The Narmada fossil files

ADAM HALLIDAY

When geologist Arun Sonakia accidentally discovered South Asia's first ancient human remains at a place called Hathnora in the Narmada Valley one winter 30 years ago, the region came under the trowels and maps of archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists worldwide.

Three decades on, Indian and international scientists have turned up treasures that are slowly adding pieces to the puzzle—how and when did early humans come here, what were they like, and what other creatures did they share these lands with?

No other ancient fossil has been dug up yet, at least not one that can be definitively identified as a specific early human species, but scores of what appear to be stone tools used by these missing people have certainly begun to tell us more about them, as have the animal fossils, which range from bones of an almost complete Stegodon, the modern elephants' extinct cousin, to ancient wild-dogs and wild-boars, cousins of the modern horse, hippopotamuses and ostrich eggshells.

The stone tools are as old as 800,000 years and as young as 10,000 years, spanning a large swathe of the stone-age. While some believe modern homo sapiens entered the Indian sub-continent from Africa through West Asia between 70,000 to 50,000 years ago, the archaeological site at Attirampakkam, near Chennai, is believed to be between 1.07 and 1.5 million years old and was possibly home to the pre-modern species, homo erectus.

So what happened in the hundreds of thousands of years that fall between these time-lines—who lived in the landmass between these regions, and was the Deccan region a passage from north to south?

As of now, archaeologists agree they need to dig deeper and wider in the Narmada Valley, and a team has been formed to do that, involving experts from the Stone Age Institute in the US, M S University in Vadodara, and Panjab University in Chandigarh and the Deccan College in Pune.

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