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Stone Tools - India

"Stone tools are fossilized human behaviour."

~ Louis Leakey (Kenyan-British palaeoanthropologist & archaeologist)

Stone tools offer so many clues to early humans - the kind of lifestyle they lived (hunter-gatherer, or pastoral), their dexterity (based on the grip and effectiveness), their mental skills (how they crafted implements for different needs), how they interacted with their surroundings, and even how they evolved and migrated over time.

The skill in creating and innovating stone tools, as well as those of bone, antlers, or ivory, and later metal, bear testimony to human ingenuity. The sheer variety we've found across geographies helps us understand how early humans were able to survive and thrive in different habitats, and the evolution of everyday technology, weaponry, and even objects of artistic or aesthetic value (like musical instruments, rock paintings or petroglyphs).

If you're interested in tracing ancient human history or archaeology, I'd also written about petroglyphs in south Goa, which bear testimony to the artistic and aesthetic abilities of ancient pastoral people. In this excerpt, we're digging deeper through time to understand the legacy of stone tools, and how it has paved the way for modern human society.


India's prehistoric period - the time not recorded by written records, is divided into 4 ages based on geological time, stone tool technology and what it tells us about ancient human societies. Of the 4 ages, the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic are deciphered from stone tools, dated with the help of radiocarbon dating (calculated based on the rate of decay of the radioactive isotopes of carbon), and dendrochronology (using tree rings). Organic material from around 50 thousand years or so can be dated using radiocarbon dating, but given the small half-life of the C14 isotope, this method is ill-suited for even older materials. Much of the lower Paleolithic is dated using different methods such as cosmogenic radionuclides, paleomagnetism, OSL, IRSL, and U/Th, and the last if one is lucky to find interleaved volcanic ash layers containing zircons.

The last prehistoric age - the Metal Age, saw early humans use copper, bronze and iron for artefacts. Here's a quick overview of the different ages of early humans, and the development of tools and socio-political contexts through time:


"In his [Foote's] quest to unravel the mysteries of India's pre-history, we see a tale of great discoveries interwoven with the many joys and tragedies of personal life.” ~ Prof. Shanti Pappu Founder/Secretary

Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, India

In 1863, Robert Bruce Foote, a British geologist, discovered a hand axe and a cleaver, from Pallavaram and Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu, respectively. These tools, later dated to the Paleolithicpalaeontology, paved the way for India's prehistoric studies. These tools were evidence of early hunter-gatherers, and the sites soon yielded other tools such as scrapers, choppers, and knives - all of which Foote compiled into a catalogue. Foote also drew insights from geology, anthropology, museology, and paleontology in his study of India's stone age artefacts and was dubbed the father of India's prehistory. This work by Foote ensured that India found a place on the world map of prehistoric studies.

For those who are interested, the prehistoric legacy and personal travails of Robert Bruce Foote have been documented in this lovely article by Prof. Pappu. Read the article.


Attirampakkam (or Athirampakkam/Attrambakkam) located 60 kilometres northwest of Chennai, is the best-known site for India's prehistoric archaeology. Discovered in 1863 by Robert Foote, Attirampakkam has yielded many significant artefacts over the years and continues to do so.

The tool technology at Attirampakkam indicates that the site saw human activity emerge 385,000 (± 64,000) years ago - marking the transition from early to middle Paleolithic (there is also a late Paleolithic age). With over 7,000 artefacts unearthed to date, research is focused on establishing the nature of hominin (including all great apes from modern humans, to chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and their near ancestors) activity, the environmental changes over time, and the stone tool assemblages. Apart from the tools, the discovery of animal footprints - the first of their kind to be documented in South Asia, and a set of hoof prints, offer tantalising clues to the domestication of animals. Fossil teeth of ancestral horses, water buffaloes, and nilgai also indicate that the site may once have been an open, wet landscape. Potsherds and bricks at the site are evidence of the rise of kilns and more robust infrastructure for settlements. However, the challenge with archaeology often lies in trying to piece together a complex history from fragmentary remains. In the case of Attirampakkam, rainwater over the years has created gullies and rills, and the study area spans over ~8,000 sq. kilometres. Now imagine looking for hand axes, knives, scrapers, cleavers, as well as cores and flakes?

Examples of lithic cores that bear marks of being chipped away at from the Museum of Toulouse, France. Image credit: Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY)

In archaeology, cores are the base stone from which flakes or blades for other tools are carved or chipped out, usually with the use of a hammerstone. The core itself may be carved into a tool, but more often is the base material for other tools. Flakes and blades are the sharp, angular chips off the core that are used to fashion tool tips.

[VIDEO] Making Stone Cleavers - slicing into ancient minds

There's more to carving stone tools than we think. This video brings to life the story of cleavers - one of the earliest examples of imposing symmetry upon stone, and how it holds clues to ancient populations across Africa and India. It also documents experiments to replicate these tool-making techniques, and experts weigh in on what such techniques tell of us about prehistoric minds.


