The credit for the rediscovery of Indian pre-history goes to Dr. Primrose, an Englishman, who was the first person to discover pre-historic implements (stone knives and arrowheads) in 1842 at a place called Lingsugur in the Raichur district of Karnataka. However, John Evans was first to publish an account of worked flints discovered on the bed of the Narmada River near Jabalpur in 1853.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Colonel Meadows Taylor published many excavation reports of megalithic burials in Hyderabad. Another person who enriched our knowledge about Indian pre-history was Robert Bruce Foote who, although a geologist by profession, discovered a large number of prehistoric sites in South India and collected Stone Age artefacts in 1930, M.C. Burkitt published an account of the collection from the Krishna basin and in 1935 H. de Terra and T.T. Paterson studied the glacial sequence of Kashmir and Punjab and related their findings to the pre-historic stone industries of Punjab, the Narmada valley and Tamil Nadu.
These early efforts could not place India on the pre-historic map of the world. It was Sir Mortimer Wheeler whose efforts resulted in our knowledge of the entire pre-historic culture sequence of India; putting India firmly on the world map of pre-history the efforts of the 1940s resulted in the publication of Stuart Piggott’s Prehistoric India in 1950. Since then, the explorations and excavations done have resulted in the identification and establishment of culture sequences more firmly.
The earliest evidence regarding the development of man in India is found in Pliocene deposits in the Siwaliks. This is known as Ramapithecus which is a type of early hominid. However, no fossils of early man have been found in the entire subcontinent, but their presence is indicated by stone tools dated around 250,000 BC. Some stone artefacts reported from Bori in Maharashtra are said to belong to a period as early as 1.4 million years ago.
In 1983, at Riwat, near Rawalpindi, a group of artefacts was found in a Siwalik deposit, which was subsequently dated by the Paleomagnetic method to 1.9 million years. Some stone artefacts were found in the Indian Siwaliks which have been dated to 2.5 million years. Despite such discoveries no fossils of either hominids or humans have been discovered so far. But, it is generally agreed that man settled in India later than in Africa even though the stone tool industry largely evolved in a similar fashion.
In archaeological terms, the ability to create a culture differentiates man from early hominids and the ability to make stone tools is a cultural act. And this is the reason why stone artefacts form the basis of early evolution. This is also because all recognizable stone artefacts are the product of highly developed craft traditions with far ranging socio-economic implications. The classification of early human cultures is thus based on the types of tools they made and used.
Based on the ‘tool-making’ traditions, the entire Stone Age culture has been divided into three main stages i.e. Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. The Palaeolithic stage has again been divided into Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic stages which is primarily based on tool typology and technology and generally on a relative chronology provided by geological stratigraphy. The tools of the Lower Palaeolithic age include mainly hand-axes, cleavers, choppers and chopping tools.
The Middle Palaeolithic tools are based mainly upon flake industries and the Upper Palaeolithic is characterized by burins and scrapers. Age wise, the Lower Palaeolithic is extended upto 100,000 years ago, Middle Palaeolithic upto 40,000 years ago and Upper Palaeolithic upto 10,000 BC.
The Mesolithic culture is basically characterized by the reduction in the size of well-established tool types. Sandwiched between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic, the Mesolithic culture is known to be the transitional phase presupposing the advent of Neolithism.
Although, major changes began to appear around 10,000 BC, the Mesolithic proper seems to have started between 9000 BC and 8000 BC and continued at certain places till 4000 BC. Thus there seems to be an overlap, so far as the Mesolithic and Neolithic stages are concerned. The earliest Neolithic site in India is dated to 7000 BC at Mehrgarh. However, regular Neolithic attributes are found from 5000 BC onwards. In South India Neolithic settlements appeared around 2500 BC.
The principal features of Neolithic cultures are: crop cultivation, animal husbandry and settled life. The first two came into existence in the last phase of Mesolithic period. Beginning from 7000 BC, the Neolithic culture continued upto 1000 BC at certain places.
All the above culture phases were basically lithic cultures. However, the Neolithic people at certain point of time started making potteries. On this basis Neolithic culture has been divided into aceramic Neolithic and ceramic Neolithic. At certain Neolithic levels we get the evidence of use of metal (copper being the earliest metal).
Such levels are termed as Chalcolithic levels. Some Chalcolithic cultures are contemporary to Harappan and some to pre-Harappan cultures but most of the Chalcolithic cultures are post-Harappan. Such cultures mostly used stone and copper implements. However, the Harappa’s used bronze i.e. alloy of copper and tin, on such a scale that Harappan culture is known by a distinct name, the bronze age. The Chalcolithic age at many continued till 700 BC.
Sometime around 1200 BC use of iron seems to have begun in the Chalcolithic level itself. The use of iron subsequently revolutionized the culture making process and by 800 BC a distinct iron age came into existence. The above discussion should not give the idea that at one point of time only one culture type existed.
From Mesolithic culture onwards, all the culture types co-existed and interacted with each other. Thus, by 1000 BC we have evidence of the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Iron Age existing simultaneously in India. Sometimes even the Mesolithic level of subsistence pattern could be located.
In the Indian context, tools belonging to both Middle and Upper Palaeolithic phases are found in the Deccan Plateau dating between 40,000 BC and 1500 BC.