Pre-Historic Cultures Of Ancient India



Pre-Historic Cultures

Prehistoric period is that period of our ancient past for which we do not have written records. Therefore our knowledge of the cultures, which developed in this period, is based only on the materials found in the archaeological excavations.

The earliest man living during this period made tools and implements of stone found in his surroundings. These tools helped him to hunt and gather food in order to satisfy his hunger. Since the earliest tools used by humans were made of stones, this phase of human development is known as the Stone Age.

The evolution of prehistoric man happened from a hunter and food-gatherer to a food producer. This change did not take place all of a sudden and took several hundred thousand years. On the basis of the different type of tools and techniques the stages of human development in prehistoric period are described as –

  • the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age,
  • the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, and
  • the Neolithic or New Stone Age.


The Palaeolithic Cultures

The term Palaeolithic is derived from the Greek words –

  • palaeo’, which means old and
  • lithic’ meaning stone.

Therefore, the term Palaeolithic age refers to the old stone age.

The archaeologists have dated this culture to the Pleistocene period about two million years ago. The Pleistocene period is the geological period of the age when the earth’s surface was covered with ice, and weather was so cold that human or plant life could not survive. But in the tropical region, where ice melted, the earliest species of men could exist.

The people lived near the hillocks and used only stone tools for hunting and their protection. However, the choice of raw material used for tool-making varied from region to region and depended upon its availability. The material used was –

  • quartzite available in hilly areas of different regions,
  • basalt found in Maharashtra region and
  • limestone in Karnataka region.

On the basis of the nature of progress made in tool types and techniques the Palaeolithic cultures have been divided into three phases. These are –

  • (i) Lower or Early Palaeolithic,
  • (ii) Middle Palaeolithic,
  • (iii) Upper or Late Palaeolithic.

These phases covered a long period ranging broadly from 5,00,000 to 10,000 B.C.

Tools of the Palaeolithic Period


The main tools of lower Palaeolithic phase were hand-axes, cleavers and choppers. These are called chopping tools. These were rough and heavy and were made by chipping the sides of the stones. Gradually, sharper and less heavy tools came to be made.

The flake tools or chipped pieces were the chief tools during the middle Palaeolithic period.

The tools of the upper Palaeolithic period primarily consisted of burins and scrapers.

Chief features and uses of some of the tools :

  • In hand-axes, the butt end is broader and the working edge is narrow. These were used for cutting the trees or digging the roots.
  • The cleavers had a bi-faced edge. These were meant for splitting objects like the trunks of trees.
  • The choppers were the massive core tools with a uni-facial working edge, and were used for chopping purposes.
  • The burins were like flakes or blades. These were used for engraving on soft stones, bones or rocks.
  • The scrapers were also made of flakes. These tools served the purpose of obtaining barks of trees and skins of animals.

Geographical Distribution of the Palaeolithic Sites

The geographical distribution of the Palaeolithic sites suggests that this culture was spread throughout the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.


Northern India

  • In Kashmir Valley and the Sohan Valley in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) have yielded Palaeolithic tools.
  • In Rajasthan, Palaeolithic tools were found at the sites along the river Luni.

Western India

  • the Palaeolithic tools were also discovered from the sites of the rivers Sabarmati, Mahi and their tributaries in Gujarat.
  • In Maharashtra, the most important sites are Nevasa on a tributary of Godavari and Patne in the Tapti river system.
  • In Madhya Pradesh, the rock shelters at Bhimbetka (near Bhopal) and Adamgarh in the district Hoshangabad have yielded tools from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic period.
  • In Uttar Pradesh, the Belan Valley (the region broadly from Allahabad to Varanasi) is the most prominent site.

It shows human occupation of the area continuously from the Palaeolithic period.

Eastern India

  • Assam and neighbouring areas including Meghalaya (Garo Hills) have yielded prehistoric artifacts.
  • Palaeolithic tools have also been found at various sites in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar.
  • In Peninsular India, Palaeolithic tools have been reported from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
  • In Tamil Nadu, an important site is Attirampakkam in Chingleput region.

