Mesolithic period in human cultural history is defined as the earliest Holocene culture that occurs before agriculture was started. Microlithic blades detached by pressure flaking from cylindrical cores are used to make tool types. We have some evidences, albeit from outside India, that these blades were mounted in combination on suitable handles to form various kinds of tools which could be used.
Agriculture does not begin everywhere at the same time and hence Mesolithic period also expands or shrinks in a country depending on how late or early agriculture begins. Microliths normally range from 1 cm to 6 cm in length and since they are detached by pressure flaking, technique they can seldom be more than 1.5 cm in breadth.
Of course these measurements are given only to form an idea about the general size of the tools found from this period. Since microliths show a basic principle of shedding mass drastically, it is not illogical to believe that missiles might have resulted as a logical end of this technology. Thus, the invention of bows and arrows is usually attributed to this phase. We have many prehistoric caves painting as well, to prove this point.
In India, microliths occur from the earliest period of Holocene and continue to occur almost with Iron Age. In isolated pockets even contemporary simple societies, on specific occasions, are known to be using the same microliths prepared by same technique. There are instances where Second World War bottles, when chances into tribal areas, are known to have been used to prepare microliths.
It is, therefore, not difficult to imagine how complex it can be for a theoretician to define and isolate Mesolithic cultural stage for India. One of the general views held for the evolution of microliths is that what is known as ‘fishing and fowling’ must have replaced the cultures adapted to large mammal hunting.
But along with this, grass seeds in the wild must have been collected in available and suitable exposed patches within the decreasing forest covers. There are numerous examples of these purely hunter and gatherer groups continuing with change in their economy when a fissioned group from within the large band has chosen to settle down into Neolithic villages.
In order to understand these purely pre-agricultural stages of culture, it will be important to look at the actual sites discovered till date. It is important, at this juncture, to remember that microliths in terms of technomorphology are a logical derivative of the Upper Palaeolithic, and hence are perfectly suited as a successor of the same in Europe.
In India, in the absence of widespread evidence of Upper Palaeolithic, most of the microliths had been traced as having entered from the west in the past. In the light of recent discoveries from India it would seem that a microlithic typology evolving out of our Middle Palaeolithic is not difficult to visualize.
Further, the sites lying west of India in Pakistan also do not seem to be as prolific in Upper Palaeolithic as to support a diffusionistic theory. Jamal Garhi near Peshawar, Kalat and Quetta areas near Rawalpindi and Tharro hills in Sind have yielded some microliths but by no means enough to show that this area could act as a corridor from Europe into India.
Proceeding from this area one faces the Thar Desert as one enters India. Tilwara in western Rajasthan is the westernmost Mesolithic site of India and lies almost at the fringe of the desert in Barmer district. V. N. Misra excavated the site in 1971 and reported two distinct phases. Of these the earlier phase would appear to be more clearly a Mesolithic settlement.
The younger phase yields bits of iron, Glass beads and several wheel-made potteries. Circular arrangements of stones on the ground indicate habitation structures. Fire hearts, charred bones and other habitational debris clearly indicate a late desert settlement of Mesolithic culture. Trapeze, lunates, points besides numerous parallel-sided blades and fluted cores form the industry.
Bagor, discovered and excavated by Misra in 1967 seems to show a farther extension of the same cultural pattern. It is a prominent sand dune on the river Kothari (a tributary of Banas) near the town of Bhilwara. A deposit of 1.5 mt was excavated and within it three distinct cultural phases could be identified.
Of these the earliest, i.e., phase I occupies a depth upto 50-80 cm. It shows profusion of animal remains and microliths. Phase I had a radio-carbon bracket of 5000-2800 B.C. Phase II (2800-600 B.C.) yields copper tools and pottery in addition to the microliths. Phase III (600 B.C. -200 A.D.) yields some iron implements besides several wheel-made pot-sherds.
The Mesolithic phase at Bagor has yielded very rich cultural material, including stone paved habitational floors, numerous bones of wild species and human burials besides some tiny pieces of hand-made pot-sherds. The lithic repertoire at Bagor is perhaps one of the richest in the world.
Several thousand microliths have been recovered from this level and these are perhaps the tiniest of microliths so far known from India. Majority of these measure between 2 cm to 1.5 cm, and there are quite a few which are even smaller-measuring between 1 cm to 0.5 cm.
The types finished on them are:
(i) Thin blades with flat retouchings
(ii) Blunted back blades
(iii) Obliquely truncated blades
(iv) Obliquely truncated with lateral backing
(v) Triangles which mainly include scalene
(vii) Broad trapezoids or transverse arrow heads
(viii) Crescents and
(ix) Points of blades.
