A multi-disciplinary research, which is underway since 1999 at Attirampakkam, the oldest Acheulean site in South Asia, revealed that India’s Acheulean culture is on a par with important sites in Africa and Israel, raising interesting questions on their movement between Africa, India and Asia during that period, by the Homo erectus.
Archaeologists Shanti Pappu and Kumar Akhilesh said that their research at Attirampakkam and the surrounding sites is aimed at understanding how the prehistoric population lived here and adapted to the changing environment over two million years. “South Asia has so many different prehistoric phases, which started around 2 million years ago and continued up to 5,000 years ago. From our ongoing research, we found that India’s Acheulean culture is no longer considered young, but is on a par with Africa and Israel.
Our interest is in the prehistoric populations and their migration across Africa and Asia, and how our nation fits into the movements of these people over time. Through our study, we are looking at behavioural changes, cognition, adaptation and the environmental conditions, to draw a coherent picture,” explained Shanti, Founder-Secretary of Sharma Centre for Heritage Education.
The first phase of the project started at Attirampakkam, 60-km from Chennai. “Apart from Attirampakkam, we are investigating over 200 prehistoric sites in and around Chennai, stretching from Pulicat to Kancheepuram.
We have studied the area, the tools found there and what they denote about the populations at these sites. Homo erectus as a species was primarily hunters and gatherers, with an excellent knowledge of the resources in the landscape. The digs reveal that it was occupied seasonally for a specific purpose,” said the archaeologists.
Technology has aided and evolved this ongoing research, said Pappu. “We have used satellite remote sensing in archaeology, in collaboration with Regional Remote Sensing Centre – South, NRSA, ISRO, and other dating tools such as cosmogenic nuclide burial dating method, Palaeomagnetism and OpticallyStimulated Luminescence (OSL) among others. At the Attirampakkam site, there is a thick deposit of sediment built up over millions of years – you get an idea of the periods from the Lower Palaeolithic, Acheulean to Middle Palaeolithic.
The trenches we have excavated show that the site was occupied for long, despite changing environments. For example, different layers of sedimentation indicate changing environments. People adapted to this change,” said the archaeologist.
The lowest level, which is more than nine meters in thickness, was dated using different methods. “This revealed the age to be up to 1.07 to 1.7 million years. Early Acheulean period in the country was thought to be young.
But at one shot, this showed that our country is a contemporary of Africa and other nations. A comparison of tools found at Attirampakkam is similar to those found in Africa,” she added.
Pappu pointed out that the Homo erectus, often considered primitive, were not so. “Through our studies, we found out that these people were knowledgeable about their landscape and geology.
For example, people knew where to go for a specific type of rock for a tool, built for a specific purpose. When you are making a tool, it requires a great deal of planning, which tells about the team work. Through the types of tools and making it, you can tell about their mobility, intelligence and planning skills,” she said, adding that a lot of questions remain unanswered. “What was going on in the brain of the Homo erectus?
How did they plan on making these tools?
How did we become what we are today – that is our ultimate goal,” said Pappu. “We are reconstructing this ancient technology through lithic knapping experimental studies, by Dr. Kumar Akhilesh, who was trained in France for this purpose,” she said.
Homo erectus is an extinct species of hominim that lived in the Pleistocene geological epoch, considered to be the predecessors of the Homo sapiens.
Translating into upright man, it is believed they originated in Africa and migrated through Europe to India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia among others.
Homo erectus is thought to be the first to use fire to cook meals and make hand axes and other tools out of stone in order to hunt meat.
All about Acheulean
- Attirampakkam in the Kortalayar basin, with other sites in the neighbourhood, forms one of the key sites for the south Indian (Madras) Lower Palaeolithic industry.
- It was discovered in September 1863 by Robert Bruce Foote and his colleague, William King Through the 20th century, the site has been investigated by scholars such as TT Paterson, VD Krishnaswamy and KD Banerjee.
- Homo erectus made hand axes and cleavers for specific purposes.
- In 1999, the multi-disciplinary study by Shanti Pappu and Akhilesh Kumar has resulted in new perspectives on the Acheulean and Middle Palaeolithic in S Asia.
- Key findings include a new Acheulean horizon within deeply buried deposits, not known previously.
- Oldest Acheulean in the country dates to around 1 to 1.7 Ma (Million years ago), with implications for dispersal of Homo erectus across Asia Tools made by Homo erectus, hold clues to their behavioural patterns and way of living.
- Such tools are difficult to make, indicating that Homo erectus understood geology.
- They had perfected a system of butchering and processing large game, including elephants They were adept at making different types of artefacts.
- Suspicion that some form of language was involved Had a good knowledge of plants, minerals, etc