Archaeology of Vindhyan Rock Art: some perspectives on its types and provenance
Ajay Pratap, M.Phil & Ph.D. (Cantab.),
ICHR Rock Art of Mirzapur Project (2009-2011),
Department of History,
Faculty of Social Sciences,
Banaras Hindu University,
Varanasi 221 005
In this paper we wish to discuss some fundamental issues confronting us in this Indian Council of Historical Research Funded two year project pertaining to the Documentation and Analysis of the rock art of Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. The questions we have posed in this survey to the corpus of rock paintings of Mirzapur and their archaeology are briefly, as follows:
1. What was the nature of the Pleistocene in the Vindhyas?
2. What modes of human subsistence prevailed in the Vindhyas during the Pleistocene?
3. What was the environment like?
4. What are the faunal populations?
5. What is the demographic profile of the Vindhyas at terminal Pleistocene?
6. Does the Vindhyan ecology see any faunal extinction?
7. What is the local ecological regime’ around painted shelters?
8. How old are the paintings?
9. Do they faithfully depict what existed?
10. Do they reveal anything about human social relations?
11. What is the meaning of Vindhyan rock art?
12. How does it behave as art?
In this paper, along with presenting some of the visual rock painting data we have recorded thus far, namely from the sites of Wyndham, Likhaniya, Chuna Dari, Morahna, Lekhania and Mukkha Dari, we shall foray into answering the problem-oriented questions which we have posed this corpus of paintings, along with the humdrum task of building a visual archive, in some measure, faithful to its purpose – the ultimate preservation of this invaluable rock art corpus of the Vindhyas, such that meaningful research may be continued.
I. What was the nature of the Pleistocene in the Vindhyas?
On date no palaeo-enviromental data from the Vindhyas, particularly from Morahna and Lekhania, on the Vindhyan escarpment is available. Despite three excavations in this area Varma (1957), Misra (1967) and Jayaswal (1983) and other studies Singh (2005), Allchin (1958), Pandey (2010), Prasad (1996), Sacha and Pal (2010), and Singh (2005), there has been no effort to seek the data relevant to reconstruct the environmental correlates of ecological change affecting the highland Vindhyas at terminal Pleistocene. As such research is at the moment beyond the mandate of this project; we shall present a rough environmental re-construction, as may be gleaned by secondary correlation and deductive logic.
It is evident that a dry phase in the climate is discernible in the post-Pleistocene upland environment as Kankar formations (Pandey, 2010) are found in the deepest sediments of the Ganga valley, which have been scientifically ascertained to be Holocene in origin. In any case, as the upland soil profile is moderately lateritic and very thin, the possibility of Kankar formations to be found in the Vindhyan uplands is almost negligible. It may be mentioned in passing that there are several calcareous deposits noticed on rocks (Cockburn 1888) which is definitely through monsoonal leaching of the upland soils. Hence, we have to assume, that, the early Holocene climate obtaining in the Ganga valley, and which is scientifically proved, did also obtain in the highlands just south of it. However it does not bear mentioning even i passing that the ecological variations between Lowland Ganga valley and uplands is very significantly different and even in the uplands there are significantly different micro-ecological niches which differ from place to place. That is the Vindhyan region.
II. What modes of human subsistence prevailed in the Vindhyas during the Pleistocene?
Assuming that at least some of the Vindhyan rock art is indeed upper Palaeolithic as archaeological stratigraphic sequences suggest the development of tool-technology all the way from the Achulean to iron-age, it is possible to posit that human subsistence techniques in the very earliest of periods here was hunter-gatherer of the `collector’ type (Binford 1963, Rowley-Conwy, 2001, 2010) which at terminal Pleistocene gradually intensified, to the degree intensification is possible among hunter-gatherers, and transformed into `forager’ type hunting-gathering (Binford 1963, Rowley-Conwy 2001, 2010) marked partly by storage and sedentism. This may independently be inferred from the painted rock shelter types of the Vindhyas. Separately Binford (1963) and Rowley-Conwy (2001, 2010) have argued that the very earliest of hunting-gathering societies were `collectors’ with patterned but almost infinite mobility, as they moved from one resource-patch to another, fulfilling their subsistence-needs, without the need for a home-base. If this model is taken to be correct, and since it is, then it is logical to expect short-term hunting camps, which would be characterized by some idiosyncratic features in varying ecozones. In the Vindhyan context with its robust terrain we estimate that such short term hunting-camps of the `collector-type’ would be the painted sites which are entirely open-air. And indeed, there are a plethora of painted sites in the areas of the Vindhyas and the abutting Kaimurs which we have surveyed until now which bear copious rock-paintings (Wyndham 1, 2, 3, 4; Likhaniya Dari 1, Mukkha Dari 1, 2, 3). Of course, the very finest of examples of deductively constructed arguments suffer the worst of fates when confronted with direct dating methods but it is not as if precise dating-methods would make any sense at all in the absence of rational fleshing-out by archaeological reasoning.
