Indian Stone Age Sequence Question 9: Upper Palaeolithic Mesolithic continuity

Indian Stone Age Sequence Question 9: Upper Palaeolithic Mesolithic continuity

The division between Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic in the Indian context is absolutely arbitrary.  While Murty (1979) made a case for typological differences between the Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic based on the occurrence of blade industries made on fine grained quartzite in Andhra Pradesh, in Western India Sali (1974, 1985, 1989) labeled microlithic blade assemblages from Patne and elsewhere “Upper Palaeolithic” solely on the basis of their Late Pleistocene age.

Microlithic Blade Industries

Microlithic blade industries were first dated to the Pleistocene at Patne by Sali.  Even before dating the Ostrich eggshells from Patne, Sali had concluded that microliths belonged to the Pleistocene period as he had observed them eroding from Late Pleistocene alluvium.  His excavation at Patne was motivated in part, to prove what he already knew to be true.  In Western Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh where I worked subsequently to Sali (1980’s onwards) I found his observation to be completely true.  Almost every exposure of Late Pleistocene alluvium yields at least a handful of microliths.  By 2003 a number of radiocarbon dates had accumulated from the alluvium of different rivers, and  these were also dates for  the associated microliths.  In 2003 I compiled the available dates, mainly to understand the relationship of river aggradation to Pleistocene climatic change.  The dates from microliths ranged from >42,900 to the Chalcolithic (3-4 kyr).  No doubt technological change did occur during this period but the Pleistocene microliths which represented the longest time span did not change a lot.  Recently Clarkson et al. (2009) have obtained 4 radiocarbon dates between 27-29 kyr (calibrated to 30-34 kyr) for microliths from the Jwalapuram loc 9 rockshelter.  The older dated horizon is not associated with many artefacts and the bulk of the cultural material from this rockshelter dates to the period of ~10-12 kyr with a single date inbetween of ~16 kyr.  Nevertheless the continuity of the microblade tradition upto ~35 kyr is seen.  Thus two widely separated parts of India yield evidence for the continuity of the microlithic blade tradition from 35-45 kyr until the last few millennia.  All parts of Peninsular India are in conformity to this finding but dates older than 25 kyr are not common.

These microlithic sites are rarely associated with animal bones.  Charred shells from sites like Mehtakheri (M.P.) and Kalas (Maharashtra) show that gathered component was significant in these sites.  In eastern India, many Pleistocene microlithic sites have yielded ringed stones and grinding stones (Raju 1988).  Sali (1989) also reports grinding stones from the microlithic horizons at Patne. It does not seem that subsistence changed drastically over the Pleistocene Holocene boundary in India unlike Europe, where a shift from big game hunting to gathering occurred.  In the Indian context, intensive gathering with some hunting occurs throughout the Pleistocene and the shift in subsistence is related more to the adaptation of agriculture and permanent settlements.

Non Microlithic Blade Industries

Non microlithic blade industries  are not as prominent as microlithic blade industries in India.  None of them have been dated and their stratigraphic relationship to microlithic blade assemblages is also unclear.  Thus these industries might be earlier than the microlithic blade phase or they could be isolated episodes of use of large blades probably related to choice of raw material.

In the initial establishment of the Upper Palaeolithic phase in Indian Prehistory, the presence of large blade based assemblages from Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere was important in validating two blade tool phases in Indian Prehistory.  Murty’s Kurnool cave assemblages were not dated.  Dating by ESR of sandstone slabs used in construction of a fireplace (Nambi and Murty 1983) to only ~18 kyr implied that such assemblages with large blades were not older than those with microblades.  However the  ESR date, which was done as a dating experiment, might be an underestimation of  the true age.  The recent dating of microliths from Jwalapuram loc 9 rockshelter to 27-29 kyr (uncalibrated) 30-35 kyr (uncalibrated) indicates continuity of microliths in the region at least from that time.

At Patne, undated non microlithic blade assemblages stratigraphically underlie the microlithic blade assemblages. Varma and Pal (1997) report blades ranging in size from 4-8 cm from Amaradan near the Rehi and Son confluence which they assign to the first phase of the Upper Palaeolithic apparently on typological considerations.  A slightly more “advanced” stage is seen at Patwadh and Bhakraur with blades from 3-6 cm in length also from the Son river.


Some large blade tool assemblages do exist in India, but almost no stratigraphic or absolute dating evidence is available to determine whether this phase is earlier than the microlithic phase or a regional facies of microlithic phase.  In regions where dates are available the microlithic blade assemblages show continuity over the last  at least 40 kyr.  This definitely shows that the division between Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is unjustified.  On the other hand the transition from Middle to Upper Palaeolithic is far from clear.  This might have happened earlier than 40 kyr.  Although I have argued in an earlier post for a discontinuity between the Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic this period is actually a blank.  Perhaps when we have more sites dated to the time period of 80-40 kyr the picture will be different

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.

Mishra, S., Naik, S., Rajaguru, S.N., Deo, S. and Ghate, S., 2003. Fluvial Response to Late Quaternary Climatic Change: Case Studies from Upland Western India. Proceedings of Indian National Science Academy, 69(2): 185-200.

Murty, M. L. K. 1979. Recent Research on the Upper Palaeolithic Phase in India. Journal of Field Archaeology 6:301-319.

Murty, M. L. K. 1966. Stone Age Cultures of Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh, University of Poona.

Nambi, K. S. V., and M. L. K. Murty. 1983. An Upper Palaeolithic Fireplace in Kurnool Caves, South India. Bulletin of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute 42:110-116.

Raju, D. R. 1987. Fresh light on the Upper Palaeolithic from the Eastern Ghats, Andhra Pradesh Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 7:17-22.

Raju, D. R. 1988. Stone Age Hunter-Gatherers : An Ethnoarcheaology of Cuddapah Region, South-East India Pune: Ravish Publishers.

Sali, S. A. 1974. Upper Palaeolithic Research Since Independence. Bulletin of Deccan College Research Institute 34:154-158.

Sali, S. A. 1985. “The Upper Palaeolithic Culture at Patne, District Jalgaon, Maharashtra,” in Recent Advances in Indo-Pacific Prehistory. Edited by V. N. Misra and P. Bellwood, pp. 137-146. New Delhi: Oxford-IBH

Sali, S. A. 1989. The Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic cultures of Patne, District Jalgaon, Maharashtra. Pune: Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute.

Varma, R. K., and J. N. Pal. 1997. “The Upper Palaeolithic Cultures of the Vindhyan Region,” in Indian Prehistory:1980 Edited by V. D. Misra and J. N. Pal, pp. 94-102. Allahabad: Department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, University of Allahabad.



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One Response to Indian Stone Age Sequence Question 9: Upper Palaeolithic Mesolithic continuity

  1. Bishnupriya Basak says:

    I had reacted to this in one of my earlier responses, based on my own work. That stands for this one too.

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