Culture in Peninsular India: An Ecological Perspective by R.S.Pappu
with a Foreword by V.N.Misra.
The Acheulian seems to be rather in fashion at the moment - a thought that I suppose might have occurred, at a rather earlier date and with less pleasure, to the makers of the later Oldowan industries. This latest addition to the recent literature of the Acheulian relates to an area that is of great geographical interest to students of the Lower Palaeolithic: the Indian Sub-Continent. India lies at very much the eastern margin of Acheulian distribution: opinions are still divided as to whether or not there is any 'real' Acheulian in China or Far Eastern Asia more generally, or whether the old 'Movius Line,' originally conceived as the boundary between the territory of the handaxe-makers and that of the 'chopper/chopping-tool' users, still essentially holds good so far as the eastern limit of the Acheulian is concerned. Certainly we can now point to a few Far Eastern lithic assemblages with substantial numbers of large bifacial tools: for example, Dingcun and the Nihewan Valley sites in China, and Chongokni in South Korea, though not all are well dated. But what are missing, in all that vast area, are massive, classical Acheulian occurrences, with handaxes and cleavers in hundreds or indeed thousands, such as can be found in so many parts of Africa, in the Near East and even in Europe. With India, there is no such problem. R.S.Pappu says several times in his book that Peninsular India is one of the richest areas in the whole of the Old World for Acheulian finds. So, this seems to be the eastern outpost proper of the Acheulian, only occasionally and briefly passed, if at all, just as southern Britain represents the northwestern margin of the same huge distribution. Marginal areas always have their own special interest, one aspect of which is to establish just when and for how long they were reached.
Pappu's book is the outcome of a two-year period he spent in 1995-7 as a Senior Research Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research, working mainly at the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute at Pune. He himself had previously been deeply involved in fieldwork at various Indian Lower Palaeolithic sites, while the Deccan College has long been a base for some of the most productive researchers studying the same period. He begins by briefly and usefully recalling the history of Lower Palaeolithic research in India, which actually began in the third quarter of the 19th Century, and by outlining his project, which involved much library work, the examination and classification of prolific collections of artefacts, and a programme of geological and geoarchaeological field study at some of the key sites in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The book proceeds with summary descriptions of some 22 Indian sites or site complexes in 'primary or semi-primary contexts,' where excavations have actually been carried out, plus a few others of importance. Listing these in alphabetical order rather than region by region is not perhaps the most useful device, but the geographical aspects of the distribution are fully addressed later, and Appendix I is a regionally organised longer list of site names, with references. Some of the 22 primary or near-primary context sites are well known - Attirampakkam, Bhimbetka, Chirki-Nevasa (Chirki-on-Pravara), Hunsgi, Isampur, for example - but I wonder how many names, out of the whole list, scholars of the Lower Palaeolithic who have not visited India would instantly recognise? Some, like Paisra and the prolific Raisen complex, certainly deserve to be better known. This chapter provides only basic descriptions of the various occurrences, and does not attempt to set out full site-by-site totals of the artefact types that are frequently mentioned, or to document in any detail the comparative statements that are made, but it offers some good and useful factual information, and lists the basic references, also providing a scatter of maps, section drawings and plans, and photographs.
The remaining two chapters are entitled 'Salient Features' (50 pages) and 'Acheulian Cultural System' (8 pages). In both, the author wrestles valiantly with the basic problem (which he does not conceal) of a general lack of surviving evidence, other than stone artefacts, in the Indian Lower Palaeolithic, even at the primary context sites: he tells us that no excavated site in India has yielded faunal, hominid or pollen material associated with Acheulian lithic artefacts (p.125). For the whole sub-Continent, only one hominid fossil of Middle Pleistocene age (from Hathnora, in the Narmada Valley) is so far known. Finite dates of direct relevance to the archaeological levels are also still in short supply, though recent years have produced quite a number of chronometric readings, obtained by various methods, and these are usefully listed in Appendix II. It is clear that the Indian Acheulian people were capable of operating successful settlement and subsistence strategies in many different ecological settings, but the precise details of how they did it remain elusive. Pappu tries everything and asks all the right questions, because these are the things that interested him most, in this project, but the answers are just not to be had yet, except for a few tantalising details at some sites: possible traces of artificial structures at Hunsgi, Chirki and Paisra; the particular use that was made of the lithic raw material at the Isampur factory site; the pattern of local nomadism which Paddayya deduced in the Hunsgi-Baichbal valleys; the occasional use of rock-shelters, and so forth.
As for the stone tool industries of the Indian Acheulian, Pappu, perhaps hoping for a succession of developing stages through time, documented by geological evidence, has in the end to settle for just an Early Acheulian and a Later Acheulian stage. Handaxes and cleavers are the dominant tool types, and it is interesting to note that there are several cases of assemblages in which cleavers outnumber handaxes. Tool function is discussed, although no direct evidence relating to it is mentioned: 'their probable functions can only be speculated by their shape and form and also by making experiments with these tools' (p. 88). There are clear general similarities between the Indian Acheulian and that of East and southern Africa, and Pappu is happy to accept an African genesis for the Acheulian of Peninsular India. He suggests a time-range of c. 600-66 kyr for the latter, though in fact that view may change because, even since his book appeared, a substantially older date (in excess of 1.0 myr) has been suggested for Isampur (Blackwell et al 2001) and the lowest levels at Attirampakkam also seem likely to prove much earlier than expected (cf. S. Pappu. 2001a: 240-43; 2001b).
The role of the Indian Acheulian in relation to that of the Old World generally is only a passing concern of this book, and not all of the wider background information mentioned in passing seems to have been fully explored, an example being the rather bland assertion on page 117 that 'around one million years ago Homo erectus moved out of Africa first into the Asian tropics and then into temperate Europe'. This however is essentially an internal picture of the Indian Acheulian, and the author makes clear at the outset what it does and does not cover: we should assess it accordingly. It is a very useful addition to the rather sparse quantity of literature on the Indian Lower Palaeolithic that is of general scope, as opposed to studies of single sites or regions: not very detailed, but full of useful information, and aware of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the whole corpus of finds. It cannot have been an easy book to write, and if the reader may occasionally feel frustrated by lack of detail in the picture presented, that is not really the author's fault. So many advances have been achieved in the study of the earlier Palaeolithic in India over the past four or five decades, and the research endeavour is still firmly on an upward trend. We should wish our Indian colleagues every success in the future, starting with the discovery of some really well-preserved and well dated sites, with plenty of associated environmental evidence of every kind, and some more hominid fossils.
Review Submitted: October 2002
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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