically confronted with a methodological dilemma: if we continue with the current European scheme, the regional uniqueness and African characters of the Indian record are not properly reflected and if we adopt a two-fold scheme, it raises new questions such as: How would we attribute (hypothetically) flake assemblages that contain both Levallois and microblade features? There may even be some MP assemblages in the Indian Subcontinent that are a result of dispersal(s) instead of development from the Indian LFA; if so, how can we distinguish between these two types of MP (indigenous vs. incoming) especially if they are similar? The same goes for the Upper Paleolithic phase, the recognition of which has been recently challenged by various researchers on the basis of recovering older microlithic assemblages and the absence of attributes related to ‘modern human behavior’. In that regard, the Indian Upper Paleolithic phase also needs to be re-assessed properly before being dismissed outright. For instance, retaining the terms ‘Upper Paleolithic’ and ‘Mesolithic’ currently helps us recognize the marked technological transition from non-geometric microliths to geometric assemblages. Therefore, we should perhaps retain the current three-fold Paleolithic scheme for the Indian evidence but only on conditional grounds, and begin to identify and establish a more detailed technological framework within the current three Paleolithic phases.

    Through specific case studies and known data, this paper will attempt to establish a more detailed multi-attribute technological framework that can be used as a guide for future classifications. This talk also indirectly highlights the dire need for focused multidisciplinary research on the Indian Middle and Upper Paleolithic to establish 1) their respective longevity and ages 2) their technological roots (indigenous vs. incoming) and 3) their precise evolutionary relationships with preceding and following phases. Ultimately, it needs to be appreciated that the Lower-Middle-Upper Paleolithic transitions may have been regionally different in terms of contexts, durations and occupational intensities. In other words, certain technologies may have lasted longer in some eco-zones compared to others throughout the Indian subcontinent. In short, we need to appreciate and take into account both the current limitations (i.e. the lack of absolute dates and comprehensive technological studies) as well as the dynamic and unique technological attributes of the Indian lithic record. This topic of re-classification has been raised at an important juncture in Indian prehistoric research and this special pre-organized session is the perfect platform to discuss all of these issues properly for a meaningful way forward.

    • Bishnupriya Basak says:

      Dear Parth,
      I appreciate your very detailed studies and precise comments. However, I personally have one problem, which perhaps stems from a different perspective within which I have been working so far. While I do feel an entire assessment of Indian stone tool sequence is absolutely essential I also feel that there is a danger of getting trapped by technology. After all we are doing all this to understand human behaviour, and the study of technology is only a means here, and not an end in itself. Having said this I do believe that the labels ‘Upper paleolithic’ as well as the ‘Mesolithic’ need to be revised in Indian prehistory, either we think of new terms or form a consensus on their connotations.

  4. Prakash Sinha says:

    Dear Sheila
    First, I would like to congratulate you for using current technology – computer & IT for inviting and sharing views on Indian Archaeology.
    It is a long pending issue so far as Indian Prehistory is concerned. In 1985-86 when Professor V N Misra visited our Department as Visiting Professor, I simply asked him why are we not developing Indian Classification System for lithic industries?; because in the absence of that different system of classification are being followed by scholars in different parts of India creating hurdles in comparative analysis. His answer was very positive and he said “it should be done”. It was, indeed, not an easy task especially during 90s, in the absence of availability of computer and IT facilities.
    May I raise another much related issue, how many currently engaged prehistorians have been provided proper training in the classification of lithic and or ceramic industries? For example, how many can distinguish between convex backed, lunate, asymmetrical lunate, truncated & backed and triangle. Forget about burins and other complex scrapers. We have to give up the idea of ‘anyhow match the inventory in accordance with the European model or African model, etc.’ It is just to avoid commonly practiced approach, what I have referred at several places as ‘fit-in-culture’. Unfortunately, this is a hard core reality, based on my personal observations.
    Let us address to our core issue – Fossil Index?
    Toynbee rightly propounded the theory of “challenge and response”. For every new challenge there should be new response, based on rationale procedures -methods and techniques. This would have been the reason of accepting African model of classification up to 70s and thereafter switching over to European model. Presence or absence of microliths / micro-blades in the Pleistocene context never surprised me. Firstly, it has been in Indian archaeological literature since 80s and 90s (at least in the Belan, Son, Tons and the Adwa valleys) and secondly, I don’t see human behavior is linear and unilateral in time and space. Microliths are not only present in India in the Pleistocene context but it has been reported in the Solutrean and Magdalenian of France and other parts of Europe. Moreover, what we should do with ‘blades’ if reported from Acheulian assemblages?
    I imagine, each individual as possessing a cognitive map of his/her perceived environment, built up in the light of experience and if cognitive map of Mr X has correlated microliths with Mesolithic Culture what one can do.
    I think, the development of human behavior, in time and space, is neither linear nor unilateral rather multilateral, multi-structural and spiral in a cultural system.
    Whatever little knowledge I could acquire in the field of prehistory suggest me that it would be improper to jump to any drastic proposal for redefining Indian Stone Age without doing proper home work. Otherwise, perhaps, probability of further mess of Indian Stone Age will be high. A well thought strategy will not only help us in resolving issues of Indian Stone Age but also provide criteria to correlate earlier works.
    For a new rationale beginning in this direction, we may follow the following procedure, keeping space for further improvement /modification in it:
    1. First of all we should get rid of all presumptions, especially related to linear development of cultures.
    2. We should systematically sample assemblages in spatial and temporal dimensions.
    3. We should not see west or east and or north or south, instead we should focus on the cultural material, obviously systematically sampled present on the top of our tables.
    4. Define and modify /develop types of cultural material for each systematically sampled assemblage in the chosen region (Nodal Zone). It should be based on plan, profile, cross-section, nature of retouch, class of retouch, and probable technique of manufacturing – including process of stone reduction. Standardized Computer Code sheets of minimum attributes that should be considered while defining/modifying type may be circulated with provision for the addition of regional variations if any.
    5. Apply multivariate statistical analysis to retrieve pattern of similarity/dissimilarity.
    6. Prepare drawings and photographs of the cultural material.
    7. Correlate them with available stratigraphic context.
    8. Attempts should be made to get such context scientifically dated.
    9. Periodically share and discuss observations with others, working in other regions of India.
    10. Each nodal zone should send all details, including drawings and photographs about assemblages to other nodal zones for comparison and compilation.
    11. Any Difference either in definition of type or opinion should be communicated to all the nodal centers.
    12. Finally, meet at one place and declare “Indian Stone Age- Reclassified’.
    Prakash Sinha

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