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Acheulean Culture in Peninsular India: An Ecological Perspective

November 28, 2004

Acheulean Culture in Peninsular India: An Ecological Perspective. Raghunath S. Pappu. New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 2001. 455 rupees. ISBN 81-246-0168-2.

In the Foreword of tins book, India’s venerable prehistoric archaeologist, V. N. Misra, states (p. v) that, “Palaeolithic studies in India have made … tremendous progress during the last four decades/’ although he opines that an understanding of human evolution and behavior from the record is still “fragmentary” and “incomplete.” In an attempt to indicate what has been learned about the Acheulean, Raghunath Pappu has summarized the available evidence from a multitude of surveys and excavations. In doing so, Pappu has produced a sorely needed compendium centering on the Indian Acheulean. The book rightfully boasts that India is one of the richest areas of Acheulean occupation in the Old World, with solid evidence of Acheulean occurrences in diverse environmental settings. And on this score, the chapters nicely synthesize a diverse array of information about Quaternary environments and archaeological studies. No other current work is dedicated exclusively to the Indian Acheulean, thus this is a valuable and welcomed work.

Given his long research career at Deccan College, the author convincingly demonstrates that he is intimately familiar with all aspects of Acheulean investigations; this is substantially borne out in the site descriptions provided in Chapter 2 and in the up-to- date reference section. Chapter 3, simply entitled “Salient Features,” is a 51-page chapter of a 128-page text, summarizing a large array of topics: site distributions, habitats, tool types, technology, nature of assemblages, tool function, raw materials, Quaternary deposits, mammalian fossils, hominid remains, subsistence patterns, paleoenvironments, settlement patterns, site formation processes, site catchment analysis, colonization pattern, chronology, and interregional comparison and correlation. It is impossible to address all nf the interesting issues raised by the author in this section, but a few significant points deserve to be mentioned in a critical fashion.

Pappu provides the available radiometric dates for the Acheulean in Chapter 2 (and Appendix 11), yet he appears to uncritically accept the reported estimates, which range from n()() to ()6 kyr. Some of the samples should be considered in a cautious light owing to the applied radiometric techniques and the context of the archaeological associations. Although the presence of habitation structures and dwellings is supported by the author, potentially making these sites of global importance for understanding domestic activities, the available evidence remains highly dubious in light of modern critiques about the formation of Pleistocene sites. The importance of natural processes in conditioning spatial arrangements should be expected, especially given Pappu’s own cogent review of the importance of site formation in Indian studies. Pappu nicely covers the evidence for Soan industries and discusses the lack of evidence for a pre-Acheulean industry. Based on this discussion, it remains clear that the initial colonization of India is an open- ended question despite a long history of research on this topic. Pappu shows that a large number of Acheulean tools are found throughout India, yet it is apparent that we still do not have convincing evidence of their function. This is the case even though Pappu genetically associates particular tool types with specific tasks without the benefit of micro- and macro-wear studies. Forming major topics in Chapter 3, Pappu reviews the evidence for Quaternary deposits and mammalian fossils. While this regional discussion is useful, integrated environmental frameworks are not provided. Unfortunately, the dearth of evidence for Acheulean subsistence comes across clearly in this chapter; the lack of faunal and plant remains in association with Acheulean assemblages is blamed on the nature of the tropical climate and acidic soils.

Chapter 4, entitled “Acheulean Cultural System,” is a brief overview of the ecological and technological evidence in wider perspective. Pappu convincingly shows that Acheulean hominids adjusted to a variety of climatic, environmental, and physiographic zones. Yet, indicating that such studies still lack maturity, he pessimistically notes (p. 121) that “The ecological approach has not fully emerged as an integrated approach capable of isolating and identifying the relationships between the ecological variables governing human adaptations.” This is unfortunate as it would be extremely valuable to know how Acheulean hominids adapted to particular environmental and ecological circumstances, and how this may have differed with Acheulean populations in other geographic regions. A major topic raised by Pappu in Chapter 4 is the relationship of the Indian Acheulean to that of the West. Pappu rightfully notes close typological parallels with African counterparts, inferring a link between the two separated industries. If the Acheulean represents the basal occupation of India, as Pappu asserts, the timing of the colonization process reniains a fascinating topic that deserves much more attention. From the overall discussion of the Acheulean, it is clear that more comprehensive and detailed studies in the future have the potential to make substantial advances in our understanding of hominid cognition, adaptive behaviors, and dispersal patterns.

A word should be raised about Pappu’s use of certain terms, for example, “culture” to describe the Indian Acheulean. Although the sustained use of this term in Indian Paleolithic studies may be a matter of convenience, it also has major behavioral implications. Available evidence in India and elsewhere indicates that Acheulean hominids did not possess a “culture” which is reminiscent of modem humans. Rather, these hominids appear to be practicing a form of behavior that is completely unfamiliar, without any resemblance to modern hunter-gatherers. Given this, many archaic terms, including “culture” to describe early human behavior, need to be carefully used by investigators who wish to more adequately describe past populations and their adaptive features.

Although a number of problem areas are raised here, this work represents the only book-length treatment concerning what we know about the Indian Acheulean. It is therefore recommended reading for those who wish to know more about the history and current status of Lower Paleolithic archaeology in India. Technical specialists will find this a useful source that synthesizes a wide corpus of information. A read of this book, however, will reveal the sobering fact that we know very little about the adaptive behavior and social organization of Pleistocene hominids occupying Peninsular India. Nevertheless, Pappu’s masterful synthetic treatment of the data should inspire others to carry out detailed surveys and excavations in an interdisciplinary format, allowing the region to capture a deserved place in global paleoanthropological syntheses.

Reviewed by MICHAEL D. PETRAGLIA, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge

Copyright University of Hawaii Press Fall 2004




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