Lucy and diamonds in the mud

The ancestors of humans may have lived in rain-forests or grasslands, deserts or river valleys, but much of our knowledge of our own deep history comes from a relatively few fossils, a large fraction of which are on display in the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. This was one place that The Family and I were determined not to miss. We’d left it till the last day of our stay, but we kept aside the whole morning for it. There’s a lot to see, and it does take a while.

Our understanding of human evolution can change when new fossils are found. But what we do know now is that about 7 million years ago the climate became drier, and the dense forests of Africa broke into a patchwork of grassland and forest. In this new and cooler earth, East African primates diverged from their ancestors and became bipedal. Early hominins included the genus Australopithecus. The near-complete skeleton of a specimen called Lucy stands in the outer hall of human evolution. This is a little older than 3 million years. It is amazing to see that they are small, just over a meter in height. At half the height of modern humans, it is not hard to believe the explanatory material which says that they were “prey as much as hunter”.

About 2.3 to 2 million years ago genus Homo seems to have become common, at least if one is to go by the fossils found in and around Lake Turkana. The skull of Homo rudolfensis (photo above) was found by Richard Leaky. It has a largish skull, with a brain volume of 750 milliliters. I thought the face looked a little primitive, so I was surprised to find that the brain was among the largest of its time.

In a case next to it was a skull of Homo habilis (photo above). This looked more like a human’s I thought, but its brain was smaller (about 650 milliliters). The skull was found by Louis Leaky in the 1960s, roughly ten years before Richard Leaky’s find. There was quite a crowd in this side gallery where these more modern pre-human remains are on display. Both these species were tool users; it seems that the technology of stone tools in older than Homo sapiens.

The star of the show is the near-complete skeleton of the Turkana Boy (aka “Nariokotome Boy”, photo above) found in 1984 by Richard Leaky. This is a skeleton of an 11 year old boy of the species Homo erectus, which had died 1.4 million years ago. To my untrained eye the spine looked like it belonged to something that walked on two feet, but apparently it is not so clear at all. There were years of controversy before experts began to agree. Homo erectus, with a brain of about 900 millilitres (a photo of a skull is below) , seems to have evolved about 1.8 million years ago, and could walk, run, and throw accurately.

Another thing that experts seem to agree on today is that H. erectus created the technology of the symmetrical and well-shaped “hand-axes” that you see in the featured photo (these are called Acheulian tools, and have been recovered from across East Africa and Asia) and traveled out of Africa into Asia, A million years later, the African population evolved into Homo sapiens, built better tools, and migrated out of Africa again to eventually take over the world. Many details remain unsettled, but this big outline has lasted for about 30 years as more fossils are discovered across Asia and Africa.

The landscape of Malwa

The lush monsoon-watered landscape of Malwa unfolded before us as we traveled from Dhar to Mandu. This road was familiar to us from eight years ago. We came to a halt near a park-full of fibreglass dinosaurs. The area around the museum of fossils had been converted to a children’s park. There was a wall around it, and several food stalls. Quite a change from the emptiness I’d remembered. As I approached a turnstile, a young man appeared and said “Five rupees for entry and another twenty five for the camera.” The museum was locked, but a lot of people were taking selfies against the dramatic background.

The Malwa landscape is mostly flat, as you can see in the photo below. This is one place on the Malwa plateau where the landscape indulges in a bit of drama. A little stream has cut a deep gorge into the plateau, showing that this is part of the Deccan traps. You can see the characteristic layer-cake appearance of the gorge, created by a few lakh years of volcanism (that’s a few hundred thousand years) which killed off the dinosaurs and created some of the fossils which you can see in the museum. The layers are formed by clay trapped between successive flows of lava. Above the basalt you can see the last 65 million years of strata.

If the land is old, human civilization here is also old, as humans go. Archaeology has yielded up Paleolithic hand axes, Microlithic arrowheads, and Chalcolithic tools, leading up to the recorded history of the immediately pre-Buddhist era. The earliest records talk of large cities and vast trading networks which connected the known world, bringing Central Asian and Greek pilgrims to this region of the world, and surely sending some questing abroad. It is easy to forget the depth of this history when you talk to the locals who cater to tourists. The farmers who till this monsoon-lush, but otherwise dry, landscape will hardly believe that slightly deeper tools could turn up the remnants of soil laid down in the time of Vikramaditya. Increase the length of the tool a little more, and you could be exposing the soil that Buddha’s contemporaries walked on. But that you would have to dig twenty feet to get to Paleolithic remains. Deep history is so deep.

Ancient Rock Art

The rock shelters of Bhimbetka are less than 50 Kms from Bhopal: an easy drive on a good road. In less than an hour we traveled from the city to this magical world. The paintings were discovered in 1957 by Vishnu Wakankar, a historian involved in studies of rock art in France and Spain, when he was beginning his work in India. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal and noticed rock formations similar to ones he had worked on abroad. He went there and discovered the paintings.

bhimbetkaWork is still going on in this area, but some of the shelters are open to the public. These are not closed caves with little openings. The picture on the right shows what they are: overhangs, some low, some high enough that we could stand upright. It rained quite heavily while we were there, and we could find shelter under some of the rocks, more or less like our prehistoric cousins would have. But the fact that the shelters are exposed also means that there has been more weathering here than in closed caves. In spite of this, many of the paintings are spectacular.

These shelters were inhabited till the medieval period. The earliest paintings are made with a single pigment, either red, which is the oldest, or white. Art from later times used multiple colours: yellows and greens appear. I wanted to know how old the earliest paintings are. There is no clear answer yet. Excavations have yielded stone tools, the oldest from the late Acheulian period. Some are in display in the museums in Bhopal. Acheulian tools in India were dated recently as more than 1 million years old. This is the deep Paleolithic, from long before Homo Sapiens arrived. However, the oldest paintings are thought to be more recent, and estimates quoted in plaques in Bhimbetka say they are probably from the Mesolithic period. That means they were painted by humans.

petroglyph

Near the entrance to the complex we saw this outline of a human hand. Apparently these are common in rock art, and it is believed that they were made by putting an actual hand on the rock face, and painting around it. I put my hand over it, the outline was substantially smaller. The Family compared her hand with it; it was smaller than hers. This fits with our understanding that early humans were relatively small compared to us. I have seen Ashoka’s stone inscriptions, the Rosetta stone, Hammurabi’s code etched on a stone. They are barely a few thousand years old. This connection of our hands was with another human who lived tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps even a good fraction of a hundred thousand years ago. The sense of deep time overwhelmed us for a while. Walking the streets of Rome, Patna and Xi’an, you are aware of the history of a couple of thousand years. The people who lived here would have been walking on ground familiar to other people tens of thousands of years before them!

holesinstone

We saw enigmatic holes in the rock face, like in the photo above. They are associated with rock paintings across the world and are called cupules. There are no experts on these. There is a consensus that they are deliberate, and that they are not functional, but served some artistic or symbolic need. They are older than rock paintings, and some people date them to a hundred thousand years before the paintings. Could this be the art of Homo Habilis, the art of an alien species?

We spent several hours at the site. Some caves were like zoos: full of wild animal figures, sometimes layers painted over previous layers. Elsewhere, you would come to an exposed rock face and see maybe a line of faded red colour, the whole painting would appear slowly to your eye as you stood and followed the faint lines. In some paintings, like in the boar in the featured photo, the pigment would be bright and eye-catching. We left, but we are not finished with Bhimbetka. We plan to return. And now that we have seen this, and read about rock paintings in India, we plan to explore many other sites across the country.