Flake types such as scrapers or burins are totally absent in this industry. Likewise, the crest guiding blades which otherwise are quite common in most of the known microlithic industries in India are also conspicuously absent in Bagor. The faunal discovery also is very revealing. Out of the total faunal recovery at Bagor, 72 percent comes from Phase I and then there is a sharp decline.
In Phase II only 19 percent of the total fauna occurs, and in Phase III only 3 percent of the total fauna occurs. The animals identified are claimed to indicate almost 80 percent domesticated species and include sheep/goat, buffalo, humped cattle, pig, black buck, chinkara, chital, sambhar, hare, fox and mongoose. These even include some aquatic fauna like tortoise and fish.
In all, five burials form the other interesting feature of the site. Of these one burial is attributed to the Phase I occupational culture, three burial to Phase II and one to Phase III occupation. The Mesolithic burial was laid in extended position with the lower left arm resting over the body.
The head was oriented towards the west. The burials in the subsequent phases show a complete change. The bodies are laid in flexed position (arms and legs folded like in a sleeping position) with the head oriented towards the east. Unlike in Phase I these burials contain large number of grave goods like earthen vessels, ornaments, metal objects and animal food.
The famous hollow based copper arrow heads, with a pair of holes driven through the barbs, also come as grave goods. In the sequel it must be said that Bagor occupation cannot be visualized in isolation. It must have been repeatedly occupied until as late as the medieval period; otherwise it would not have earned the local name of Mahasati mound.
The Mesolithic occupation, however, shows clearly a hunting emphasis which may have also maintained a suitable number of semi-domesticated animals in the area. The occurrence of stone paving on habitational floor would show an almost sedentary nature of the occupation.
In Mehsana district of Gujarat, only a few hundred kilometers south of Bagor, occur several consolidated sand dunes along the western bank of the river Sabarmati; Sankalia recorded many microlithic sites and excavated Akhaj, Valasana, Hirpur and Langhnaj. Later, Subbarao has listed more than 80 such sites extending as far south as almost the northern border of Maharashtra.
Langhnaj among these has received maximum attention. Several seasons of excavation conducted till 1963 were able to cover about 12,800 square feet and go upto a depth of 8 feet. Sankalia initially identified two main layers, the top 3 feet is dark brown in colour while the lower layer is light brown and merges with a kankary deposit which is full of lime nodules.
Three distinct cultural phases were identified. Of these the earliest phase, Phase I, produced microliths and burials besides animal bones and some crude pot-sherds in addition to the microliths. A tanged iron arrow head, a stone bead and some fragments of stone querns are the other cultural materials from this phase.
There is only one radiocarbon date available for both Phase I and II and it is estimated as 2040 ± 110 B.C. A large amount of microliths were collected from the excavation but more than 90 percent of these are waste material, cores and chips. Even parallel-sided blades form only 4.67 percent.
The finished types are -blunted back blades, lunates, serrated blades, trapezes, scrapers, borers, notched flakes and burins. Associated with the microliths occurs a soft haematite piece with smooth rubbed surfaces, a rhinoceros shoulder blade with marks of striations and several hammer stones.
14 human skeletons have been found buried in a flexed position. In some cases legs were folded backwards and tied before internment. The repeated finding of cut on the forehead led some experts to believe that they were probably cannibals. Various species identified from the faunal recovery are wild boar, nilgai, many species of deer, black buck, cattle, buffalo, rhinoceros, and some burrowing forms.
The radiocarbon date of 2000 B.C. for a hunting- gathering community within 100-200 km distance from a full blown Harappan settlement makes Langhnaj a very clear indicator of the fact that these communities might have survived with their primitive economy while being in symbiotic relationship with the neighbouring urban cultures. Honey and hunted meat along with the hide might have been much sought after in the urban communities.
It is surprising how the hunters did not trade their produce for metal tools but may have got cereals only in exchange. Perhaps this explains the presence of some of the fragmented food processing pieces like grinder etc. at Langhnaj.
The morals for archaeologists from Langhnaj are many fold but not demonstrative. But as anthropologists it will be wrong for us not to take cognizance of them:
(i) Langhnaj proves that the cut and dried cultural chronologies that we are fond of constructing can be seriously misleading; i.e. Harappa should occur after the whole range of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic are altogether over. But in reality we find a pure Mesolithic occurring with the Harappans.
(ii) Metals, their extraction and processing were held with either utter secrecy or were tied with a network of symbolic belief structure which made their trading beyond consideration.
