The only discontinuity in the Indian Stone Age Sequence is between the Middle Palaeolithic and the Upper Palaeolithic.

This statement is the real justification for defining only two stages in the Indian Palaeolithic.  If this is accepted then two stages become logical, if there are breaks elsewhere (between Lower and Middle Palaeolithic or Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic) then more stages are justified.

Everyone I have talked to about combining LP and MP,  has pointed out that there are assemblages in India which do fit the label of “Middle Palaeolithic”.  I accept this.  This is agreed.

Then should the phase “Middle Palaeolithic” be retained?  Most Indian Archaeologists would also agree with the statement above.  The most significant break in the Indian stone age sequence is not between LP/MP or UP/Mesolithic but between MP/UP.  Sure, you can distinguish between LP and MP, maybe even between UP/Mesolithic but these differences are minor in comparison to the MP/UP differences.

My understanding of the “Middle Palaeolithic” is based on my observations during exploration in the Narmada, Godavari, Bhima, basins in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and Luni basin and Jaisalmer region of Rajasthan.  ..Of course I also have read other peoples papers, but its not the same.  One’s ideas are based primarily on our own research findings.  Perhaps some of you will disagree with me because the evidence you have encountered in other areas is different?  If so please comment.  Are there any assemblages you can think of which could be transitional between “Middle Palaeolithic” and “Upper Palaeolithic”?

My understanding is that the vast majority of Middle Palaeolithic assemblages are artefacts occurring on bedrock/regolith surfaces.  They occur throughout Peninsular India.  These assemblages often do not include handaxes or cleavers or blade tools, so distinguishing them from Acheulian and “Upper Palaeolithic” is not really problematic.  Because these assemblages are on bedrock they cannot be placed into any stratigraphic relationships with other industries and they are also undated.  In comparison to the immense number of such sites, very few have been studied at all and so only the most general of descriptions are available.  Pant and Jayaswal (1976) have described the Jamalpur industry from Bihar where distinctive retouched tools are found.

In the Nimar region, (Mishra 1985) small retouched quartzite/multicoloured chert flakes can be found on bedrock hills.  Each piece is a “tool” representing only the final discard phase of a long chaine operatoire.  Variable amounts of retouch on the artefacts, no two exactly similar artefacts, artefacts reduced in size to the minimum needed to hold them, make it difficult to apply a straight forward “typological” approach.  Occasionally very “nice” single tools such as the scraper from Nandra and point from Barwah are found as isolated finds (see the pictures).

Scraper from well debris near Nandra Village, District West Nimar, MP, collected in 1980


Found on path walking from Barwah to Mehtakheri in 1990

Besides bedrock surfaces, such assemblages are also found on the weathered surface of older Narmada sediments at a number of places such as Mehtakheri, Mardana, Maheshwar (Ganesh Nala locality) and Behagaon (Mishra 1985).  These “weathered gravels” contain a “Lower Palaeolithic” assemblage resembling that of Durkhadi, rather than “Acheulian”  At Mehtakheri, the succeeding sediments contained microlithic blade assemblages towards the top and abraded “Middle Palaeolithic” artefacts at the base.  The two assemblages are very distinctive.

Therefore, accepting the reality of “Middle Palaeolithic”, I still suggest eliminating the term, Why?

  1. Continuity: Where should the boundary go?

Although there are “Middle Palaeolithic” assemblages which lack LCT’s, there are also a large number of “Acheulian” assemblages which have the full complement of “Middle Palaeolithic” tools and core forms.  This was the first problem faced by Sankalia when he tried to define an “Indian Middle Palaeolithic”  Entities which could be placed “typologically” in the “Middle Palaeolithic” either also contained LCT’s, alternately deserving the label of “Lower Palaeolithic” or were in a surface context.  There is clear continuity between the Indian Lower Palaeolithic and Middle Palaeolithic.  Where should the boundary go?  When Middle Palaeolithic tools types and technology appear or when LCT’s disappear?  If there is continuity then the boundary is given an undeserved significance.  It seems a better choice to demote the “Middle Palaeolithic” to a final stage of the Indian Lower Palaeolithic.

