Celebrating RUBY JUBILEE YEAR of a historic find
Subhash R. Walimbe
Former Faculty, Deccan College PGRI, Pune
December 5th, 1982 is indeed an unforgettable day for the Indian prehistory. On this momentous day, on the banks of the river Narmada at Hathnora village in Sehore district (nearly 35 kilometres east of Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh), team of scientists of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) led by Dr. Arun Sonakia stumbled upon what turned out to be the most exciting fossil discovery of a human-like ancestor. Prior to this extraordinary find, only stone tools used by the Homo erectus had been found, but not an actual fossil. The fossil find was first hard evidence of human evolution in this part of the continent. This changed many perceptions about Indian prehistory.
This fossil, commonly known as “Narmada Man” was recovered from the Pleistocene alluvium. The fossil find of a skull consists of a completely preserved right half of the skull cap with part of the left parietal attached. No facial bones are recovered. Along with the fossil find are tools of the Acheulian tradition comprising of stone artifacts like heavy hand axes, cleavers etc. There are also late middle Pleistocene faunal remains. First impression was that these remains belong possibly to an old male, though initially, palaeontologists thought it to be of a 25–30-year-old female. Fossil remains suggest these belong to a robust individual with an erect posture and a well-developed brain.
The general robusticity, the thick and projecting supra-orbital torus and its occipital protuberance are akin to the classic Neanderthal group. But presence of slight sagittal keeling, widely placed mastoids and, cranial capacity of 1200 cc, bring it closer to the Homo erectus of Java, China, Tanzania, and Kenya. Some scholars contemplate it to be much closer to Java man, while others want to place it under the genre of ‘Archaic Homo sapiens’. This presumption d,raws its strength from the cultural material identified from the same site.
Kenneth AR Kennedy (Cornell University, Ithaca) tested this hypothesis and showed that 43% of the traits present in the Narmada man are like metric and morphological traits akin to Homo erectus remains. Further explorations and comparisons of each morphological trait with those of the Middle and Late Pleistocene fossils from Africa, Europe, and Asia, prove that the Narmada specimen is Homo sapiens and not ‘evolved’ Homo erectus or ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens. Moreover, this terminology no longer holds any taxonomic significance in the newer trends witnessed in palaeoanthropology.
Besides the taxonomic identification, there are debates about the temporal association of the find. Antiquity of most of the fossils remains controversial. Thus “Narmada Man” is not an exception. Available dates are based on geological deposits or associated cultural or faunal assemblage. It is very unfortunate that the fossil itself has not been dated even after 40 years since its discovery.
Some scholars take the Narmada fossil as a representative of the late Homo erectus category. Arun Sonakia discoverer and the then Director of GSI’s palaeontology division, puts the age of the fossil at 500,000 to 600,000 years. His judgement is based on vertebrate fossils seen in the vicinity of the finds. Paleo-magnetic dating studies done at the Geological Survey of India also support the same dates. However, studies carried out at the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad, places the antiquity within the middle to late middle Pleistocene. They gave a time range of approximately 250,000 to 150,000 years. These studies used the artifact typology and stratigraphic dating of the deposit to date the Narmada fossil.
Rajeev Patnaik (Panjab University), and his colleagues including Parth Chauhan (from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali) along with some others have conducted extensive explorations in the Narmada valley. They found a wide array of stone blades, flakes, choppers, hand-axes, picks, cleavers, micro-fossils and fossil teeth and bones. In their opinion, given the mixed nature of the archaeological and allied evidence, the “Narmada Man” may be much younger than 250,000 years as believed earlier. They regard it to be as young as 50,000 years old. Precise dating of “Narmada Man” is still elusive but critical for its precise position in the cycle of human evolution.
One of the most debated puzzles in Indian prehistory is how and when did early humans come here, what were they like, and what other creatures coexisting with them did?
Michael Petraglia, (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany) finds that most fauna form the region are >60 kg. in weight. This is attributed to taphonomy processes in fluvial contexts explaining paucity of lower and middle Pleistocene fossil hominids from South Asia. Any human fossil finds from the region is just a matter of sheer chance. Given this, it is pertinent to bank on archaeological research rather than anthropological evidence to draw any inferences about hominids from the region.
Fortunately, very wide range of stone tools used by the extinct hominid groups are coming from all over the sub-continent. These stone tools are as old as 800,000 years and as young as 10,000 years, spanning a large range of the stone-age. Outstanding work of K. Paddayya (Deccan College PGRI, Pune) at Isampur, Hunsgi valley of Karnataka, proves existence of pre-modern species, Homo erectus from 1.2 million years. Shanti Pappu’s team (Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, Chennai) at the archaeological site of Attirampakkam, takes the date further back to 1.7-1.5 million years. Probably, these finds belong to the family of Homo erectus that came out of Africa.
This evokes the question, if “Narmada Man” is a descendent of Isampur-Attirampakkam-like Homo erectus? There are still many puzzles - many gaps in our knowledge which need to be filled. What happened in the hundreds of thousands of years that fall between today and these timelines? Who lived in the landmass between these regions, from where they came, how were they surviving and interacting with the other human/non-human groups?
We do not know when modern human groups first arrived, how many dispersals were there. We don’t even know if there were any other hominin species in India when modern humans arrived, and if they inter-bred with these pre-existing hominin groups in the region. The existence of stone tools in diverse geographical regions, however, undoubtedly proves that the sub-continent was home to one (or more) unknown hominin species, fossils of which we have not yet discovered!
