Snapshot of the past

Snapshot of the past

ENDURING THE TEST OF TIME: The Stone Age people had painted, stamped and engraved scenes from their daily life in Bhimbetka’s caves.Artists draw pictures of the criminals based on what the eye-witnesses recall and investigators are able to reconstruct what exactly took place at the crime scene. What are the chances of us getting hold of eye-witness accounts of life in 10,000 BCE? Before the invention of writing; in fact, before the invention of almost anything? Next to none, you say? Then read on…..

Sometime in 1957, an archaeologist named V S Wankankar was chugging along on a train heading from Bhopal to Itarsi in Central India. As he gazed idly out at the passing countryside, he was struck by the beauty of a series of low, densely forested hills they were passing.

Something about the strange, rocky outcrops in the area set his ‘archaeological antennae’ twitching wildly. He got off at the very next station and walked back to investigate.
He found himself wandering through a huge complex of more than 700 caves and rock shelters. Over 400 of them were painted or engraved in colours that appeared very old.

Wakankar had discovered Bhimbetka – the world’s largest, open-air prehistoric art gallery!

Bhimbetka is 45km south of Bhopal. Wakankar soon came back with his team and began excavations. The archaeologists found hundreds of prehistoric stone tools layered into the dirt floors of the caves and shelters. For thousands of years, Stone Age people had made Bhimbetka their home. It seemed an ideal location for them. The caves and outcrops provided natural shelters, the dense forests were full of food and animals to hunt and there was perennial water nearby…why would they want to move away?

But it was the paintings that most excited the team working at Bhimbetka. All over the walls and ceilings of their homes, these ancient artists had painted, stamped and engraved scenes from their lives.  It was like someone had handed the archaeologists a stash of photographs of prehistoric life!

Like the tools, the paintings were also layered and belonged to different eras. After studying their styles and colours very carefully, they concluded that most of the paintings had been made in Mesolithic times. Mesolithic people were hunter-gatherers who used tiny, refined tools named microliths for their tools and weapons. Their paintings are over 10,000 years old!
What did they paint? Well, mostly scenes from their everyday life – hunting, fishing, cooking, collecting honey, dancing, playing games, rituals and burials. And their favourite theme? 

Animals!  Deer, wild boar, tigers, lions, bison, crocodiles,  elephants, rhinos, fish and smaller creatures such as turtles, frogs, squirrels, even the odd centipede — 29 species are depicted.
 Many of the paintings are hunting scenes with groups of hunters armed with bows and arrows, slings and barbed spears hunting deer and wild boar. Hunters are shown trapping animals in snares and catching fish with nets, hooks and spears. The hunters are usually painted as stick figures with loin cloth and ornaments such as necklaces, bangles, wrist and elbow bands.  Some of the more awe-inspiring ones sport headdresses of feathers and horn, masks and decorated staffs. These may have been chiefs or priests.

The artists obviously feared the power of the animals they hunted. We can guess this from their painting style. While hunters are always simple stick figures, the animals are usually painted more realistically with full, powerful looking bodies. Sometimes they are painted in the x-ray style. This shows us the inside of the animal’s body including their internal organs!

The non-hunting scenes are usually of some domestic and family activity. Women are shown collecting fruits in baskets, gathering honey from the trees, grinding and making food. They are shown with children running and jumping all around them. The walls of some shelters have hand, fist and finger prints all over. Some of these are very small and may have been done by children.

What did these ancient artists use for paint and brushes? They knew more than 16 colours including white, red, green, black, yellow, orange and purple. The colours were made by grinding rocks, minerals and dried vegetable roots into powder. The powder was mixed with water, animal fat or gum from the trees. White, made from limestone and red made from iron oxide were the most common colour. Twig brushes with animal fur or silk cotton bristles were used to apply the colours. The use of these natural colours is one of the reasons these paintings have survived for so many centuries.

Another fascinating aspect of this prehistoric art gallery is where the paintings are made. Most were on the walls and ceilings of shelters where people must have been living. But some really large and beautiful ones are in places where it was very difficult to get to. The artist would have needed a scaffolding to climb to that height. Scholars believe these were special, ‘sacred’ paintings that not everyone was allowed to see. Later paintings at Bhimbetka show very different themes.

Gone are the dynamic hunters, powerful animals, graceful dancers and happy food gatherers. Instead there are chariots, horses, elephants and royal processions. Stiff men face each other in battle wearing elaborate dresses and even armour.

From these scenes we can gather that the hunting-gathering Stone Age life had come to an end. A different, more settled way of life had now begun.


* Gather as many clues as you can to prove that these paintings were as ancient as the archaeologists claim. Hint: Look at the list of animals they painted!

* Tools, bones and artefacts found at an excavation give us a lot of information about our ancestors. We know about their diet, their clothes, their houses, their lifestyle, even the size of their brains. But it is only with their art that we can finally see them as living, breathing people with hopes, fears, dreams, feelings and even a sense of humour. We finally get to see Prehistoric people from their own point of view. Isn’t that incredible?

* Lots of modern tribal societies still paint on the walls of their dwellings. Some of them look similar to what we see at Bhimbetka. Find out about some of them and see if you can find pictures of their brilliant work.

* Today, Bhimbetka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. India has the third highest concentration of Prehistoric art in the world. Most of it is still undiscovered.