  1. Lack of Stratified sites

Sites in stratified context are extremely rare.  This implies to me that the phase of “Middle Palaeolithic” without LCT’s must be a relatively short time span in comparison to the Acheulian.  The only stratified sites known to me are 16R, where dates are recently published of about 130 ka, (Singhvi et al.2010), Arjun 3 and Ranjani.  Little is published about the Middle Palaeolithic from 16R.  Arjun 3 in Nepal is labeled “Middle Palaeolithic” by Corvinus (Corvinus 1994) but has given a Late Pleistocene date.  Middle Palaeolithic tools made on basalt were collected from a river gravel on the Mina river near Ranjani a few kilometres downstream of Narayangaon in Maharashtra (Mishra and Ghate 1989).  Disc, levallois and single direction cores were all found in this assemblage.  Although this is an assemblage from sedimentary context the gravel rests on bedrock and no other layer is found in the section.  In the Son valley, the Patpara formation contained both “Acheulian”(Nakhjuar) and “Middle Palaeolithic” assemblages (Patpara).

  1. Nevasian: Taphonomic factors affecting typology

Chert flake assemblages overlying Acheulian from Nevasa were designated as the “type site” for the Indian Middle Palaeolithic.  Further work however showed that the levels containing “Nevasian” were the upper levels of the same gravels which also contained Acheulian. Corvinus also found that the Nevasian was identical to the flake component of the Acheulian. This was initially interpreted to mean that the Acheulian (LP) and Nevasian (MP) at Nevasa belonged to the same time.  I (Mishra 1986) argued instead that taphonomic factors, (greater suseptability of basalt than chert to weathering) better explained the contemporaneity of the Acheulian and Nevasian.  The Nevasian is just the residual chert component after the basalt component was eliminated by transport and weathering. (Allchin 1959) made a similar mis-interpretation of the Bhedaghat section on the Narmada  Consideration of taphnomically altered Acheulian assemblages as “Middle Palaeolithic” led to the further error of considering the Indian Middle Palaeolithic of Peninsular India as “isolated and backward” in comparison to the Middle Palaeolithic of the Thar Desert (Allchin, Goudie, and Hedge 1978)

  1. No interstratification of Middle Palaeolithic with Upper Palaeolithic

Absolute dates for the Indian Palaeolithic sequence are inadequate.  There are some dates for the UP, but these are mostly radiocarbon dates and so cannot bear on the issue as to whether this phase dates earlier than 40 ka.  A number of infinite radiocarbon dates from this phase have been available for decades although they are rarely cited (Mehtakheri, Rampur, Nagda, Chandrasal).  The situation for the Middle Palaeolithic is worse.

Fortunately, the stratigraphic evidence is strong and unambiguous   There is no instance of “Middle Palaeolithic” stratified above “Upper Palaeolithic” anywhere in India.

This is a real contrast from the situation in the Middle East and Africa where Upper Palaeolithic-like assemblages are found underlying Middle Palaeolithic-like assemblages.  Very often the earliest assemblages following the Acheulian are Upper Palaeolithic-like.  In the Middle East and Northern Africa this has led to the use of more specific, site based terminology for these units and in Sub-Saharan Africa to the use of “Middle Stone Age” which includes both entities that resemble Middle Palaeolithic and those that resemble Upper Palaeolithic.

  1. Confusing Middle Stone Age and Middle Palaeolithic.

Petraglia has commented on the earlier post,  that  the “Middle Palaeolithic” has been dated to between 80 and 35 ka in the Kurnool area.  This is “Middle Palaeolithic” because it clusters with the MSA Howieson’s Poort of South Africa.  However Howieson’s Poort is one of the MSA entities which shows “precocious” appearance of most of the characteristics of the “Upper Palaeolithic”.  Therefore using this comparison to label some entity with similar features “Middle Palaeolithic” in India is extremely confusing.  The only reason it is called MSA in Africa is because Middle Palaeolithic – like assemblages overlie it.  This situation does not occur in India and so the justification for calling it “Middle Palaeolithic” is absent.  The description of this Middle Palaeolithic assemblage, dated to 80 ka is very sketchy, the number of artefacts seems to be quite low.  According to their own reports (Haslam et al in press) the YTT horizon is followed by a break.  “Microlithic” assemblages follow this break at ~ 35 ka. (Clarkson et al 2009).

