Bhimbetka Caves

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Bhimbetka Caves

Charvee Sharma , Silent narratives from the past "Daily Excelsior" 3/6/2018

Bhimbetka Caves .
"Daily Excelsior"

Bearing witness to the rise and fall of several civilisations and dynasties, conquered by the Mauryas and Guptas, absorbed by the vigour of the Mughals, paving way for an era of defiance by the rule of begums, marking a period of sensible statecraft; the Malwa region of India unravels a fresh perspective to primal culture and art.

Tucked away the Bundelkhand plateau region, the capital city of Bhopal sparkles with vivid imprints of a princely legacy speaking through ancient treasures of rock shelters, cave paintings, forts and mosques. Streamlined with aesthetically pleasing modern buildings, bordered by lavish gardens and lakes that dominate the city, Bhopal contains in its manifold many stories that have helped shape our present.

At a little strenuous drive of 45 km from the capital city, anarched gateway that opens to the sprawling caves of Bhimbetka provide a sneak-peak to the history of our distant past, the times when communication did not know the medium of language or written word. Resembling the ruins of an ancient fortress from a distance, the archaeological site of Bhimbetka caves is home to over two hundred rock shelters which contain several paintings depicting the earliest traces of human life.The quartzite rock formations of Bhimbetka have stood through the test of times and the vagaries of nature. With scarce corroboration with historical facts, the place owes its name to the epic of Mahabharata; it is believed that the Pandavaprince, Bhima along with histribe resided in these caves after their exile.

Walking through a painted shelter, one is confronted by distinct drawings, often superimposed over each other, one appears lucid and bright while the other remains largely a faded remnant. Extensive study of this site has demonstrated that the paintings portray several phases. From features depicting the life of primitive man where hunting and gathering remain key activities to pastoral lives with domesticated animals like buffalo, finally culminating to human figures, armies of soldiers equipped with spears and swords along with various religious symbols and figurines. Bhimbetka caves have significantly contribute in the depiction of history from the peripatetic ways of the early man to the beginning of agricultural settlements paving way for transitional advancements towards the flourishing and cultured civilization that we represent today.

Exploring the paintings which span the whole spectrum of time, sketching the journey of human life from the Stone Age and beyond into the period of documented history, can be an awe intriguing experience. The fact that paintings represent a continuum of time showcasing a varied progression of people who inhabited this region, is a remarkable feature for historians and archaeologists. The craggy cliffs opening up to the smooth curves amidst a myriad of hues and textures inside the rock shelters, offers an interesting insight to the study of earth’s history at this region.

Rock art forms an extremely crucial historic and scientific record of human occupation for any particular area. The UNESCO World Heritage site designation for Bhimbetka might not have been able to give leverage for attracting mainstream tourists and backpackers to Bhopal, but these rock caves have found an interesting connect to the archaeological site of Kakadu National Park, Australia.

For people of Aboriginal race, art has always been a distinctly important part of life, seen as an expression of identity to their culture and land. Bhimbetka, bearing a striking resemblance to the Bushmen caves of Kalahari Desert which have survived as a legacy of San people, the original inhabitants of South Africa,also speaks volumes of the rich heritage that lives in the stunning galleries of rock art.

A creation of the early man, the detailed panoramic depictions of Bhimbetka caves have proven to be a treasure for archaeological sciences by enabling our contemporary world to discern traces from prehistoric times. It is crucial to acknowledge that these caves were developed much before the first civilizations known to history, evolved and flourished.Deciphering the pictographs of Bhimbetka gives a careful inference to the kind of lives lived by our ancestors – their cognitive skills and creative abilities. When seen in full perspective, Bhimbetka caves constitute adocumented repository of knowledge of the prehistoric era – its predicaments and steady evolution.

An ancient luxury resort?

Tony Joseph, February 11, 2021: The Times of India

Perfect cup-like depressions made on the walls of a rock shelter in Bhimbetka.
From: Tony Joseph, February 11, 2021: The Times of India
Paintings on the wall of a rock shelter in Bhimbetka, perhaps a few thousand years old
From: Tony Joseph, February 11, 2021: The Times of India

In the light of researchers discovering fossils of one of the Earth’s oldest animals – 570 million years old – in Madhya Pradesh, a look at why this hilly region, Bhimbetka, 40 km from Bhopal, was so popular with our ancestors If you want to get as close as possible to the lives of the first modern humans in India, one of the best places to go to is Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district, about forty- five kilometres from the state capital, Bhopal. It is an enchanting place spread over seven hills and full of naturally occurring rock shelters that are perhaps more imposing and majestic than most man-made residences of the twenty-first century. There are perennial springs, creeks and streams filled with fish; plenty of fruits, tubers and roots; deer, boar and hare; and, of course, as many quartzite rocks as you need to make all the tools you want. Moreover, the elevation of the hills makes it possible for the residents to keep track of who is approaching them: food or predator, nilgai or leopard! In the world of early humans, this must have been the equivalent of a much sought-after luxury resort. Ever since it was first occupied some 100,000 years ago, it has never lain vacant for too long, and it is easy to imagine there having been a long waiting list to get in. A place so well liked that millennia after millennia, one or the other Homo species, including our own ancestors, the Homo sapiens, lived and hunted and painted and partied there. Yes, the rock shelters are full of 4paintings, including some that depict people dancing to drumbeats. The paintings are not well-dated, so it is quite likely that most of them, though not all, were made within the last few thousand years, rather than many tens of thousands of years ago. But there are a few petroglyphs, or rock carvings or markings, that could be the earliest evidence of art created by members of the Homo species anywhere in the world – a few perfect cupules (small cup- like depressions) with lines beside them. But do we know exactly when the first modern humans set foot in Bhimbetka or, for that matter, in India? The answer to that is a bit complex. First we need to define what we mean when we say ‘first modern humans in India’. The technical meaning of the phrase would be any individual belonging to the Homo sapiens species who set foot in India first. However, when we say ‘first modern humans in India’ we also often mean to say the earliest direct ancestors of people living in India today. It is important to know that there is a difference between the two.

