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Central Indian Acheulian Sites: In Conversation with Dr Sheila Mishra

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Dr Sheila Mishra talks to Dr Jose Tom Rapheal about the Acheulian sites in India and how the findings from these sites help us understand the evolution of human beings.


Dr Sheila Mishra is a retired professor of geoarchaeology and the Head of Department of the Department of Archaeology, Deccan College, Pune, with about 30 years of experience in working in the field of Acheulian Studies in India. She has contributed a number of research articles in this field.


Dr Jose Rapheal: What are the significance of Acheulian sites in understanding the early human in India?


Dr Sheila Mishra: In studying Indian prehistory, which is before history, we use archaeology to find out about the past, and archaeology is material objects--things you can touch. It was more than 150 years ago when scientists, geologists, palaeontologists, came to the conclusion that there are some stones which are actually ancient tools. This recognition that there are stone tools that represent some part of a human past that kind of got accepted around 1858. There was a big meeting in France and the Geological Survey of India was founded in the same year. They had all these officers and one of them was Robert Bruce Foote. He immediately, in his explorations in Tamil Nadu, recognised some of these stones. This was through the whole recognition of stone tools in India, it was not very far beyond, behind the recognition of similar things in Europe.


Robert Bruce Foote found these stone tools in quaternary sediments in Tamil Nadu only a few years after the beginning of the Geological Survey of India. I think it was two or three years ago, we celebrated 150 years of that discovery. Bruce Foote immediately correlated them to what was found in Europe and this was called Acheulian, after the site where this whole thing was accepted in France.


Robert Bruce Foote carried out explorations throughout his career in India and even after retirement he continued to work. He actually divided the prehistoric period between two phases: Palaeolithic and Neolithic. These were just like two periods for him and the Palaeolithic was considered to be Acheulian. Right from the beginning of the study of stone tools on a global scale, India was part of this. And this was the Acheulian.


Now what is the significance of Acheulian in India? For a long time, it is just kind of alright, it is like Europe. But in the last fifty years it has been found out that Acheulian in Europe is much later than the Acheulian in Africa. The people working in Africa were always hesitant about whether it is really the same thing as Acheulian in Europe. I think it is actually around 1980s only that there was some dating of Acheulian in Africa. They were quite zapped and surprised to find that the Acheulian in Africa is as old as 1.6-1.8 million, i.e. 18 lakh years old, which is the oldest.


Surprisingly, in Europe the oldest was in northern Europe where all this actually came together, it was only around 400-500 thousand years, means only around 4-5 lakh years old. You have an enormous time gap between Acheulian in Europe and Acheulian in Africa. People really were thinking that they are the same thing. They didn’t think that they had such a big difference in age. They thought that the differences between the Acheulian in Europe and the Acheulian in Africa was just because they were different places. But the dating showed it was different times.


Now the question was whether Indian Acheulian is like Africa or is it like Europe? It is definitely like Africa. We have introduced a new kind of terminology which we call ‘large flake Acheulian’. It has really got very little similarity with European Acheulian. I did not really want to drop the Acheulian from it (European Acheulian period) because I do think it has evolved from the Indian and African Acheulian. I do think it is connected. But there are major differences. There is actually very little in common.


This Acheulian in India have much less dating than Africa and Europe. We have maybe half a dozen sites which have any dating at all. This makes it more surprising and more interesting that even with just this very few dates, one of the dates from this side of Attirampakkam, which is in fact one of the initially discovered sites. The first site was Palavaram discovered by Robert Bruce Foote and the second one Attirampakkam discovered just after a few months (may be a month or some days later).  


This site has been dated to as early as Africa. They have about a 10-metre sequence of getting these artefacts at Attirampakkam and the dates are actually ranging from those older to Africa. Actually their oldest dates are older than the oldest dates in Africa. Youngest ones are younger and the average is younger.


Then there are a number of other sites like all the sites which have actually been studied with paleo-magnetism, they all show reversal which means that they are all more than 800 thousand years old.