The “dating of the Middle Palaeolithic” is actually no such thing, but a date of 80 ka associated with an assemblage whose cores cluster with Howiesons Poort cores followed by a gap.  The earliest “Upper Palaeolithic” could have started anytime between 80 and 35 ka, even if the YTT assemblages are accepted as Middle Palaeolithic (are they really?).  The Indian artefacts, which occur below the 75 ka YTT are  significantly older than the Howieson’s Poort which dates to 60-65 ka,

To summarize:

Assemblages which could fit the definition of “Middle Palaeolithic” in India do exist but are mostly from surface contexts and little is published about them.  Many assemblages labeled “Middle Palaeolithic” do not fit the label.  Continuity of Acheulian and Middle Palaeolithic is well supported.  Unlike West Asia and Africa Middle Palaeolithic always precedes Upper Palaeolithic.  Considering “Middle Palaeolithic” a final phase of the Indian Lower Palaeolithic would fit the reality much better than separating it.

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.

Allchin, B., A. S. Goudie, and K. T. M. Hedge. 1978. The Prehistory and Palaeogeography of the Great Indian Desert. London: Academic Press.

Clarkson, C., M. D. Petraglia, R. Korisettar, M. Haslam, N. L. Boivin, A. Crowther, P. W. Ditchfield, D. Fuller, Q., P. Miracle, C. Harris, K. Connell, H. V. A. James, and J. Koshy. 2009. The oldest and longest enduring microlithic sequence in India: 35,000 years of modern human occupation and change at the Jwalapuram Locality 9 rockshelter. Antiquity 83:326-348.

Corvinus, G. 1994. Prehistoric occupation sites in the Dang-Deokhuri Valleys of western Nepal. Man and Environment 19:73-89.

Haslam, M., C. Clarkson, M. Petraglia, R. Korisettar, S. Jones, C. Shipton, P. Ditchfield, and S. H. Ambrose. The 74 ka Toba super-eruption and southern Indian hominins: archaeology, lithic technology and environments at Jwalapuram Locality 3. Journal of Archaeological Science In Press, Corrected Proof.

Mishra, S. 1985. Early Man and Environments in Western Madhya Pradesh. Ph.D., Pune University.

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

Mishra, S., and S. Ghate. 1989. Middle Paleolithic Site of Ranjani. Man and Environment 15:23-27.

Pant, P.C., and Jayaswal, V., 1976, Jamalpur: A typological variant within the Middle Palaeolithic Culture-complex of India. Puratattva 9:15–33

Singhvi, A. K., M. A. J. Williams, S. N. Rajaguru, V. N. Misra, S. Chawla, S. Stokes, N. Chauhan, T. Francis, R. K. Ganjoo, and G. S. Humphreys. A ~200 ka record of climatic change and dune activity in the Thar Desert, India. Quaternary Science Reviews In Press, Corrected Proof.

This entry was posted in Indian stone age sequence. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The only discontinuity in the Indian Stone Age Sequence is between the Middle Palaeolithic and the Upper Palaeolithic.

  1. Bishnupriya Basak says:

    Yes, I see your point. Although I have dealt mostly with blade industries it is my belief (based on my studies of the Indian stone age) that Middle Paleolithic can be incorporated with Lower Paleolithic as one phase, based on technology. But we have to be aware of a few cautionary tales. There is bound to be a lot of regional variation, we need to get together whatever evidence is available on cultures labeled as ‘Middle Paleolithic’ and see whether we can talk about certain phases within this. As you rightly say there is little published data, therefore if we are thinking of a new terminology we have to work with whatever is there in hand.

Comments are closed.