(iii) A simple hunting-gathering society in the neighbourhood of a rising urban civilization is not only an important requirement but can often play a determining role. A logical extension of this argument will be that it is very important for urban civilization to keep the neighbouring simple economies from evolving into cultures based on more efficient economy.
(iv) A hunter-gatherer has his own symbolic world to fall back upon to explain his own technology until a time he is capable of organizing a larger group of individuals in order to internalize the need of intensifying his economy. The need of a technological evolution occurs at this point.
The evidence from all the three phases (the last one with iron) of Langhnaj and Bagor leaves no doubt that such a transformation had never occurred among these dune dwellers of western India.
The area which includes Madhya Pradesh along with its extension in Uttar Pradesh provides another region of Mesolithic occupation of considerable importance in India. Here, unlike the Western Zone, there are many instances of Mesolithic occupations occurring vertically above Palaeolithic habitations.
These provide an insight into the fact that the hunting niche is not substantially changed from the Palaeolithic phase. May be now only selected species were intensively exploited. But, here again, the faunal evidences are not very helpful in identifying these species. Probably sheep/goat comes closest to being numerically abundant on a very general estimate.
At this site there are many rock-shelters which yield microliths in the floor and paintings on the walls and the ceilings. At III F-23 the microlithic horizon starts with a rich geometric industry (if a microlithic occurrence contains triangles and trapezes it is considered geometric and is believed to be younger than the non-geometric industries) but does not contain any pot sherds.
The next group contains painted wheel made pottery and copper objects and hence cannot be considered Mesolithic. The microlithic horizon is believed to be roughly at 5000 B.C. date and contains a number of human burials as well. The burials are extremely fragmented and show medium range characters unlike those at Bagor. It is important to note that at Bhimbetka the shift of raw material to chalcedony occurs first in the Mesolithic level.
The microliths are much larger in size and it is quite usual to get 3-4 cm long slender lunates besides numerous fluted cores and parallel-sided blades. There is a suggestion that during this period possibly there was an attempt of building a screen or wall by piling stones upto a height of about 3 feet near the mouth of the cave towards the side wall.
At these rock-shelters and immediately outside some shelters nearly 18 trenches were dug. Microliths have been uncovered in almost all of them within first 150 cm. The top 20-60 cm of course is usually sterile and constitutes of rock debris and soil. Lower layers yield Palaeoliths of a large variety of types.
What is interesting about the Adamgarh microliths is that they are constantly associated with pottery fragments and rich animal remains. At least 14 different animal species have been identified of which dog; buffalo, sheep/goat and pig are declared as being domesticated. The two radio-carbon dates available from this layer are 895 ± 105 B.C. and 5500 ± 130 B.C.
Both these dates are incongruous if we have to accept Adamgarh microliths as representing an early Neolithic economy. In terms of tool types identified we have blades, lunates, obliquely blunted knives along with triangles and trapezes. But we also have such flake types as side scrapers, borers, points and occasionally burins prepared on exhausted cores. Although more crudely finished than Langhnaj, chrono-culturally, Adamgarh would seem to fit with this Gujarat group rather than being the earliest Neolithic of this zone.
Sarai Nahar Rai Group:
Mirzapur district forms the last Vindhyan limits before one proceeds further north to enter the Gangetic valley. Several rock-shelters with paintings, presumably attributable to the Mesolithic culture, have been recorded here from as early as the end of the last century. Some of these rock shelters and adjoining alluvial sites have been discovered in the early part of this century and are today well known in all books of Indian archaeology. We might briefly introduce the names here.
Morhana Pahar is a rock shelter and is around 70 km south west of the town of Mirzapur. A small scale excavation yielded more than one layer of occupation. Microliths form the most predominant antiquity in both these layers. In the younger layer, however, pot-sherds are also known to accompany. The usual types described are lunate, point, trapeze and burins.
Baghai khor is situated in the Morhana Pahar region of Mirzapur district. The excavation yielded microliths with pot-sherds.
Lekhania is a rock shelter which has yielded rich prehistoric antiquities both within as also in the adjoining the rock shelters. The picture of the Mesolithic here is not much different. Microliths of both geometric and non-geometric varieties occur in association of pot-sherds. In addition to these bone tools, beeds and a broken ring stone form some additional important finds.
Chopani Mando is an open air alluvial site on the river Belan and is about 70 km south-east of Allahabad. Here 3 different phases of Mesolithic is described. These are named Early Mesolithic (A), Early Mesolithic (B) and Advanced Mesolithic or proto-Neolithic. The usual tool types recorded in these three phases do not differ in any significant manner.