Dispersal routes of Homo sapiens out of Africa (as per the paper cited below).

Credits: Katerina Douka, Michelle O’Reilly, Michael D. Petraglia – On the origin of modern humans: Asian perspectives; Science 08 Dec 2017: Vol. 358, Issue 6368, DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9067 [1], CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons) with minor edits.

The most fascinating (in my humble opinion) inferences that can be drawn from stone tools, is that of human migration. Over the years, numerous theories have tried to explain when early humans migrated from the Dark Continent to occupy the other continents. Stone tools and their stages of development are used as a proxy for tracing migratory routes, and dating the arrival and establishment of early settlements. Modern humans evolved around 200,000 years ago in Africa, and dispersed from there to other parts of the world like Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Migrants may have taken several different routes at different times - all of which are hotly debated. Among the routes proposed is the Southern Route migration from East Africa to the Near East, across the Red Sea, and around Arabia and the Persian Plateau to India, and then finally with modern humans settling in Asia and Australasia. India's location is a key piece of this puzzle. With poor fossil records, stone tools serve as a proxy to establishing timelines, especially, if they provide tantalizing geological records. The Dhaba site, along the Son river in Madhya Pradesh, has yielded two distinct stone 'technologies', sandwiching a layer of volcanic ash. The ash was traced to a cataclysmic eruption of Toba in north Sumatra, that erupted ~74,000 years ago, or ~74 ka (ka represents a thousand years ago. The Toba crater today, lies at a distance of 3,000 kilometres (~1864 miles), as the crow flies - imagine the sheer intensity of the supervolcano all those millennia ago, to have left distinct layers of ash at Dhaba?

Situated in the caldera of a supervolcano lies the serene lake Toba, in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Image credit: David Mark from Pixabay.

Sediment samples collected from the river-bank layers above and below the stone-based tools were subjected to infrared stimulated luminescence (IRSL) - a technique that can detect when volcanic minerals like potassium-rich feldspar or quartz were last exposed to sunlight or heat, thereby, ‘reflecting’ the age of the soil layers. The IRSL signatures of the samples ranged from roughly 26 ka to 79 ka indicating that modern, tool-using humans arrived in India before 80 ka and survived the Toba eruption (as stone tools were found beneath and above the layer of ash!) The Feb 2020 study that brought these findings to light, also cites other research on genetic and fossil records to corroborate these timelines and concludes that modern human dispersal out of Africa, and more specifically east of Arabia, must have taken place before 65 ka. Mitochondrial DNA of contemporary populations in India indicates that the country was an important stepping stone in the colonisation of Australasia. Dhaba is a unique locality in South Asia with tool usage that spans the Middle Paleolithic through to the microlithic (9,000-4,000 BCE in India). In addition, the Dhaba site bridges the archaeological evidence from Africa, Arabia, and the earliest artefacts from Australia and weaves a more cohesive narrative of modern human dispersal. For a more detailed version of how Dhaba's stone tools serve to trace human migrations, read my blog on Geobites:

Similarly, the discovery of stone tools dating back 38.5 ka (Middle Paleolithic) at Attirampakkam, has prompted us to ask further questions of the early human migration out of Africa.

While new discoveries and a better understanding of ancient stone tools may help us challenge existing theories, it is important to understand that human migration may not have been a linear process - and that multiple waves of migration, settlement, extermination, and re-establishment would have played a role in how modern humans settled the world.


(Left) Archaeological finds from Vembakkottai-Archaeological-Mound, Tamil Nadu

(Right) Jars unearthed at Dima Hasao, Assam.

Across the country, archaeological sites continue to be unearthed. It will take years, if not decades, to unravel their secrets. Here are some of the sites it would be worth keeping an eye on in the years to come:

Vidarbha region, Maharashtra: artefacts like beads, iron implements, and potsherds have been unearthed at numerous sites along the Poorna river dating back to the Iron Age. Some sites have been under excavation since the 1960s, yet the painstaking work involved and the incredible artefacts discovered mean the Vidarbha region still holds many secrets.

Vijaykarisalkulam village, Vembakottai, Tamil Nadu: discovered in 1985 by an archaeology enthusiast, the excavations at Vembakottai only began in March 2022. The site has yielded some Sangam-era (circa 600 BCE - c. 300 CE) artefacts indicating that this was an Iron Age or late Chola period settlement. The Sangam era for Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and parts of Sri Lanka, mark when classical, written Tamil literature began - signalling the end of the prehistoric era.

Dima Hasao province, Assam: In 2020, archaeologists from universities in Meghalaya and Nagaland, along with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) discovered 797 jars - some over 10 feet tall, and 6.5 feet wide. The purpose of these jars is being hotly debated, made more intriguing by similar discoveries in Indonesia and Laos. As these jars were found in just a small area, the promise of what the adjacent plots hold and when exactly we'd be able to figure out what the jars were used for, offer intriguing possibilities for archaeology students in India.



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