Read this article to learn about the pre-historic and proto-historic periods of India.

Pre-history and Proto-history are terms which according to Prof. M. C. Burkitt are misnomers, for as he observes, there is no period before history begins.

Long unknown vista of human history cannot be bound by term like Pre-history or Proto-history, and what we have been able to know of man before history begins, is only a fraction of the unknown vast to admit of any such nomenclature.

However, these terms have come to stay in the vocabulary of history and historical writings. These have come to represent something which almost everybody understands.


Prof. Stuart Piggott remarks that the distinction between history and pre-history in India is a peculiarly elusive one. The reasons for his remark are, while the Pre-history of Western Asiatic countries like Mesopotamia, Egypt etc. ended immediately after 3000 B. C. when records of dynasties, King-lists came to be written which can be inter­preted to form the outline of a fairly reliable chronology in terms of years before the Christian era, in India although writing was known in the third millennium B.C. as is evident from the Indus seals these have not yet been deciphered to help us in preparing an outline of a reliable chronology in terms of years.

Further, there is a big gap between the 3rd millennium B. C. and 650 B. C. during which no written historical materials have been found. As Dr. Smith says, Definite chronological history begins about 650 B. C. for northern India, absolutely certain and precise date of the beginning of the historical period of India, however, is 326 B.C. the date of Alexander’s invasion.

Pre-Historic Period:

All the same, like the Pre-Historic period of Europe, India had also passed through Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages.

Palaeolithic Age:

According to Prof. Basham, India like Europe of the Pie-historic age had passed through Ice Ages. After the second Ice Age, a hundred thousand years before Christ, men left traces of their stone tools, dis­covered in the bed of the river Soan or Sohan in the Punjab. These were Palaeolithic Stone, rough, blunt and crude. The stone used was quartzite, hence the Palaeolithic men in India were known as Quartzite men.


Not only in the north but in the South India also, stone imple­ments of the same period, of the Sohan men, have been discovered which the archaeologists call ‘Madras Industry’. In the Gangetic valley similar Old Stone Age implements have been discovered.

From the rough, crude stone tools used by the people of the Palaeolithic period, i.e., Old Stone Age, we can at best form a vague, general idea of their life and living. Palaeolithic man was a hunter and food gatherer and lived in very small communities with no fixed homes. They were nomads, although a few might have made huts of shrubs and leaves.

In course of time they learnt to produce fire, protect their body against cold by use of tree-barks, leaves or animal skins and domesticated the dogs. They had no idea of agriculture. Their food was flesh of animals and birds they would hunt or fruits and vegetables they would gather. They were then food-gatherers. From modern point of view, the Palaeolithic men were savages not far removed from animals.

However, it was on their culture and civilisation that further improvements were made down the ages and we have reached our civilisation today. About the people of the Palaeolithic Age of India, it is suggested that they belonged to negrito race and were of dark complexion, woolly hair, flat nose and of short stature.


About the culture of the Palaeolithic men we must remember that a sparsely populated world without any systematic communica­tion, every region developed of its own and thousands of years must have passed before some very simple improvement in shaping a stone could be made. Naturally the pace of development in different regions was not the same.

Further, the only evidences available to us are the imperishable stone materials. These are not a fair index of the cultural progress or cultural pattern. It is also difficult to deter­mine whether the hand-axes found in Madras and in Abbeville on the river Somme in Europe, although almost of the same workmanship belonged to the same period of time.

The Palaeolithic people of India, as all over the world, lived in this age for many thousands of years. But their knowledge and skill were imperceptibly improving through the ages.

Mesolithic Age:

With the progress of time, the Palaeolithic man acquired greater knowledge and skill in mastering the forces of nature. Prof. Gordon Childe says that man developed an aggressive attitude to his environ- meat and gradually entered into the Neolithic i.e., New Stone Age. But midway between the Old Stone and the New Stone Age, scholars speak of a Mesolithic Period which was characterised by the making and use of small stone implements, instead of quartzite.

Chelcedony and Silicate varieties of stone were used. Archaeologists regard this mesolithic phase as one in which men lived by hunting and fishing with the help of implements of bones and flint, the latter being of minute size. Fish hooks made of bones and flint, pottery etc. were in use in that age. The small delicate stone implements, made during this age were called microliths i.e., small stones. Microliths appear to have been in use even during the Neolithic Age in the Deccan and did not go altogether out of use till iron replaced them.

Neolithic Age:

The chief characteristic that distinguishes men from animals is their ability to think and move from progress to more progress. As time passed, men naturally acquired more knowledge than what they possessed during the Mesolithic phase and gradually entered into the Neolithic culture. The development was gradual and down through ages, but the pace of progress is difficult to estimate.

