Human existence on the Indian soil is known from about the Pleis­tocene or the last Ice Age which goes back to two million years.

Though we have not yet recovered a human skeleton of the early man, a paleolith or a stone tool used by the earliest Indian was discovered in 1863.

Since then large quantities of artifacts have been discovered in different parts of India.

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Today, we are not in a position to satisfactorily determine the size and distribution of demographic pattern and the pattern and sequence of ecological adaptations in that distant past. B.B. Lai is of the view that in comparison to Africa, India was settled at a later period. A comparative study of the African and Indian settle­ments and tool patterns indicates that the stone technology of the subcontinent passed through the same broad evolutionary stages as that of Africa.

Hand axe, cleaver, chopper, flake, side scraper, and burin were some of the Paleolithic tools made by the early inhabitants of India. These tools make us believe that their makers led a hunter-gatherer life on a subsistence pattern. It is very likely that the habitants of India of this period subsisted on animals such as ox, bison, nilgai, chinkara, gazelle, black buck, antelope, sambar, spotted deer, wild boar, tortoise and fish, honey and plant foods like roots, seeds, fruits and leaves. Their subsistence pattern of living and social life can be inferred from the rock paintings and carvings.

The general time-frame for Paleolithic cultures in India can be bracketed between 40,000 BC to 10,000 BC. The cultural sequences from 10,000 BC to the start of the proto-historic phase are again geographically divided and from roughly 5000 BC they can be subdivided from sporadic findings into specific ecological zones with typical use of tool-technologies and distributive patterns resulting in stratified assemblages.

The cave paintings at Bhimbetka located on the Vindhyan range are a good means to infer the pattern of life of the earliest inhabitants. These paintings also reveal that they lived in small bands or groups, moving like nomads hunting and gathering food. We notice that as the climate and temperature became warm and dry, there were changes in fauna and flora, as also the pattern of life.


The tools they made became small. This phase, called Mesolithic is said to have started around 8,000 BC. In this phase, man in India lived by hunting, fishing and fowling. Rock paintings reflect the ecological and material changes that took place during this age.

We also come across both Paleolithic tools, like scraper, burin and choppers along with microliths ranging from one to eight cms like the blade, core, point, triangle, lunate and trapeze. In this phase, people led a life of subsistence. Their diet included meat and vegetables. Rock paintings found in sites like Bhimbetka, Adamgarh, Pratapagarh and Miijapur reflect the ecological and material changes.

Another factor of significance is that besides animals known to them, they painted what interested them – childbirth, child-rearing, burial ceremonies and sexual union. These evidences prove that by this time, social organization was taking stable shape and their religious beliefs started taking shape, influenced by ecological and material changes.

Further, the wide distri­bution and location of Mesolithic sites in different parts of India clearly indicate that they exploited varied environments such as sparsely wooded territories, sandy areas, and Vindhyan and Kaimur sandstone ranges, riverbanks and seacoasts. This suggests that they were adept in adapting themselves to changing ecological and material conditions, due to the need of the times.


B.K. Thapar is of the view that the climatic changes and the shifting of floral and faunal bound­aries that occurred at the end of the Pleistocene period are not related to the origin of agriculture in the following stage of the Neolithic phase. For him, “The environment and the exploitative technology, combined with adaptability, were largely responsible for the transition from the food gathering to the food producing economy”.

Sir John Lubbock, in Prehistoric Times (1865) coined the term Neolithic. Sir John used the term Neolithic to describe an age where the lithic artefacts were more skillfully made, more varied in form and were polished. Later V. Gordon Childe explained the Neolithic-Chalcolothic culture as a revolution that heralded a self-sufficient food producing economy.

Miles Burkitt described the practice of agriculture, domestication of animals, grinding and polishing of stone tools and the manufacture of pottery as the character­istics of the Neolithic age. In recent times, the term is used to denote a pre-metal age where there was an assured supply of food by producing cereals and domestication of animals, and where people led a settled life.