And I think that probably the Acheulian in India really spans the lower Pleistocene. And when we come to middle Pleistocene which is the boundary between the middle and lower Pleistocene is around 8 lakhs, around 800 thousand years, we are already getting to the end of the Acheulian. I think by 500 thousand years Acheulian is over in India.


To come back to your question about the significance. India is one of the areas where this Acheulian is present throughout the lower Pleistocene. We have very few fossils, very few fossil hominid remains, and the one that we have is not really associated with Acheulian, it is probably later. So, with which hominid this entire phase is associated?


I have argued in an article that it must be Homo erectus. This comes to another, one of the basic things, one of the kind of tool kit which you have as an archaeologist. As an archaeologist we are looking at survival of very little evidence. How do you interpret when you have no evidence? The famous Vedic said, ‘when is absence of evidence, evidence for absence?' Well, the answer to that is never.


You can only interpret or make some confusion from something, that you do have. But the thing is that the things you do have are 100% proof of something that you do not have. You do not actually need the entire tiger to say that there is a tiger. One small hair of the tiger is enough because that hair cannot exist without the tiger. I am using that kind of a reasoning to say that there is an association with the Homo erectus and Acheulian.


Now the thing is in Java, they have more than 400 fossils of Homo erectus and they keep finding more. And every time I meet some Indonesian archaeologist, they say, ‘Oh! You have not found any fossils yet’. But we have not. We have been looking for more than 150 years. So, you might find one but I would not put my research problem on that because it is going to be quite tough, there must be some reason why we are not finding them.


On the other hand, the Indonesian colleagues, they have almost no artefacts with the Homo erectus. In fact, one Australian archaeologist even wrote a paper that maybe Homo erectus in Java was bereft of tools. I think that this has to do with what survives and what doesn’t survive.


The thing is that the Homo erectus in Java is associated with animals; fossils of animals which are most closely related to the Indian Shivalik fauna. And there is a difference between the Indian fauna and the Chinese fauna. These animals associated with Homo erectus did not get there from China, they got there from India. It just makes sense that the type of human associated with the Indian fauna in Java is the type of human that was in India. I think it is inescapable that Homo erectus reached Java from India. So, even if we never even in future get homo erectus in India in future, I have no doubt that homo erectus made the Acheulian tools in India.


If Homo erectus made Acheulian tools in India, then where did this whole thing originate? When we come to Africa, we get much earlier tools, lots of fossils but in all the sites, in east Africa, South Africa and North Africa, there is the appearance of Homo erectus which they are calling Homo ergaster. And Acheulian technology, they happen at the same time and they happen everywhere at once. They overlap with the pre-existing fossil humans and artefacts.


What is that? That is the evidence that this transition did not happen in Africa. And if it did not happen in Africa, then where else could it happen? I think it happened in India but there is a possibility, maybe it happened in Java. So Java and India really have to be considered as one when we are looking at the lower Pleistocene.


The fauna, so what we see in the Java record is it is a kind of filtered migration like all the animals in India could not reach there. Java actually didn’t exist before the lower Pleistocene. That was ocean. They have the marine sediments and then they get the terrestrial sediments and in the very first one, the animal they get is Stegodon and some giant tortoise related to the Shivalik ones. There is no Homo erectus.


But after this, the next, almost one of the first ones after elephants and tortoise which can both swim very well is Homo erectus. Then you get different kind of deer, you get tigers, but you do not get horse. All the animals that were in India could not get there, some of them got there. Then afterwards, there begins to develop some differences between the animals in Java and the ones in India, that means now there is a kind of evolution going on separately, there is no longer an interconnection.


This connection is because the South China sea is a very shallow sea. And at periods of lower sea level, in fact only 15 or 20 metres lower sea level, you can walk from India to Java. If it is a bit lower than that, then you have something they call Sundaland, which is the whole exposed continental shelf of the South China sea. That is equal in size to the entire Indian subcontinent. I feel that there is a kind of buffering, like this whole southeast Asia is a kind of buffering to Indian subcontinent because the lower sea level, this land becomes available when the climate is arid during the ice age. The arid climate would be, maybe unfavourable in India.