Side scrapers, burins, points, borers, backed blades, retouched blades and other microlithic types like Lunates, trapezes and triangles form the usual spectrum. In Early Mesolithic (B) these are accompanied with burnt clay bumps, animal bones, hammer stones, anvils and sling balls. On the floor of this phase four circular hut foundations are also described.
Ghagharia Rock-Shelter I:
This is a rock-shelter a little south of the above cluster of sites. It is in the district of Sidhi located on the Kaimur ranges facing the river Son. The ceiling and walls of the rock-shelter contain paintings which broadly compare with the central zone Mesolithic paintings.
Dam dama is in Pratapgarh district of U.P., not very far away from another important occurrence at Mahadaha. A number of successive phases Eire exposed in the excavation and these have been taken to demonstrate a slow rise of Mesolithic culture in this zone. From different layers of the site a good number of burials as well as skeletal remains were found.
Besides large quantity of microliths, burnt clay lumps, charred animal bones and hearths are recorded from the principle phase. The microliths are described as ‘pre-pottery’ and ‘geometric’. The main types described are blade fragments, cores, backed blades, truncated blades, scalene and isosceles triangles, trapezoid, trapeze, lunate, percoir (borer), drill, arrow head, side-and end scrapers.
In addition to these several bone objects are also recorded from this phase. These include pendants, bangles and fragments. Besides these querns, mullers, anvils and other stone fragments are also recorded. A large number of charred and semi-charred bones have been identified as belonging to cattle, goat, stag, deer etc.
In the Allahabad-Pratapgarh region several horse-shoe lakes seem to have been created during the early post- Pleistocene period. Apparently the region is formed by the early alluvial spread of the Ganga and the various streams from south which meet the Ganga. The largest site amongst them is called Sarai Nahar Rai. It is estimated that the habitation at the site extends over 2000 sq mt.
This seems to be a single occupation site similar to Mahadaha and Dam Dama found in the contiguous region. The excavation uncovered a living floor of 5 × 4 mt with four post-holes on the four corners. The floor is made of burnt clay lumps and has several fire hearths- some with charred bones near them. Faunal types identified include sheep/ goat, buffalo, cattle, elephant and tortoise.
Many amongst these are also suspected to be of domesticated type. 13 human burials in extended form with head towards the west form one of the most important features of this excavation. In one of these a microlith was found pierced in the rib. A total number of 168 microliths are reported but all of these are not found in association with the habitational debris. Instead, most of these are collected from the surface.
The types identified and their relative frequencies are as follows:
Blade – 27.97
Triangle – 11.90
Lunate – 16.67
Burin – 4.17
Piercer – 5.36
Utilized flake – 2.98
Point – 17.86
Trapeze – 4.17
Crescent – 2.39
Borer – 1.78
Arrow head – 4.76
Although there is some problem about the types and their identification, there should be no doubt that here we are dealing with a geometric industry which also maintains several flake tool types.
In association with the burials occurs a pot which is round, ill-fired and coil structured. There are a series of radiocarbon dated available and most of them being on uncharred bones could not be very reliable. The oldest of them is 10,345 + 110 B.P. which make it 8395 B.C.
On the basis of some of the younger dated being more consistent Agrawal claims that the site should be more logically 1000 B.C. only. It is true that the cultural indictors would seem to put the early Holocene as improbable but at the same time a 1000 B.C. date (which incidentally almost marks the period of the arrival of iron in the Gangetic plain) would also seem to be pushing it too far.
The area covering most of southern Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal, otherwise identified by us as Chhotanagpur region, has thousands of reported as also so far unreported microlithic occurrences, None of these has any excavation report except from Kuchai in Orissa and Birbhanpur in West Bengal.
Most of these microliths are fairly large in size and are occasionally prepared on black chlorite stone or even fossil wood. Geometric forms are either absent or rare in most of the cases and constitute blades, lunates or points along with burins or side-and end-scrapers on fluted cores and flakes.
At Kuchai, a microlithic horizon without any ceramics was reported from the levels below a Neolithic horizon and both these are not very far from areas rich in Lower Palaeoliths as well. In Burdhwan, Bankura and Purulia microliths have often been found in association with Black-and-Red ware pottery, ring stones or at times even iron slag.
Birbhanpur is a site near Durgapur railway station and is situated on the middle terrace of the river Damodar. It was excavated by B.B. Lal in 1957. Over the basal decayed sandstone is a thick layer of mottled silty sand which is believed to be caused by the in situ weathering of the underlying rock. This is capped by lateritic gravel. Microliths occur on the top of this layer.
