Once people believed that technology was needed for survival in extreme environments, so stone age humans could not possibly have settled in Ladakh. Since the late 19th century travelers have documented petroglyphs found along the steep banks of the Sindhu (Indus river) in Ladakh. Over a century, a library of images was slowly built up, and art historical methods were used to analyze these rock paintings. But because of the prevailing belief in the impossibility of prehistoric humans surviving in this harsh environment, no archaeologist turned their attention to this region for a hundred years.
Due to this long lack of interest in the pre-history of this region, I was quite surprised to find a field near Alchi village full of rocks with petroglyphs. It is easy to find for tourists like me because a blue signboard proclaims “Alchi Petroglyphs” on the left of the road after you leave the highway to drive to Alchi. I was startled, and decided to stop here on the way back. I was glad I did, because that opened up a new window on human history for me.
In the last 35 years or so archaeologists have started to explore ancient human signs in this place, near the roof of the world. Humans began to explore this territory as the earth emerged out of the last ice age. Datings of ancient hearth fires found near Leh were carried out by the group at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan geology in Dehradun. They found that the remains come from 4700 BCE, almost 7000 years before our time. So humans were settled in Ladakh even before rice and wheat had been domesticated! Another group of archaeologists, from Deccan College in Pune, determined that the settlements in Ladakh were older than those in Kashmir. This could suggest a human migration down the Indus river from the east, although new evidence is constantly coming in now.
We walked through the boulder field of petroglyphs. Many were relatively modern, containing writing in the Tibetan script, and bearing images of stupas (see the photo below). But among them were older paintings. Ibex, identifiable by the curved horns on a goat-like body were the easiest to find. In some places these boulders also had later Tibetan symbols painted on them. In other places the images were more enigmatic. For example, I stopped to take the photo above because the line of dots along the lower edge of was clearly the work of humans like us. Only then did I notice the other lines which seem to indicate a human figure (or three?).
Even the oldest paintings are not done on undressed stone. In all cases, the natural surface of the stone has been chipped away and the underlying layer has been polished before any paint is applied. I found a few boulders which were prepared in this way but showed no signs of paintings. Were there paintings on them once which had been washed away by the weather? Ladakh has been a dry desert for at least 5000 years, so this is not very likely. Still, who can really say anything about one or two chance occurrences over several thousand years?
Now that I’ve found one field of petroglyphs, I’ve begun to find more literature on them. I can begin to mark these neolithic sites on a Google map, ready for my next trip to Ladakh.