The point is we have a lot of absent evidence; a lot of evidence is missing. We never know that something is really missing or we just do not find it or it didn’t survive. The thing is that the things that do survive, what do they imply about what’s missing? So we can never say anything. If we do not have evidence, we cannot say anything about it, we cannot have any scientific academic discussion about it. But the things that we do find, like Homo erectus in Java, it cannot be explained that none of the fauna on Java originated in Java, it came from somewhere. We had evidence that the fauna on Java came from India.


Now though we do not have Homo erectus in India, I think that is a very good actual evidence that exists that Homo erectus lived in India. In Java they have no idea what kind of technology Homo erectus had. They had very little evidence of stone tools but I think it is also quite a good inference that Homo erectus in Java must have made the similar kind of stone tools as was found in India. And there are like there is one site in Java that does have some similar type of tools. The site of Nebang which has cleavers.


Anyway when we come back to India, comparing India with Africa and India with Europe, the Acheulian in India has a similar age to that in Africa and the Acheulian in Europe is much younger. Acheulian in Africa is also associated with Homo erectus. Now did Homo erectus and Acheulian evolve in India or in Africa? Right now, everybody thinks it is Africa but that I think is mainly because they do not know about the evidence in India. It’s just not taken into consideration.


Anyway I have already made my point about what I think, I do think it happened in India and I think eventually people will agree with me. I am not going to beat people over the high head. You think about it, and if you agree, I think it’s inescapable the conclusion.


The other thing is what is the importance of this Homo erectus and Acheulian? This is one of the landmarks in human evolution. It is the first evidence that we have outside of Africa relating to this time period. There is an earlier stage of human evolution which is related to a genus called Australopithecus. The reason that Australopithecus is probably related to us is that they were bipedal. This bipedalism, it is not very common among mammals. It is actually unique to humans. Any fossil form that we have that was bipedal must have been very closely related to us. The Australopithecus, although it is bipedal, it does not really have a much larger brain than the present day apes. And tool making is only confined to one part, so you have Australopithecus in South Africa and East Africa, but tools associated with Australopithecus or during the time when Australopithecus fossils are being found is only found in East Africa. The species of Australopithecus in East Africa and South Africa are always different even though they belong to the same genus.


The thing that people have got confused is like somewhere just around this transition which happens in Africa. Like Homo erectus appears in Africa with Acheulian at 1.8 million and that is when you start to get evidence outside of Africa also. But a lot of it is not Homo erectus and it is not Acheulian.


I think that there were probably many populations of different species of the genus Australopithecus all throughout not only Africa but also in Eurasia. They are kind of invisible to us because they were not making stone tools. Present day apes, they do a lot of tool making but very few of the tools are stone. I would call the Australopithecines kind of bipedal ape which were making tools. Tool is part of the ape repertoire, it is not unique to Homo. All of the Australopithecines were making tools but only one group in East Africa was making stone tools. The archaeological record only starts with that.


But the thing is that the brain is a very expensive organ. It consumes 25% of what we eat goes to just feeding the brain. We have a large brain. Anthropologists and people who study this have actually found out that in fact apes do not have large brains, they have big bodies, they cannot have a big body and a big brain. Chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, they all spend 7-8 hours eating and you cannot spend more than that time eating. They are eating raw food, fruits, this, that, but they cannot actually get more energy. They have the largest brain that is possible to have with their body size in a wild diet, completely like eating wild foods. Even then they do process some of it like the chimpanzees use those sticks to get termites and so on but they are not using a lot of technology for acquiring the food but even then all their tool using is related to getting food.