III. What was the environment like?
As we do not have access to any studies of Pleistocene sediments of the Vindhyas, we must work inferentially from the paintings themselves from such open-air shelters as named – Wyndham, Likhaniya Dari, and Mukkha Dari. The depictions in these three locations are similar in that all of these sites are located next to open drainage channels, of mountain-fed streams. At Wyndham we have the Wyndham River, at Likhaniya the Garai River and at Mukkha Dari the Belan. The rock art depictions are abundant with such species as the Axis, Varanus, Elephas, Bos, Bubalus, (slides from all three sites) from which we may assume that the Pleistocene climate in the upper Palaeolithic, as earlier, was not very different, from the Holocene in terms of local ecology and resource base. Significant change occurs only through episodic desiccation and re or over-hydration only after the onset of the Holocene.
IV. What are the faunal populations?
The following table summarises the faunal populations encountered in the rock art such as is identifiable to any reasonable degree as some of the depictions are indeed “stylised”, vague or even “abstract”. These bear comparing with percentages of various faunal species recovered (Thomas et. al. 2002) from G.R. Sharma's excavations at Damdama, a Mesolithic site located in the Vindhyan hinterlands, about a hundred and sixty kilometers from the northern aspect of the Vindhyas. To afford us any sort useful comparison, this is best studied analogically, that is the faunal types and percentages in Vindhyan rock art and those recovered through excavations at the Damdama Site. Below is extracted a species, per cent and layer-wise summary.
Species Per cent Layer(s)
Bos indicus 0.02 % Layer S-1
Bos Sp. 4.17 % Layer- S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,,8,9,10
Bos gaurus 3.63 % Layer - S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Bubalus arnee 0.44 % Layer - S-1,6,3
Capra (Domestic) 0.05 % Layer- 2,9
Capra sp. (Wild) 0.05% Layer - S-1,3,6
Axis axis 19.67 % Layer - S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11
Axis porcinus 11.75 % Layer - S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Axis sp. 18.95 % Layer-S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Cervus Sp. 15.35 % Layer-S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Muntiacus muntjak 5.13 % Layer-S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,10
Moschus moschiferus 0.05 % Layer-S-5
Tragulus memmina 0.02 % Layer - S-3
Boselaphus Tragocamelus 0.39 % Layer - S-1,3
Tetracerus quadricornis 0.44 % Layer - S-1,2,6,10
Antilope cervicapra 1.23 % Layer - S-1,2,3,4,5,7,9
Gazella bennetti 0.20 % Layer - S-1,2
Sus scrofa 2.52 % Layer - S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Sus salvanius 0.64 % Layer - S-1,2,6,7,9
Canis lupus 0.25 % Layer - S-1,4,7,9
Canis aureus 0.02 % Layer - S-1
Canis sp. 0.05 % Layer-S-2
Vulpes bengalensis 0.07 % Layer S-2
Melursus ursinus 0.02 % Layer S-1
Herpestes edwardsi 0.02 % Layer S-1
Hystrix indica 0.05 % Layer S-1,8
Rattus rattus 0.44 % Layer S-1,2,8
Bandicota indica 0.05 % Layer - S- 3,8
Rhinoceros unicornis 0.64 % Layer - S-1,2,3,5,6,8,10
Elephas maximus 0.64 % Layer S-1,2,3,4,5,6
Gallus gallus 1.26 % S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,9
Trionyx gangeticus 0.24 % Layer S - 1,2
Lissemys punctata 7.35 % Layer- 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Chitra indica 3.58 % Layer S-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
Varanus Sp. 0.27 % Layer - 1,2,3,6,7,8
Calotes versicolor 0.12% Layer- 2
Pila globosa 0.05 % Layer -2
(Thomas et. al, 2002, 366-80).
