The Stone Age in India: History, Culture & Tools

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before there were metal tools, human societies used stone to interact with the world. In this lesson, we'll explore India's Stone Age and see how human cultures changed over this long period of time.

India's Stone Age

The Indian subcontinent has been a constant source of fascination for archeologists. It is relatively close to Africa, as well as to East Asia. Trade routes run easily from India to the Middle East, and by extension Europe. India has long been a crossroads of cultures, ideas, and people, and all of that is encoded in the archeological record, dating back to the Stone Age.

The Stone Age is the period of time defined by the use of stone tools by human and our hominin ancestors. We can divide this further into the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). In each of these periods, life in India grew and changed in different ways, setting the stages for advanced civilizations later to come.

The Paleolithic Before Homo Sapiens

The history of India's Paleolithic begins long ago, before Homo sapiens as a species actually evolved. How can human history begin before humans? It's because our genetic ancestors were also travelers, and some members of the species Homo erectus made it to India possibly up to a million years ago. Some of the best evidence we have of Homo erectus, however, comes from a bit later, around 100,000 years ago, when a group of these ancient wanderers camped at the Bhimbetka rock shelters in what is now the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Most Homo erectus tools belong to what we call the Acheulean technology. Acheulean stone tools were simple hand-axes, round stones that had been chipped into a semi-sharpened state. They're a bit less sophisticated than the stone tools used by Homo sapiens, but they represent an important step in humanity's evolution, and are found in India.

An Acheulean hand-axe
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Around 385,000 years ago, however, another technology appeared in India, known as the Levallois technique. This was more complex than Acheulean technology, and involved systematically removing flakes from a stone core. It was thought for a long time that the Levallois technique didn't leave Africa until around 300,000 years ago, so finding it in India so much earlier is pretty exciting. Of course, since there were no bones recovered along with these tools, we have no way of knowing which pre-homo sapiens species was responsible for importing it.

The Paleolithic in India with Homo Sapiens

Finally, humans as we know ourselves evolved and then everything changed. Humans spread out from Africa, likely in multiple waves at unknown dates, and began exploring the world. Genetic evidence suggests that the first modern humans entered India as early as 75,000 years ago, although the oldest archeological evidence comes from a site in Sri Lanka that is about 34,000 years old.

Paleolithic humans lived in an India that was pretty different than the one we know today. This was still the end of the Ice Age, and while glaciers weren't a big part of life in India, the global climate was cooler and the weather less predictable. These ancient humans used stone, bone, and wood tools to hunt and gather food, living in nomadic societies that traveled year-round.

Boar image at Bhimbetka
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However, they were human, and this means they appreciated art. At Bhimbetka, the same rock shelters were Homo erectus once lived, early humans in Paleolithic India camped and started adorning the walls with images of their world. The oldest drawings at the Bhimbetka rock shelters dates to about 30,000 years ago and depict bison, rhinoceroses, tigers, and other Ice-Age animals that ancient people would have encountered.

Mesolithic India

As the climate began to slowly change and the Ice Age came to an end, humans passed through a brief transitional period known as the Mesolithic. Mesolithic societies were still nomadic hunters and gathers who used stone tools, but we know a little more about them, thanks again to Bhimbetka.

At the Bhimbetka rock shelters, Mesolithic-age paintings become more thematically diverse. Not only do we see animals, but also more images of ancient people. Some are holding barbed spears and other ancient tools that were otherwise lost to time. We also see people carrying animals they hunted, we see children, and we even see pregnant women. Most of the people seem to be organized in some sort of ceremonial dance, which gives us a very rare glimpse into the religious and social lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.

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