The tools and implements of the Neolithic Age were very different from those of the preceding ages, i.e., the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. The people of this age used stones other than quartzite and the tools and implements they made were far better grooved, ground and polished.

For different types of work, they had different types of highly finished tools and these can be very easily distinguished from the rough, crude tools of the Palaeolithic Age. As the name Neolithic denotes, it was the New Stone Age, metals except gold being then unknown.

The tools and implements left by the Neolithic people of India have been found all over India. A stone factory of the time has been discovered in the Bellary district of Madras where traces of the various stages of the making of the tools and implements can be still seen.

The life and living of the Neolithic men showed a distinct advance from those of the previous ages. Agriculture became known to them, domestication of animals like ox, goat etc., production of fire by friction of bamboos or pieces of wood or flint, making of painted pottery were all known, to them. They lived in caves, decorated their frails by painting scenes of hunting, dancing etc. They knew spinning and weaving, as also making of boats.

Some tombs of the Neolithic men which have been discovered show that they used to bury their dead in large earthen urn. There were also tombs with stone-slab roof on stone pillars.

The period of thousands and thousands of years covered by the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages is called Prehistoric. Whether the Neolithic people were descendants of the Palaeolithic predecessors is not known for certain.

Chalcolithic Culture:

Although scholars are not unanimous in regarding the Palaeolithic men as the ancestors of the Neolithic men, there is a general agreement that the Neolithic men were the predecessors of the next stage of men who knew the use of metals. However, the transition from use of stone to the use of metals is slow and long-drawn.

There is no doubt that there was an overlapping period when both stone and metals, were used. This is proved by the close resemblance of metallic tools and implements with those made of stone. It must, however, be remembered that use of metals in different parts of India was not uniform. While in Northern India copper was the metal that came to be used after stone, in Southern India iron replaced stone without the intermediate stage of use of copper.

Bronze which is an alloy made of copper and tin was in use in India simultaneously. The Chalcolithic age of India was a period of copper-bronze. Bronze implements of India have been found along with those of copper. Thus in India there was no separate Bronze Age as we find in some of the countries of Europe.

It was centuries later that iron appeared as a substitute of copper or bronze in Northern India. The Chalcolithic, Copper-Bronze Age of India produced a splendid civilisation in the Indus Valley which spread in the neighbouring regions.

Iran Age:

In different parts of India there was no systematic succession of stone by copper-bronze or copper-bronze by iron. In Southern India use of iron came after the use of stone. In any case there were periods of overlapping in the use of stone, copper, bronze, and iron.

Our only evidence of the transition from copper-bronze age to the Iron Age is the monuments like dolmens, cairns, cromolechs etc. These have been found in wide areas all over India, such as Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Central India, Gujarat and Kashmir. But by far the largest number has been found in south India, in Karnataka and the Deccan. These iron monuments appear to have belonged to both pre-historic and historic periods.

Some of these monuments have been found at Ranchi which are supposed to have been the work of the Asuras, that is, the ancient predecessors of the present day Mundas. But these were found along with polished stone tools, wheel-made pottery, copper and bronze materials. It is, therefore, impossible to determine the date of the beginning of Iron Age in this area.

Monuments discovered in Hyderabad, Mysore, Tinnevelly district, Coimbatore, Malabar, Penumbur etc. also show varied stages of development. Neolithic, Microlithic tools along with copper, bronze and iron implements have been discovered, making it difficult to identify the actual period of transition from copper-bronze age to the Iron Age. At this stage of our limited knowledge, no definite conclu­sion in this regard can be arrived at.

Proto-Historic Period:

Proto-historic period is the age nearest to the historical period. In so far as India is concerned the civilisation of the Vedic period is the proto-historic period. The hymns composed by the Vedic priests had perfected a poetic technique. These hymns were praise of their gods and were sung at sacrifices. These were not reduced to writing but were handed down by words of mouth.

Even when the art of writing was widely known to the Indians, hymns were not committed to writing. The period of the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, says Prof. Basham, “is a sort of a transition from prehistory to history”. Naturally it falls in the proto-historic period of Indian history that is nearest to the historical period. But as Prof. Basham points out, If history, as distinct from archaeology, is the study of the human past from written sources, then Indian history begins with the Aryans. The Rig Veda and the great body of oral religious literature which follow it in the first half of the first millennium B.C. belong to the Hindu tradition. The Vedic hymns are still recited at weddings and funerals, and in the daily devotion of the brahman. Thus they are part of historical India, and do not belong to her buried pre-historic past.

But it cannot be denied that the Vedic period is not within the really historic period of India, for it is only the matter of religion about which we are fully informed. About other matters or events we have only indirect and vague references. Thus the Vedic Age of Indian history has to be regarded as the period immediately preceding the historical period; hence it belongs to the proto-historic period of India, a period which marks the transition from pre-historic to historic period of the Indian History.