Now even before we move to comparing these sorts of faunal percentages with those faunal representations which are actually found in the Vindhyas, and not all of these may be Mesolithic, which suggests some lack of Damdama serving as a proper analogue model for explaining faunal types and diversity of the Vindhyas. Given the proximity of that site to the Vindhyan Highlands, We should, therefore, turn to deriving the faunal exploitation pattern from the Damdama site. (Contd.)
V. What is the demographic profile of the Vindhyas at terminal Pleistocene?
V.D. Misra’s (2002) excavation at the Lekhania shelter on the Morhana escarpment is a good starting point even though the distribution and locational density of rock paintings relatively indicates demographic aspects very crudely. Wyndham, Likhaniya and Mukkha Dari are all very densely painted open-air shelters. However, we do not expect more than band-size communities at any given painted site, which is to say no more than twenty or thirty individuals residing there at any given point of time. The Lekhania excavation has yielded near 18 complete and incomplete skeletal remains from its lowest depths and this therefore may be the total population inhabiting that site. Parameters relating to their age, sex, dental pathology and skeletal biology have already been published. Lukacs and Misra (2002) have argued through their dental pathology studies of the Lekhania skeletal series that the sort of dentition found among all the individuals here suggests that they were mainly meat-eaters, and hence, hunter-gatherers. Jayaswal’s excavation of a painted site (1983) at the Mura Hill site on the Morahna Escarpment, has also suggested an Upper Palaeolithic strata underlying the Mesolithic.
VI. Does the Vindhyan ecology see any faunal extinction?
The question regarding rock art as a means of detecting environmental and consequent changes in faunal and other biotic aspects is a difficult one as the term `art’ suffixed to rock art presupposes that the ontology of rock paintings is likely non-empirical. Faunal species that are depicted are not necessarily the entire range but those (some 38 species have been found at the Mesolithic site in the Ganga Plains – Damdama- Thomas et. Al. 2002) which most appealed to the prehistoric painters as worthy of depiction. What then is the ontology of the rock paintings of the Vindhyas is one of our project goals which we have referred to as analysis and this would be preceded by a statistical description of frequency of each painted motif – human, animal, abstract, human activities depicted, type of animal activity depicted etc., decorative motifs. The debate around post-Pleistocene faunal extinctions from other parts of the world considers only mega-fauna extinctions due to climate change at the Pleistocene-Holocene transformation. Rhinoceros has been found in undated shelter paintings, in the Kaimurs, towards Robertsganj, however, it has also been found at the Mesolithic site Damdama. This suggests that some faunal migrations from the highland Vindhyas northwards to the Gangetic plains, savannah type grassland during the Holocene, is likely. However, highly stylised, historic period painting of a rhino hunt has been found by us next to the Great Deccan Road at CAR 7 shelter, Locality II, Morahna.
VII. What is the local ecological regime’ around painted shelters?
The Vindhyan ranges are non-continuous series of montane zones, intersected by sub-montane zones, River valleys, and Flatland. The montane zones are very rich in primary sandstones and quartzites and bands of cherty and other siliceous minerals obtain in most parts. However it is sandstone which predominates. Geomorphically, there is a variation from the south of the district, bordering Rewa where onion-peel weathering has exposed almost central Indian (Bhimbetka) like landscape, in which several painted shelters like Baghai-Khor, Morhana, Lekhania and Mura Hill obtain. Here water sources are seasonal, especially, on the Vindhyan escarpment. However, that water-supply here was also adequate sometime in the past is a logical conclusion from the excavations which have shown all these painted shelters to have been habitation shelters also.
The source of Mukkha Dari, Likhaniya and Wyndham Falls is also the Vindhyan Plateau which gathers the annual monsoonal input and then discharges them as perennial rivers named variously as Belan, Garai and Wyndham. These locations evidence painted shelters which are all open air habitation shelters, located in Gorges with almost no soil profile at all, except at Wyndham, on the opposite bank facing the painted shelters.
