2. Prehistoric India: Stone Age and Development of Societies

Stone age in India, its various divisions such as paleolithic, mesolithic, and neolithic. Development of prehistoric societies and Rise of Agriculture.
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Division of Prehistory according to Geological Timescale
Division of Prehistory according to Geological Timescale

During the Pleistocene Period, we see evidence of various glacial cycles or, in other words, ‘Ice Ages.’ It is in this climate that different hominin species evolved, ultimately leading to the evolution of Modern Humans, i.e., Homo Sapiens.

During the Holocene Period, we saw the rise of societies based on agriculture and farming. We also see the process of domestication of various animals during this period.

To better understand the process of human evolution and the rise of societies, historians divide prehistoric times into divisions based on the material of manufacturing weapons and tools.

These divisions are as such:

Division of prehistory based on the material used for weapons/tools.
Division of prehistory based on the material used for weapons/tools

Stone Age (600,000 to 3000 BC).

Stones were used for making weapons and tools during this phase. But this is not true for all cases; there were also some exceptions. But, we generally talk about early societies as a whole, not some exceptions.

The stone age is further divided into subdivisions:

  1. Paleolithic Age (600,000 to 12,000 BC)
  2. Mesolithic Age (12,000 to 10,000 BC)
  3. Neolithic Age (10,000 to 3,000 BC)

Paleolithic Age

It is the first period of the Stone Age. During this period, mainly chipped stones were used for weapons and tools. Homo sapiens evolved and spread over the planet during this period. They went from one among many dominant species on the planet to the most dominant species, formed societies, developed technology, and discovered and controlled fire.

Further, Paleolithic Age is also divided into 3 subdivisions:

  1. Lower Paleolithic
  2. Middle Paleolithic
  3. Upper Paleolithic

These divisions are based on archeological findings, as we get to older and older specimens as we dig further and further. Therefore, Lower here means the earliest one, and Upper means the latest one.

Aspects of LifeLower P.Middle P.Upper P.
Time Period (in India)6 to 1.5 lac BC1.5 lac to 35,000 BC35,000 to 12,000
LocationsBori (Maharashtra), Sohan Valley (Pakistan), Kashmir, Thar Desert, Belan Valley (UP), Chirki-Nevasa (Maharashtra), Nagarjunakonda (Andhra Pardesh), Bhimbetka (MP),Sites coincide with Lower P. period sites, Evidence of settlements from Narmada valley, Tungabhadra valley, etc.Around 600 sites are found in India in AP, Karnataka, Maharashtra, MP, UP, Jharkhand, etc.
Location PreferenceNear water supplysameMore spread due to change in Climate
Primary ActivityFood gathering, Small hunting(fish, birds)Hunting and gatheringHunting and Gathering (large animals)
Weapons or ToolsHand Axes, Cleavers, Choppers, Fire discoveredBlades, Borers, Scrapers, Pointed Spears, All made of stone flakes. The fire became common.Large flakes,blades,scrapes etc.
TravelingThe raft was invented most probably by Homo ErectusMaybe long-distance trade happened
SocietyBetter than an apeEgalitarian but more materialistic and complex, with no division of labourBecame more Complex and materialistic, the Earliest occurrence of Art (paintings)
SettlementsEarly evidence of Home bases found in this period, may be used as seasonal camps.They started living in groupswith Low population density, but groups started showing religious behaviors
The arrival of Homo sapiens in India

Thus, during paleolithic times, the evolution of man from a wandering ape-like creature to a well-settled social animal happened. Early discoveries like fire and rafts happened, early societies were formed, and art started.

All this led to the next stage, which is a transitionary stage between hunters and gatherers to the food-producing stage.

Mesolithic Age (12,000 to 7000 in India)

As said earlier, it is a transitionary phase where the transition of modern humans from hunter-gatherer to food producer happened. It lasted for a very short period as compared to others, but there is no clear distinction, and this transition happened at different times at different places.

The characteristic feature of this period is Microliths (tiny stones used for weapons and tools).

Mesolithic Tools - By Vaneiles - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14893932
Mesolithic Tools – By Vaneiles – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14893932

Locations:

Mostly all over the Indian Subcontinent except Ganga valley, Assam, and the Western coast.