The subsistence of the Palaeolithic cultures was based mainly on hunting animals and gathering fruits and roots. In other words, the people were primarily hunters and gatherers with no settled habitation.

The Palaeolithic cultures of the prehistoric period were wide-spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. The study of the tools indicates a gradual progress in tool technology which must have led to better availability of resources.

Subsistence Pattern

The Palaeolithic people practised hunting and food-gathering for their subsistence. They made simple stone tools for hunting, cutting, digging and other purposes. They led a nomadic life and migrated to places where plant and animal resources along with water were easily available.


The Mesolithic Cultures

The term Mesolithic is the combination of two words, meso and lithic. In Greek ‘meso’ means the middle and ‘lithic’ means stone. Hence, the Mesolithic stage of prehistory is also known as the Middle Stone Age.

It was the transitional phase between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic Ages. On the basis of archaeological discoveries, the beginning of the Mesolithic Age in Indian subcontinent is dated to around 10,000 BC.

This period witnessed the rise in temperature, as a result of which the climate became warm. These changes further resulted in melting of ice of the earlier period and brought about changes in flora and fauna.

  • Though man was still in hunting-gathering stage, he now started fishing and some domestication of animals.
  • The main tools they used are called the microliths or small stone tools.
  • The Rock paintings found at Bhimbetka (near Bhopal) belonging to the period indicate the artistic taste of the people.

Tools of the Mesolithic Period

The microliths used during the mesolithic period were very small in size varying in lengths from 1 to 8 centimetres and were largely made out of chipped or flaked pieces.


Some of these tools have geometric forms such as triangles, lunates and trapezes. There tools could be tied or fixed in other objects to form an arrow or a spear.

Geographical Distribution of the Mesolithic Sites

The distribution of Mesolithic sites indicates that the Mesolithic cultures covered almost the entire India from north to south and east to west. Important sites of this culture are –

  • Langhnaj (District Mehsana) in Gujarat;
  • Bhimbetka (near Bhopal) in Madhya Pradesh;
  • ChopaniMando (near Allahabad in Belan Valley) in Uttar Pradesh;
  • Birbhanpur (District Burdwan) in West Bengal;
  • Sanganakallu (District Bellary) in Karnataka; and
  • Tuticorin in southern Tamil Nadu.

Subsistence Pattern

The Mesolithic people still subsisted on hunting and gathering, but now there was a shift in the pattern of hunting from the big animals in the Palaeolithic period to the smaller animals which could be attacked with the help of bows and arrows.

Fishing and fowling also became important.

The faunal remains of cattle, sheep, goat, buffalo, pig, rat, bison, hippo, dog, fox, lizard, tortoise and fish etc. have been found from different Mesolithic sites.


The Neolithic Cultures And The Advent Of Food Production

The last phase of prehistory is termed as Neolithic. The term Neolithic is derived from Greek ‘neo’ which means new, and ‘lithic’ meaning stone. Thus, the term ‘neolithic Age’ refers to the ‘New Stone Age’ of human culture.

In Indian subcontinent it is dated back to around 8000 BC. The term ‘Neolithic’ was coined by Jonn Lubbock. The chief characteristic of this age was the new type of ground and polished stone tools. This period also marked the beginning of cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals. It led to the beginning of settled life and the growth of village settlements.

The Neolithic culture had following characteristics –

  • (i) Beginning of agricultural activities
  • (ii) Domestication of animals
  • (iii) Grinding and polishing of stone tools having sharper edges
  • (iv) Use of pottery

Meaning of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’

Some times this period is termed as the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ on the basis of important changes in man’s socio-economic life.

  • The use of the sharp and polished neolithic tools made it easier to cultivate the soil.
  • It was accompanied by the practice of domestication of animals.
  • These changes in turn resulted in the emergence of settled agricultural communities.
  • The Neolithic people also produced pottery for the purpose of storing grains.

