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The Narmada fossil files

For researchers,Narmada Valley continues to yield evidence of early human life

Written by Adam Halliday | Published: September 2, 2012 2:42:45 am


When geologist Arun Sonakia accidentally discovered South Asia’s first ancient human remains at a place called Hathnora in the Narmada Valley one winter 30 years ago,the region came under the trowels and maps of archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists worldwide.

Three decades on,Indian and international scientists have turned up treasures that are slowly adding pieces to the puzzle—how and when did early humans come here,what were they like,and what other creatures did they share these lands with?

No other ancient fossil has been dug up yet,at least not one that can be definitively identified as a specific early human species,but scores of what appear to be stone tools used by these missing people have certainly begun to tell us more about them,as have the animal fossils,which range from bones of an almost complete Stegodon,the modern elephants’ extinct cousin,to ancient wild-dogs and wild-boars,cousins of the modern horse,hippopotamuses and ostrich eggshells.

The stone tools are as old as 800,000 years and as young as 10,000 years,spanning a large swathe of the stone-age. While some believe modern homo sapiens entered the Indian sub-continent from Africa through West Asia between 70,000 to 50,000 years ago,the archaeological site at Attirampakkam,near Chennai,is believed to be between 1.07 and 1.5 million years old and was possibly home to the pre-modern species,homo erectus.

So what happened in the hundreds of thousands of years that fall between these time-lines—who lived in the landmass between these regions,and was the Deccan region a passage from north to south?

As of now,archaeologists agree they need to dig deeper and wider in the Narmada Valley,and a team has been formed to do that,involving experts from the Stone Age Institute in the US,M S University in Vadodara,and Panjab University in Chandigarh and the Deccan College in Pune.

“In India,we do not know when modern human groups first arrived,how many dispersals there were and if they inter-bred with the pre-existing hominin groups in the region. We don’t even know if there were any other hominin species in India when modern humans arrived there. But it is also possible that within the last two million years,India was home to one or more unknown hominin species,fossils of which we have not yet discovered,” said Parth Chauhan,a researcher with the Stone Age Institute and Department of Anthropology (Indiana University) in Indiana, USA,who presented some recent findings at the IIT-Gandhinagar this week.

Chauhan was one of eight scientists to co-author a 2009 paper in the Journal of Human Evolution that listed a wide array of discoveries such as stone blades,flakes,choppers,hand-axes,picks,cleavers,micro-fossils and other fossil teeth and bones. Over two years of combing the Narmada Valley,the team found stone tools in ten places. Considering the mixed nature of archaeological and fossil material dated from the deposits,the team’s preliminary analysis suggests the “Narmada man” may be much younger than 250,000 years as earlier believed,maybe between 160,000 years and 50,000 years old.

Meanwhile,findings at another site called Dhansi,about three kilometres south of Hathnora and separated by the Narmada River,have been significant. No Acheulian elements have been found there so far,and whatever stone artifacts have been found there are simple flakes,cores and a chopper. These resemble those of Oldowan,the earliest of all stone tool technologies—existence of which has never been “properly proven” in South Asia. Based on the previously-dated age of the sediments here,the artifacts are at least 780,000 years old but require further scientific verification,the researchers say.

Until younger implements are found,the present lot seems to suggest non-modern humans indeed lived there as long as two million years back. Tentative archaeological evidence from northern Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s also suggests this.

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