PREHISTORY TALKS- What the present scenario tells us?
Anatomically modern humans originated in Africa by about 200,000 years ago. Apparently, there were two dispersals of these modern forms of humans (Anatomically Modern Homo Sapiens - AMHS) in the Indian sub-continent.
The first dispersal of AMHS took place between 130,000–115,000 years ago, but they either died out or retreated. A second dispersal took place, either before or after the Toba event, which happened between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago.
TOBA EVENT The Toba super-eruption was a super-volcanic eruption that occurred about 75,000 years ago at the site of present-day Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia). It is one of the Earth’s largest known eruptions.
The Toba catastrophe theory holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of 6-10 years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode. About 2,800 cubic km of magma spewed out and the volcano collapsed inwards to form a sunken lake which is now Lake Toba. Information available on internet tells us that something like twenty-eight thousand million tons of gases dispersed all over the globe due to air currents and covered the earth with about five to six inches of ash. The Toba eruption is considered by scientists to be the largest such event on earth. This catastrophic event is believed to be a biological bottleneck which wiped out almost all of humanity. In the vicinity and around, death was instant. For the rest, it was harsh times as the earth got colder - since the ash cover did not let the sun rays in - and rainfall and climates altered dramatically. Green landscapes turned to wastelands and terrifying winters due to the onset of the Ice Age led to the death of most of the survivors.
There are several sites in the peninsular India giving evidence of the Toba ash. One of these is Ash layers at Bori, Ahmednagar district. Deccan College team has contributed significantly to the studies of Toba ash.
Ravi Korisetter (Dharwad University) and Michel Petraglia’s work in Kurnool caves in Araku Valley in Vizag district, Jwalapurum, is most noteworthy. They have given Th/U dates of 600-700 mya for the Ash deposits. More than five-meter-deep excavations below the ash in Jwalapuram, gave cutting tools, confirming the hallmark of modern humans. These collections are dated over 74,000 years. These finds project the hypothesis that, the Toba eruption was not as catastrophic as thought to be, as in peninsular India modern humans did survive. Also, they would have arrived in India long before the Toba eruption.
To sum up, it is proven that the existing humans have originated from the African Mitochondrial Eve who lived on earth about 2,00,000 years ago. Human migrations (of AMHS) - Out of Africa - took place across two timelines. ‘Out of Africa Part 1 migration’ happened about 1,30,000 years ago. Most researchers believe it be a failed migration in which only a small group moved. The group either died out or returned to Africa. ‘Out of Africa Part 2 migration’, happened after the Toba eruption. It is then, as the predominant theory went, a small group of humans crossed the Red Sea, moved along the Arabian Peninsula, India, and Southeast Asia, and reached Australia about 50,000 years ago. However, Jwalapuram excavations provide some evidence the first migration might not have been a total failure. Though it needs to be substantiated.
It is therefore extremely important to have precise dating of the “Narmada Man” fossil itself to put it correctly in evolutionary ladder. There are several presumptions as of now. First, it could be more evolved than ‘Homo erectus’. Second it may be a representative of the first batch of AMHS who survived. And third it could belong to the second AMHS batch coming to the sub-continent around 65,000 years ago. We all are still waiting for the confirmation!
Yet another grave concern that exists in the minds of Indian prehistorians need to be spelled out while celebrating the 40th anniversary of the “Narmada Skull”.
Palaeoanthropology is rarely practised in India in its original form through multi-disciplinary approaches. There is gross negligence of maintaining All the sites and the recovered treasures are poorly maintained and grossly neglected. Besides population pressure and intensive agriculture along with developmental projects like dam constructions, road constructions, mining and oil drilling activities have taken a toll on these sites and study of fossil. Hundreds of paleoanthropological and stone age sites are getting destroyed across the subcontinent.
The discovery of “Narmada Man” has put India on the world fossil map. It proved the presence of early humans in the subcontinent and filled a void in our knowledge about human evolution. It has been 40 years since the discovery, but it is still to appear in the Indian school textbooks. Kids in our schools learn about Java Man and Peking Man but hardly anyone knows about the “Narmada Man”. And, very important administratively and academically, the ‘issues’ related to the ‘ownership’ of the find, need to be resolved among the GSI, ASI, and AnSI.
Before, I put my pen down, I want to pay my tribute to the simplicity, passion, and commitment of late Dr. Arun Sonakia- discoverer of Narmada Man. I met him three months before the unfortunate accident that cut short journey of this exceptional explorer. On 6-9 February 2018, Panjab University had organized a Palaeoanthropology Workshop. I had the good fortune of sharing a room with Arun Sonakia in the University Guest House. One evening while returning from the conference Dinner, we decided to stop by a roadside Canteen for a cup of Coffee. As the coffee arrived, Arun opened his heart out and started talking about finds from Hathnora. It was a mesmerizing experience for me as he shared his passion, anguish, frustration, and humiliation experienced by him, struggling to establish antiquity of the Narmada Man. There was so much that he shared, and I learnt, which is not easy to be placed on a public platform. We were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not even realise, how late it was! When we finally got up and approached the canteen manger to pay for our coffee, we were told that two students sitting next to us and listening to his emotional outburst, just paid our bill before leaving. This was their silent tribute to this honest, passionate researcher. As we celebrate forty years of ‘Narmada Man’ finds, I also want to salute simplicity and humility of this simple man-wandering if it is good to be so-so simple!!!!