As the redevelopment in the Neolithic phase greatly affected the human life, some scholars have used the term “the Neolithic Revolution” to signify those changes. But most of the scholars believe that these changes though significant, should be viewed in the context of earlier progress during Paleolithic and Mesolithic ages, and thus, should be considered as ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’.

Tools of the Neolithic Period

The Neolithic tools consist of the ground tools having smooth surfaces, and well-rounded and symmetrical shapes. The grinding made the tools sharper, polished and more effective than those in the earlier period.


The ground stone tools of the Neolithic period included different types of axes called ‘celt’.


Besides the stone tools, the sites of this period have also yielded various types of bone objects such as needles, scrapers, borers, arrowheads, pendants, bangles and earrings.

Geographical Distribution of the Neolithic Sites

The Neolithic sites were spread over almost all the regions of Indian subcontinent.


  • In the northwestern region Mehrgarh is a classic site in the Kachi plains of Baluchistan. The excavations at Mehrgarh have revealed the evidence of houses built by Neolithic people. These were built of sun-dried bricks. These houses were divided into small rooms. The evidence of cultivation of crops like wheat, barley and cotton were discovered from here.
  • The important sites in Kashmir Valley include Burzahom and Gufkral. The dwelling pits, either circular or rectangular, at these sites form an important feature of Neolithic culture.
  • The Belan Valley along the edge of Vindhyan plateau near Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh also has many Neolithic sites such as Koldihwa and Mahagara. The Neolithic tools (both stone and bone), pottery, other artefacts, floral and faunal remains have been found from these sites.
  • In Bihar and mid-Gangetic Valley region Chirand is the most popular Neolithic site.
  • Several Neolithic sites are present covering the hills of Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. The tools like Neolithic celts, small ground axes alongwith the remains of pottery have been found from this area.
  • In South India the Neolithic settlements were discovered along the rivers Bhima, Krishna, Tungabhadra and Kaveri.
    • Some important sites are Sanganakallu, Brahmagiri, Maski, Piklihal, Hallur in Karnataka; Utnur, Nagarjunakonda, Budihal in Andhra Pradesh; and Paiyampalli in Tamil Nadu.
    • These sites have yielded dwelling pits alongwith the evidence of cultivation of cereals and domestication of animals.
    • Millet (Ragi) was one of the earliest crops cultivated by the villagers of South India.

Subsistence Pattern

The advent of agriculture marked a significant change in Neolithic phase.

  • The people cultivated various kinds of crops such as wheat, barley, rice, millet, lentils, etc,. depending on the geographical conditions.
  • Agriculture gave impetus to animal domestication; Hunting still remained an important occupation.
    • The people domesticated animals which included sheep, goat, cattle, etc. and also hunted wild animals such as boar, nilgai, gazells, etc.
  • Different kinds of stone tools were made by Neolithic people (discussed above).
  • The Neolithic people also manufactured pottery, which was initially hand-made and later turned on wheel and fired in large kilns.
    • These were the major means of storage for grains.

In nutshell, the Neolithic cultures were characterised by change from hunting and gathering to cultivation of plants and domestication of animals.

  • The new polished tools made it easier for humans to cultivate, hunt and perform other activities in a better manner.
  • It led to greater availability of food resources as well as to an increase in population, which in turn resulted in the increase in the number of village settlements.
  • The Neolithic cultures created the conditions which helped in the growth of towns in the later period.


The Pre-Historic Art

The rock paintings were an important and distinct feature of the Mesolithic people though their beginning may be traced to the upper Palaeolithic period. These paintings are made on the walls of rock shelters, maximum of which have been found at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh. These throw light on the social and economic life on Mesolithic people.

The main subjects of paintings are hunting, fishing and food gathering. Animals like boar, buffalo, monkey and nilgai are often depicted in these paintings.

The social activities like the child-birth, rearing of a child and burial ceremony are also shown in the rock paintings.


The scenes of hunting in a group suggest that Mesolithic people lived in small groups. Thus, we can say that the Mesolithic society was more stable than the one in Palaeolithic age, though hunting-gathering still remained its main preoccupation.



Bibliography : NIOS – Ancient India

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