The conclusion is that this Homo erectus has a much larger body and it is the beginning of the increase of brain. This particular step from Australopithecus to Homo required a different food source. There are so many theories like meat eating could have been important. There is another theory called grandmothering. There is the fire cooking. People have talked about hunting by running, endurance running. All of these things, there is thermal regulation, there is all of these different things that have been used as the thing which allowed this better diet.


Now what I have been saying for the last maybe ten years, five years, I do not know, is the really unique thing about Acheulian human carried the tools. When people talk about how Acheulian is more advanced than Oldowan, they always talk about shaping, that they had some tool design in mind but actually this earliest Acheulian does not have a lot of shaping, the tools are extremely simple. The really unique thing is that when we come to Acheulian, we never get the whole sequence of making tools. Whereas in the Oldowan which is associated with Australopithecus, you get everything. Archaeologists are so happy because they dig a 5 x 5 meter trench, you get the raw material, you get all the flakes, you get the cores, everything is in that 5 meter area. They say, oh wonderful, our site has not been disturbed by geological processes! It is a primary site. It is so wonderful, it is pristine! Then they go to the Acheulian and they say ‘Ugh’, the cores are missing, the flakes are missing, we just have these big tools, oh, everything has been messed up, this site is so bad, it’s a secondary site.


Even I was going on like this for 20 to 30 years of my 40 years in Acheulian. Then one day I said, look, how is it all the Acheulian sites are like this, all the Oldowan sites are like this; all the Acheulian sites are like this, not a single Acheulian site is good, all of them are spoilt by some process. No, maybe it is not like that. I think we call it fragmented chaine operatoire. Chaine Operatoire is like the sequence of making the tools though tool is made by breaking something. Say the raw material, you prepare it in a way that you can get the thing that you want. Then you have your tool.


What I think the archaeological record shows is that the Oldowans, they did carry stuff, they did select good raw material but they were limited to carrying in their hands. Which is why you get everything in a five meter area. Everything fits. If you have 25 flake scars removed from a stone, then there are about 25 in the trench. There are things missing, you have got all that, all that works together.


The Acheulian people, Homo erectus made the tools, used the tools and discarded the tools in different places. If you actually excavate any place or collect from one place, you never get everything. You get only some of it. Every site that’s a million years old or even a site that is a few hundred years old or a few thousand years old, it has been affected by so many processes. You have to understand that. It is not a binary thing, that primary and secondary. Every site has a different story and you have to understand it. But this is part of the human behaviour.


Now this is what I was saying, this fragmented chaine operatoire versus completed chaine operatoire. This is the difference, fundamental difference, related to a significant change in human behaviour between Australopithecus and Homo erectus.


Now how and why were they carrying this? I think the archaeology, shows that they carried those tools. Did they carry them in their hand? I do not think they carried them in their hand. They had some way of carrying it, however it was. Did they just have a skin that they wrapped it up and put it on their head, whatever they had? Did they make something out of bark? Did they have baskets? Who knows? But they definitely carried them and they definitely had some technology to make it possible to carry it. Now did they invent that technology to carry the hand axe? No, I do not think so. The hand axe is a consequence of having the bag. It didn’t produce. It wasn’t the motivation to have the bag.


What’s a bag for? It is to collect things. So what would this Homo erectus be doing? I think that the Acheulian technology implies foraging. Using technology for a vegetarian diet. Usually collecting things is not animals, collecting things is vegetables. The more nutritious parts of vegetables are being collected and this could make a better diet. This transition from Australopithecus to Homo is reflected in that technology. It is related to using technology to improve the vegetarian diet, not the non-vegetarian diet. Animals eating meat is, it is a high density caloric-rich, a nutritional-rich thing. But if they had to eat it raw, even meat might not have been so attractive. So probably cooking is a part of it, collecting is definitely a part of it and all kinds of other food processing like pounding and just eating only the nutritious part, like only the seed or only the nut, not eating the whole leaves and that other stuff.


This is probably what has led to the lifting of the constraint on the brain size and the body size. And this is why Homo erectus and Acheulian is so important.