In spite of these changes, the most essential characteristics of Neolithic culture are the ground stone tools. Domestication of plants and animals led to other features like the emergence of village societies based on settled life, the beginnings of agricultural techniques, and man’s control over nature and exploitation of natural resources for the sustenance of life.

The beginning of agricultural technology throughout the world was not uniform. It is suggested that the domestication of animals and plants by human beings began approximately in the Nile valley in 12,500 BC, in Western Asia from 8500 BC onwards, in Baluchistan from 6000 BC, in Belan valley in U.P. between 5440-4530 BC and in South India between 2500-1500 BC. It is to be noticed that while in some place cultivation of cereals preceded domestication of animals and plants, in some other areas domestication of animals and plants was followed by agricul­tural operations.

Thus, prehistoric Indian society also evolved from hunting-gathering stage to food producing or a rudimentary agricultural society. An animated debate is going on in India regarding the stimuli for the beginning of the food producing society.

While Sankalia and Alchin attribute it to Western Asian or Iranian impact, A.V. Schchetenko, a Russian archaeologist, holds the view that the Chalcolithic culture of India is purely indigenous in origin and development. Contradicting the above two views, Wilhelm G. Solheim II and Saway opine that South-East Asia provided the necessary stimulus. I.K. Sarma, while accepting the above view with certain reservation, thinks that it cannot be established specifically.

Further, I.K. Sarma is of the view that in the very process of evolution of man from the era of transition, from food collection to food producing, there were two distinct movements. The first group, who used ground stone axe, of central, eastern and peninsular India cleared forests, occupied rock shelters, caves and open sides in river valleys and hilly areas started the incipient cultivation.

The second group of pastoralists who were by nature sedentary with herding of cattle as their main occupation, started incipient shifting cultivation besides food collection. From this observation, a hypothesis may be postulated that a long period of herding activity appears to have preceded the beginning of farming as we notice ash mounds in remote forest areas as well as near the settle­ments.

We may agree with Shereen Ratnagar’s opinion, “there was no particular period in south Asia when hunters and gatherers took to agriculture and animal rearing. The Neolithic stage appeared in different regions at different times, in each case with a unique stone and ceramic technology and range of domesti­cation”.

Shereen Ratnagar’s statement that not all Neolithic economies were based on species locally domesticated is also a valid explanation that needs to be noted. As noticed by Pande, Narain and Dikshit, the Neolithic cultures in the Jhelum valley and in the Garo and north Chachar hills exhibit a frontier character, with artefactual links with cultures outside the subcontinent.

In Orissa, we observe the mingling of traditions from the Indian north-east and the Deccan plateau. Until the detailed stratigraphical levels with artefacts are recorded of all sites and detailed accounts of the role of the fauna or flora of the economy are available, nothing conclusive can be said about the regional distri­bution of the Neolithic society of the subcontinent.

One more aspect to be noticed is that the flaked stone technology of the late hunter-gatherers persisted in the subcontinent not only among Neolithic and early farming cultures, but also in the Bronze Age, in the cities of the Indus valley.

The archaeologist’s spade has brought to light neolithic cultures in all the below regions; in the Kashmir Valley of Northern region, the Vindhyan region, covering the Belan Valley and the Vindhyan plateau in the districts of Allahabad, Mirjapur, Rewa and Sidhhi in the mid-eastern region, covering the northern Bihar district of Saran, the north-eastern region covering Assam and adjacent sub-Himalayan regions, the central eastern region comprising Bengal, Bihar and Orissa complex, covering the Chota Nagpur plateau and the southern region, covering Peninsular India.

B.K. Thapar writes, “it must be admitted that except for the Belan Valley, none of the other five regions have the details of the transition from the stage of food-gathering to that of food producing and primary or settled village farming ‘be worked out”. As such, our understanding of the origins and early spread of farming in India is still fragmentary.