Archaeologists Shanti Pappu and Kumar Akhilesh, who have been studying the Acheulean tools created by the extinct Homo erectus, excavated at Attirampakkam near Chennai, said that India’s prehistoric past is as old as certain sites in Africa and Europe.
Speaking at the Chennai Maadham Festival, Pappu said Acheulean culture is believed to be “not very old in India”. However, their multidisciplinary research in Attirampakkam, which can be dated to the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic cultures, resulted in some fascinating revelations, she added. “We have been conducting this research since 1999, to study the prehistoric past of Tamil Nadu, using a combination of archaeology and chronology. Attirampakkam is one of the oldest prehistoric Acheulean sites in South Asia. We are looking at the stone tools designed by the Homo erectus, who were a different species altogether and are now extinct. The climate change through this area is being studied, to build mass monsoon and vegetation platters, interpret the period of extreme humidity and aridity in the past and see how these species adapted to the changes, over time,” she explained.
The clue to the minds of the Homo erectus lies in the forgotten stone tools — the hand axes and cleavers. Explaining the difficulty, Akhilesh said, “There are not many fossils from this period. Since a major section of evidence is missing, we must rely on these stone tools, which are akin to squeezing blood from stones. These tools are made from quartzite in this region and on basalt, chert, limestone and even granite elsewhere.”
Using modern stone dating techniques such as cosmogenic nuclide burial dating, for the first time in India, as well as palaeomagnetic method, the age of these tools was ascertained. “The cosmogenic nuclide burial dating method gave an instant dating of the stone. Through this, we found that the stones from Attirampakkm were 1 million to 1.7 million years old. This clearly shows that India has an Acheulean culture (signature technology of Homo erectus), which is as old as some sites in Africa and Europe,” said Pappu, who is also the Founder-Secretary of Sharma Centre for Heritage Education.
A study of their tools revealed that Homo erectus was capable of higher cognitive abilities than what we tend to credit them with. Pappu explained, “If you look at the handaxes and cleavers, they are beautiful yet functional. Primarily hunters and gatherers, they had systematic ways of butchering and processing large game, including elephants and of making different types of artefacts. There was some form of language perhaps involved. Their knowledge of plant sources, geography and rocks and minerals were amazing, as they knew which rocks to use to make their tools, as also their fracture patterns.” Akhilesh spends three hours daily, fashioning these prehistoric tools as part of a project funded by the Homi Bhabha Fellowships Council. “An understanding of rock fracture mechanics and angles is important to fashion these tools,” said the researcher, who also conducts workshops in the city, teaching participants the art of crafting these tools apart from creating awareness on archaeology.