Both types of early habitats are also characterized by heavy forested type ecozones and niches with ample access to forest products and wild fauna obtaining here round the year. Thus even if hypothetically these are upper Palaeolithic their location suggests them to be round-the-year hunting-gathering camps.
VIII. How old are the paintings?
Subsequent to and consequent to the effort of documenting the variegated figures in variegated colours sizes and shapes our attention has from the very start of this project been drawn towards the question – how old are these paintings or more precisely what age bracket or range should be appropriate. Broadly, the `Out of Vindhyas’ hypothesis has been accepted for the development both of the lowland Gangetic plains Mesolithic Chopani-Mando and Damdama; and Neolithic sites connected with early agriculture Mahadaha, Sarai Nahar Rai, Mahagara, Koldihwa. This is as it were the first and earliest visualization of the rise of agriculture in the Ganga Plains. The idea being that due to post-Pleistocene desiccation and re-hydration and such geomorphic processes the uplands became uninhabitable and therefore an out-migration of human as well as faunal population of the Vindhyas took place around 8,000 B.C – 2,000 B.C. when fully-fledged agriculture obtains as far south (of the River Ganga) at Senuwar and north of it at Chirand. In the last decade or so this picture has not been refuted, although, revised since lower Palaeolithic to upper Palaeolithic stone tool industries have been found in the Son River Valley (Jones and Pal 2010); but a greater chronology obtains in the Vindhyas itself where a direct sequence from lower Palaeolithic to the iron-age cultures is now in no doubt. The rock paintings themselves have on date not been direct-dated and we refuse to accept relative dates as a valid means to be establishing the chronology of rock paintings of this area. Broadly, the stylistics, which is the type and modes of execution of drawings obtaining at the sites studied by us (some slides here) suggest that at the very least painting activity must have started in the upper Palaeolithic, however, at the moment this is just an informed-guess. Why have we advanced such a hypothesis? This is because such faunal species as are reported from the earliest of levels of Damdama (Thomas et al 2002) are indeed found in the Vindhyan rock paintings. Thus if the Mesolithic Cultures in the Ganga valley are of 8,000 B.C. then following the `Out of Vindhyas’ hypothesis, chronologically, the representation of the same fauna in the Vindhyas must necessarily be much older, possibly of the late Pleistocene. Then again as Cockburn has reported paintings from the Son Valley itself, then it also bears examining, what the antiquity of these paintings are.
IX. Do they depict faithfully what existed?
This is just a small example of the chaine’-operatoire that we have followed.
Returning now to the chief issue confronting this project, which is that after we have finished subsidiary deductions regarding current environment and ecology and the past ones, which apparently played some role in determining the hunter-gatherer art of the Pleistocene or the late Pleistocene or the Holocene? What further may we possibly say about the utility of the rock paintings of the Vindhyas as material culture for the historical reconstruction of past societies? Why were they made? It would have been nice to be able to say, as John Coles has for the Scandinavian rock art, that rock art is a picture-show (Coles, 1995). In brief, he suggests that paintings on a rock surface, over a period of time, yield an unintentional series of images, which is likely to mean many things tom many people. And that therefore it is a picture show.
That is to say that in this medium of archaeological material culture which we call rock art we have a recording of what happened in prehistory, and later, much as in a piece-meal visual record. And therefore that is its final meaning. The tapestry of images at any one site will make sense only in parts and not in its totality, as is presumed by Post-processualists purporting to regard rock art as `text’. This idea was insinuated by John Coles. Even as we reserve our own view of what we think of rock art at this point, John Coles’s view is clearly one amongst many others, on the nature and meaning of rock paintings, all of whom, which in our view, are inferentially no closer than others with regard to assessing the nature of rock art as a medium of representation.
It may even be said that the business of interpreting the rock art of the Vindhyas is sometimes as confounding as to their ultimate meanings as much as the pictographic Indus Valley Script. For what we have is a series of images which make sense per image but not necessarily when we add-up their sum. For a scientifically valid interpretation of a pictorial phenomenon we need a congruence and consensuality regarding its purpose. On date, that sort of a condition may not be claimed for interpretive studies of prehistoric rock paintings anywhere in the world. All we have are hypotheses with differing theoretical origins – cognitive, ecological, semiotic, landscape, cognitive, shamanistic, statistical, iconographic, art historical, but most of all commonsense-based interpretations, and last but not least explanation of rock art imagery through excavations in painted shelters. Yet, just as the spoken language transcends subsistence behaviour so does pictorial or visual and art activity so that there is little chance of a one to one correspondence between excavations (Technomic aspects) and Rock Paintings (Ideational).