For example, let us say the first Homo sapiens in India were a group of thirty people in Bhimbetka 80,000 years ago. Let us also say that some calamity – like the huge Toba supervolcanic eruption that occurred in Sumatra, Indonesia, 74,000 years ago and impacted the entire region from east Asia to east Africa – directly or indirectly killed off every one of this first group of modern humans, leaving behind no one to populate the subcontinent. (This is a hypothetical scenario. Recent research suggests the impact of the volcanic eruption on life in the region was not as severe as earlier understood.) Let us then imagine a second group of modern humans in Bhimbetka around 50,000 years ago, who successfully settle down and leave behind a lineage of people still found in India. Are we referring to the second group when we say the ‘first modern humans in India’? This may look like a matter of semantics and it is so, in a way, but it has meaningful implications for us when we interpret archaeological or other evidence to understand the history of early Indians.

If you ask Indian archaeologists when the first modern humans arrived in India, at least some of them are likely to put a date that is perhaps as early as 120,000 years ago. But if you ask a population geneticist, that is, a geneticist studying genetic variations within and between population groups, the answer is likely to be around 65,000 years or so ago. This seemingly irreconcilable difference between the two sciences is not necessarily contradictory. When geneticists talk about the first modern humans in India, they mean the first group of modern humans who have successfully left behind a lineage that is still around. But when archaeologists talk about the first modern humans in India, they are talking about the first group of modern humans who could have left behind archaeological evidence that can be examined today, irrespective of whether or not they have a surviving lineage. (Not all archaeologists agree with this distinction, though. ‘This idea of successful and failed dispersal is also under scrutiny,’ says the archaeologist Ravi Korisettar, adding, ‘All dispersal events are successful.’)

Did we really have to come from elsewhere?

But why do we assume that modern humans arrived in India from elsewhere at all? Why couldn’t they have originated right here? Until a few decades ago, this would have been considered a reasonable question, because the theory that modern humans evolved in different parts of the world separately, from archaic or extinct members of the Homo species such as Homo erectus that had spread out all over Eurasia by about 1.9 million years ago, was still prevalent – even though Charles Darwin had suggested the African origin of modern humans as early as in 1871. The theory was that the later intermingling of very differently evolved populations kept us together as one species, thus preventing us from branching off into different species in different continents.

But this theory has now gone into the dustbin and no serious scientist anywhere puts this forward as a possibility any more (though there may be some isolated holdouts especially in China which, till very recently at least, was wedded to the idea of indigenous, independent evolution of the Chinese people from archaic humans). The reasons why this theory went into disuse are both archaeological and genetic. The fossil record of Africa is rich with the remains of our closest relatives – Sahelanthropus tchadensis 7 million years ago, Ardipithecus ramidus 4 million years ago, Kenyanthropus platyops 3.5 million years ago, Homo habilis 2.4 million years ago and Homo heidelbergensis 700,000 to 200,000 years ago – and there is no other region in the world that comes anywhere close to it. But the clinching argument against multiple origins of humans on different continents is genetic. The DNA evidence has been conclusive that modern humans outside of Africa are all descendants of a single population of Out of Africa (OoA) migrants who moved into Asia sometime after 70,000 years ago and then spread around the world, perhaps replacing their genetic cousins such as Homo neanderthalensis along the way. All recent discoveries have gone on to reaffirm the African origins of all modern humans. As recently as in June 2017 came the news that an ancient skull from a cave in Jebel Irhoud, about fifty kilometres from the city of Safi in Morocco, has been classified as belonging to the Homo sapiens species and was dated to about 300,000 years ago.

Until the Jebel Irhoud fossil was dated and classified, the oldest discovered modern human fossils were two skullcaps dated to about 195,000 years ago, found at the archaeological site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia. So the Jebel Irhoud discovery takes back modern human origins by about 100,000 years and also removes any remaining doubt about where we came from. Though the skull from Jebel Irhoud looks quite like us in its facial traits, the back of the skull is elongated like that of archaic humans and it also has ‘very large’ teeth, suggesting that the modern human didn’t emerge suddenly and fully formed, but was a work in progress as early as 300,000 years ago.

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