This is further covered by about 60 cm of sandy earth of light brown colour. Geomorphological studies were done of these soil layers and on the basis of them it was argued that the lateritic gravel bed perhaps marks the last of the wet spasm during the close of Pleistocene. Thus, it was argued that the implementiferous layer was caused during the increasing aridity of the early Holocene.
Some post-holes were also claimed to have been discovered but no hearth, bones or human burials could be found. Typologically the Birbhanpur industry seems more archaic as big flake and blade tools dominate it. Almost 40 percent of the total industry is composed of scrapers, borers and burins taken together. Lunates form the main microlithic type and triangles and trapezes are conspicuous by their absence.
One of the biggest concentrations of microlithic occurrence from this zone is known from Karnataka. Just between Krishna and Bhima rivers in Shorapur Doab alone 25 microlithic sites are reported by Paddayya. Tools recovered and analysed from these sites are more than 10 thousand in number. These microliths are extremely slender and long.
Mostly these are flat with hair-thin lateral retouchings. Those with triangular section are often retouched abruptly and compare well with the micro-gravette points of Epi-Palaeolithic of Europe. Crescents, borers and burins are the other usual types. Triangles and trapezes are either totally absent or insignificantly known.
Sangankallu in Bellary district has been known as a famous prehistoric site since the beginning of this century. Subbarao excavated this site in 1949. In 1965-66 Sankalia undertook a small-scale fresh excavation on the foot of the hill. Since the Neolithic in this region is dated around 2500 B.C., the microlithic group is estimated around 3500 B.C. These microliths from the pre-Neolithic layers are essentially composed of flakes, both utilized and retouched. Blades are surprisingly not reported at all from this layer although there are many lunates identified.
A group of 11 sites of microlithic clusters occurs along the fossilized sand dunes in the Tinnevelly district of Tamil Nadu. These are usually referred to as Teri sites. It is believed that older transgressions of the sea had caused the formation of these sand dunes.
It is argued by Zeuner that the sea used to have a height of more than 7 metres than the present sea level during the early Holocene and during the succeeding regression dunes at three respective levels were created nearly as far as 10 km inland from the present day coast. One of the transgression beaches has also been dated by radiometric technique to nearly 5000 B.C.
Microlithic occupation took place once these dunes were in the process of consolidation. Microliths from this area were first recovered by Foote. Subsequently Aiyappan made a substantial collection from one of these sites called Sawyepuram. Finally Zeuner made a detailed report of these sites.
The industry is prepared on chalcedony, quartz and fossil wood and shows one of the most primitive features in typological sense. Disc or discoid cores, flakes shaped into various kinds of points, side scrapers, thumb nail scrapers and borers, besides burins form the majority of the industry.
Lunates prepared on flakes and points and arrowheads prepared by bifacial pressure flaking are some of the other significant features of this site. Microlithic types include lunates, backed blades and pen knives besides numerous blades and fluted cores.
It has been argued that the Teri industry shows closeness to Sri Lanka microliths in several significant features-specially in the tradition of preparing bifacially pressure flaked points. The Bandarawela factory site in Sri Lanka in this regard is specially mentioned.
It can be seen from the above that a pure microlithic survey of India would seem to indicate a widespread tradition of this lithic technology. It is a different matter whether all these can be counted to form a picture of Mesolithic India or not. A true Mesolithic phase in India is clearly demonstrable in Central and Western zone besides at Teri but each one of them has its own individuality.
With increase of aridity, forest covers opened up and grass-land expanded in certain areas (Birbhanpur, Teri, Sarai-Nahar Rai) and here the adaptation strategies show quite different direction of development. In contrast to Langhnaj, on the one hand, at Bagor and Tilwara one can see the examples of quite specialized variety of adaptation.
Adamgarh and Bhimbetka might be as late as Langhnaj but emphasis on animal domestication in this region cannot go entirely unnoticed. In all probability South India had an entirely independent development of microliths and hence forming its own regional characteristics.
Numerous rock paintings studied from this period show the emphasis of fishing, honey collecting, net trapping and similar small-game-based economy. Inter-group warfare is empirically demonstrated in the Sarai-Nahar-Rai skeleton but rock paintings also, in some instances, show the factor of human aggression having evolved during this phase.
Wild seed collection and partial sedentism seem to be also indirectly indicative from the various archaeological evidences from some of these sites. In short, a stage was almost being set for man to enter into the settled and productive economy.
Mesolithic and Neolithic are fairly overlapping in both typological as also chronological sense. Nos. 1-3 is Mesolithic and 4-6 are Neolithic.