For as Roland Barthes argued in his famous book `Writing Degree Zero’ there are writerly-texts and there are readerly-texts. This is to say that the intentions with which a writer of a coded text inscribes his/her views may not correspond entirely with the meanings a reader/or more than one readers may draw from it. This is no doubt the problem with all literature and art. Is it the same with prehistoric art? That is another school of thought insofar as decoding the meanings of prehistoric/historic rock paintings is concerned. This position is usually adopted by semiotics-based interpreter’s chief of whom has been the work of Margaret Conkey.
X. Do they reveal anything about human social relations?
Without a shade of doubt there are numerous depictions of humans, both realistically, and stylized; individually, and in groups; indulging in various types of activities (kindly check the types of categories into which you have slotted this art until now and list/summarize their value here.)
XI. What is the meaning of Vindhyan rock art?
For the purposes of our project we have categorized the documented images into certain discrete groups or boxes which we feel would help us sort and group the pictures best given our project goals of documentation and analysis of the rock paintings of the Vindhyas. These are:
1. Abstract designs
2. Activity areas
3. Animal activity depictions
4. Animal figures
5. Archaeological feature
6. Associated archaeological feature
7. Binding material
11. Colour types
12. Contemporary animal activity shelters
14. Fading-faded paintings
15. Hand stencils and imprints
16. Human activity depictions
17. Human alterations
18. Human figures
20. Lines squiggles and designs
21. Location on shelter
22. Overall shelter
23. Painting material
24. Painting at height
25. Painting weathering agents
26. Post-depositional processes
27. Raw material
28. Rock type
29. Rock weathering
30. Shelter types
31. Soil types
32. Stone tool
36. Thematic panels
38. Tourist impact negative
39. Tourist impact positive
43. Water sources
44. Weathered paintings
46. Weathering of paintings
47. Work by previous archaeologists
XII. How does it behave as art?
Nearing the conclusion of this paper we would like to contend that the origin of Vindhyan rock paintings is an entirely local phenomenon. Moreover, there are elements of difference between one cluster and another such as Morhana, Lekhania, Likhaniya, Chuna Dari and Mukkha Dari, which seems to suggest that this vast geographical area was inhabited in the past by distinct groups of people not necessarily connected in terms of lineage, band or tribe. As a wonderful panel at Wyndham 3 shows there was inter-group conflict over resources. Lukacs and Misra (2002) have observed `parry-fractures’ amongst one or two male and female individuals and have speculated violence to be the origin of these. Finally, some juxtaposed and superimposed paintings also suggest assertion of territorial authority of one group over another. Indeed Tim Ingold has argued that hunter-gatherers appropriate the landscape by placing their markers such as art over their defined territories.
The placing of rock art in cave-hollows of Morahna and Lekhania suggest that these shelters were inhabited later than those at Likhaniya, Chuna Dari, Mukkha Dari and Wyndham by groups of hunter-gatherers of the forager type who used these shelters as home-bases in their foraging economy. Except Wyndham, and Mukkha Dari, as all these sites evidence historic period paintings laid on or juxtaposed with earlier paintings it is likely that these shelters were inhabited well into the iron-age when rhino-hunts, wheel-drawn chariots, horsemen with swords and shields are a commonly depicted theme. The earlier or Late Pleistocene painting sites or layers evidence mainly faunal depictions, decorative designs and in some cases immature designs and figures which suggest that they were made by infants or children.
To conclude, our work of `documentation’ and `analysis’, although still in progress, has over four field-seasons (2009-2011) has led us to document some 30 sites in 6 clusters, in various zones selected in the Vindhyan Range south of the Varanasi district in Mirzapur. These are separated from each other by considerable distance and occur in a variety of ecological niches. A further goal of our research project is to be able to also document the erosive processes active on the rock art of the area such that a comprehensive conservation plan may be developed and recommended to the Department of Archaeology, Government of Uttar Pradesh, and, the Archaeological Survey of India. Last but not least the social meanings of the Vindhyan rock paintings still remain to be analysed fully.
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