Indian Stone Age
Question 4: Soanian is NOT Lower Palaeolithic
The Soanian has been considered the Indian representative of the “Chopper Chopping” tool tradition, found in NW Indian Sub-Continent and contemporary with the Acheulian found in Peninsular India. It is based on fieldwork done in the 1930’s by de Terra and Paterson along with some observations of Teillard de Chardin and is named after the Soan River in Pakistan. At the time when the concepts of the Soanian (de Terra and Paterson 1939) and the Movius line Movius (1944). were formulated no absolute dating methods were available and global correlations were made on the basis of correlation to “Ice Ages” of global extent. Our understanding of human evolution, the Lower Palaeolithic and Quaternary Climate have undergone a number of revolutions in the intervening ~70 years, but these publications still have a throttle hold on Asian Palaeolithic. My own 35 years of involvement in this issue also encompasses many stages of response.
After what I learned about Soanian during my MA days, I never really gave it much thought as I worked entirely in Peninsular India. During the 1980’s Allchin and then Dennell and Rendell’s re-investigation in the Soan area of Pakistan led to them totally rejecting the validity of Soanian as an archaeological entity (Dennell and Rendell 1991). Also in the 1980’s Acheulian began to be found in the sub-Himalayan region—this included Mohapatra and Singh 1979, 1981, Mohapatra 1981, Rennell and Dennell 1985 Kumar & Rishi 1986, Mohapatra 1987, 1990, Corvinus 1995, 2006). Mohapatra clearly stated that the Acheulian was found only in the “frontal range” while the Soanian was found in the Dun Valleys and river terraces.
In 1997 I was lucky enough to visit sites in the Dang Deokhuri Dun valley of Nepal with Dr. Corvinus and Dr. Rajaguru. Corvinus fully recognized that the Dun valley fills belonged to the Late Pleistocene and Holocene and so never even considered them in relation to “Soanian”. She was already comparing them to the Late Pleistocene and Holocene flake and core industries of SE Asia. However I realized that if indeed the Soanian was from Dun sediments in India, then it was actually the same entity. Mohapatra’s “Frontal Range” was the area where Siwalik sediments were exposed. In writing a review paper with Gaillard in 1998 ( Gaillard & Mishra 2001) we re-read all the “Soanian” papers and it became crystal clear that Soanian and Acheulian were found in areas which exposed sediments of different ages. For me this was enough and it was clear that the Soanian and Acheulian just don’t belong to the same time. Acheulian is found where Pinjore sediments or re-worked Pinjore sediments are found and Soanian where younger sediments are found. At once a confusing issue that “didn’t make sense” became one that “did make sense”
The main problem for some people to accept this has been a different view about the relationship of the artefacts (which are almost all from the surface, both Soanian and Acheulian) and the underlying sediments. This is the reason Mohapatra interprets his observations as implying Acheulian and Soanian populations belonging to different ecozones rather than from different times. The lack of Acheulian from insitu contexts is probably the reason the Pinjore sediments are not considered to be contemporary to the Acheulian.
Reasoned consideration of the evidence for surface artefacts however removes these doubts. I have spent lots of time trying to understand not only why artefacts occur where they do but also why they are found in only certain contexts (Mishra 1982, 1986, 1988). My fundamental observation (using the approach of examining the actual archaeological record) is that Lower Palaeolithic tools almost NEVER occur on the surface. There should be many. Each artefact discarded in the past did get discarded on the “surface”. Palaeolithic man did not bury them! However artefacts that did not get buried by some process have NOT survived. This is because the time span since the Lower Palaeolithic is so long that even imperceptible (to us) processes acting over such time spans are very destructive. On the other hand burial limits the time span over which weathering and other surface processes operate which leads to a chance of survival. Slow processes operating over long time spans are totally destructive while fast processes leading to burial act over a limited span and are ultimately less destructive. Thus Lower Palaeolithic artefacts found of the surface today are almost always recently exposed by ongoing erosion and should belong to the underlying sediments. Obviously when sediments of different ages are present a number of possibilities for the original artefact context can be suggested. Truly surface artefacts have to date to AFTER the surface came into being by erosion. This surface in the Siwalik hills, undergoing rapid erosion today would be very young. It is inconceivable that it dates to “Acheulian” times. Thus I consider Acheulian artefacts lying of the surface of the Pinjore sediments to be derived from them, and not date to after the exposure of the surface.