The main sites are Chotanagpur Plateau, Krishna River valley, Gujrat plains, Marwar, Mewar, Adamgarh(MP), etc.

Location Preference:

  • Sand dunes
  • Rock Shelters
  • Alluvial Plain
  • Rocky Plain
  • Lake Shore etc.

Type of Society:

Settlements:

During this transitionary period, humans started living in well-settled and dense groups. This may be seen as the earliest version of rural life. The transition from hunters and gatherers to agriculturists started during this period.

They lived without the concept of a state or organized form of government.

A subsistence economy based on food production emerged.

Materialism and Culture:

  • They had some form of material culture.
  • Art in the form of early rock paintings can be seen.
  • They used to bury their dead within the habitation area.
Paintings:
  • Animals were most frequently depicted.
  • Depiction of humans as smaller in size as compared to animals shows their fear of large animals.
  • Activities such as hunting, quarreling, and scenes from daily life were also depicted.
  • The colors used were deep red, green, white, and yellow, mainly made from natural sources such as plants and rock paste.
Bhimbetka - By Suniltg at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9957825
Bhimbetka – By Suniltg at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9957825

Technology:

  • Composite tools (mounting of one object over/into other) appeared during this period.
  • A variety of tools/weapons developed, such as arrows, spears, knives, sickles, etc.
  • Parallel-sided blades also developed.
  • The use of Microliths (between 1 to 3 cms) is the characteristic feature of this period, which provided specialization and variety in the art of tool/weapon making.

Neolithic (10,000 to 3,000 BC)

In the Indian subcontinent, this period mainly started around 8000-7000 BC.

In this period, rural societies started gaining shape. Evidence of International linkage between various civilizations can also be found.

Locations:

  • The earliest evidence of the Neolithic culture in the Indian subcontinent is found in Mehrgarh, which is situated in Baluchistan. It was the largest neolithic settlement between Indus and the Mediterranean. Evidence of farming was also found here.
  • Other sites include the Hakra basin, Vindhyas, and a few sites in the eastern parts of the country.
  • In Kasmir, Burzahom (means place of birch tree) and Gufrakal (means cave of potters) were important neolithic settlements.
  • In North-east India, the hills of Assam, Meghalaya, and in the southern part of the country, the Godavari Valley was an important Neolithic site.
Neolithic Settlement sites in the Indian Subcontinent
Neolithic Settlement sites in the Indian Subcontinent

Type of Society:

  • The concept of private property and surplus food may have led to the division of labour and the resulting rise of inequalities.
  • The rise of personal and private properties may have also fuelled social conflicts leading to cases of violence.
  • It also created a hierarchy in society.

Production:

  • Settled agriculture began in this period. Also, the domestication of large animals started. But all these forms of production were merely for the subsistence with little to no surplus.
  • Nevertheless, the surplus did help in the division of labour and thus creating different classes in society.

Materialism and Culture:

  • Started building houses in the later stage.
  • They knew spinning and weaving for making clothes.
  • Boats were used for traveling to a distant land and were flat bottom.
  • Households became the center of activity.
  • Economic inequalities appeared.
  • They buried their dead in tombs with materials such as earthen pots, thus believing in life after death, which may be seen as evidence of faith.

Technology in Neolithic Period:

  • Polished stone tools were developed.
  • There were different types of tools for different types of works.
  • They had some knowledge about metals mainly copper, silver, gold, and tin. As a result, the Neolithic period later transitioned into the Chalcolithic period.
  • Evidence of pottery appeared.
  • The Neolithic axes are of three types based on the areas of settlement:
shapes of different neolithic axes
shapes of different neolithic axes

Neolithic Revolution:

  • Neolithic people were skilled farmers. Also, the development in tool making led to more efficient modes of farming. As a result, they were able to generate a surplus amount of food. Thus, some of them were able to leave farming and took on other activities such as tool making and providing other services such as trading, construction, administration, etc.
  • All this led to the division of labour and, consequently the division of society into different classes, this is known as Neolithic Revolution.
  • This prepared the base for coming civilizations such as Indus Valley Civilization.

With the end of the Neolithic Period, ended the stone age, and human society transitioned into the Bronze age. By now, Homo sapiens have become the well-settled skillful farmers controlling the means of production and some were even able to leave the food production and could focus on other forms of work. This was necessary for the development of Urban societies, which soon appeared.

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