The other issue is to actually better define the technology of the young core and flake assemblages in the sub-Himalayan zone. Terms like chopper chopping and “mode 1” are extremely vague and misleading. Excavated and well studied assemblages are all shown to be more complex and entities although sometimes hard to define, certainly not equivalent to “mode 1”. We really need to go beyond the presence/absence of handaxes in comparing assemblages. In an earlier post I have introduced the concept of complete versis fragmented chaine operatoires as being a fundamental difference between the Acheulian and the Oldowan. Probably all stone tool technologies after the Oldowan have fragmented chaine operatoires. Are some further contrasts to be found? We must look…
The scattered and isolated nature of the Acheulian artefacts are probably another reason for doubts about the presence of Acheulian in the Pinjores. However because Acheulian people carried finished tools isolated occurrences of finished tools are actual typical. However because of the diagnostic features of such highly curated tools a single tools is powerfully convincing. It’s a tool and it is Acheulian.
de Terra, H., and T. T. Paterson. 1939. Studies on the Ice Age in India and Associated Human Cultures. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution.
Dennell, R. W., and H. N. Rendell. 1991. deTerra and Paterson and the Soan Flake Industry: a New Perspective from the Soan Valley, North Pakistan. Man and Environment 16: 91-100.
Gaillard, C., and S. Mishra. 2001. “The Lower Palaeolithic in South Asia,” in Origin of Settlements and Chronology of the Paleolithic Cultures in SE Asia. Edited by F. Semah, C. Falgueres, D. Grimaund-Herve, and A.-M. Semah, pp. 73-92. Semenanjuang and Paris.
Kumar, M., and K. K. Rishi. 1986. Acheulian elements from Hoshiharpur Region (Punjab). Man and Environment 10:141-142.
Mishra, S. 1982. On the Effects of Basalt Weathering on the Distribution of Lower Palaeolithic Sites in the Deccan. Bulletin of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute 41:107-115.
—. 1986. Archaeological Assemblages and Basalt Weathering : a Re-evaluation of the Nevasian. Man and Environment 10:91-96.
Mishra, S., A. A. Kshirsagar, and S. N. Rajaguru. 1988. “Relative Dating of the Quaternary Record from Upland Western Maharashtra,” in National Seminar on Recent Quaternary Studies in India. Edited by M. P. Patel and N. Desai, pp. 269-278. Baroda: M.S.University.
Mohapatra, G. C. 1981. Acheulian Discoveries in the Siwalik Frontal Range Current Anthropology 22:433-435.
—. 1990a. Acheulian Element in Soan Culture Area. Journal of the Archaeological Society of Nippon XL:4-17.
—. 1990b. Soanian-Acheulian Relationship Bulletin of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute 49:251-260.
Mohapatra, G. C., and M. Singh. 1979a. Prehistoric Investigations in a Sub-Himalayan Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Current Anthropology 20:600-602.
—. 1979b. Stratified Occurrence of Lithic Artifacts in the Siwalik frontal Range Of Western Sub-Himalaya. Research Bulletin of the Punjab University 10:65-77.
—. 1981. Acheulian Discoveries in the Siwalik Frontal Range of Western Sub-Himalayas. Punjab University Research Bulletin 10:65-77.
Movius, H. L. 1948. The Lower Palaeolithic Cultures of Southern and Eastern Asia. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series:330-420.
Movius, H. L. J. 1944. Early Man Pleistocene Stratigraphy in Southern and Eastern Asia. . Peabody Museum Paper 19.
Rendell, H., and R. W. Dennell. 1985. Dated Lower Palaeolithic Artefacts from Northern Pakistan. Current Anthropology 26 393.