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Indian cave art saved from the wreckers

Indian cave art saved from the wreckers

Author: Catherine Philp
Publication: The Times, UK
Date: October 31, 2002

A Loud crash in the jungle brought the villagers running. As they dashed to the clearing close to the forest cave, they found labourers pounding the rock face with hammers, hewing off chunks of stone to sell for silica.

Horrified, they ran to fetch the police superintendent from the neighboring village. The rocks, they said, had beautiful paintings on them and although they knew nothing about where they came from, they were sure it was wrong to destroy them.

When Superintendent Vijay Kumar arrived, accompanied by the villagers, he knew he had come across something special. "I felt a thrill go through me," he said. Exhorting the labourers to lay down their tools, he stood in front of the rock face, mesmerised by the bold red etchings of people dancing, men on horseback and a tribe hunting bison with spears.

The villagers did not know it then, but their action may have saved some of the oldest evidence of human civilisation found in India, deep in the jungles outside the town of Shankargarh in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Local experts summoned to examine the paintings said they may be between 10,000 and 30,000 years old. If their assessment can be confirmed, it would make the new discovery as old as, or even older than, the prehistoric cave paintings at Bhimbetka in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, discovered in 1957.

"They will be counted among the oldest found in the country," said D. P. Tewari, a lecturer in prehistoric archaeology at Lucknow University, who visited the site soon after the discovery. He compared the scenes of dancing and hunting with those found in caves such as Lascaux in France, as well as Bhimbetka, which both depict scenes from the everyday lives of prehistoric cave-dwellers in the Upper palaeolithic era. The discovery did not stop there. Inside a cave complex hidden beyond the rock face, the archaeologists discovered further treasures, more red-paint sketchings stretched across the walls, with further scenes from prehistoric life as well as detailed diagrams of the internal organs of animals. On the ground, they found discarded tools, apparently used by the prehistoric occupants of the caves.

Before the discovery, archaeologists had always believed that   prehistoric man had remained in the rocky mountain areas where they hunted animals and gathered food. The new find, 230 miles southwest of the mountain cave complex of Bhimbetka, may force a re-evaluation of assumptions about where Ancient Indians lived.

"The significance of these findings is immense," Dr Tewari said. "These caves lie close to the central plains, challenging the earlier view that palaeolithic man only settled near hilly areas. Now it seems people were living in the Plains as far back as then."

Officials from the Archaeological Survey of India in Delhi have yet to visit the site to authenticate the find and determine its age, but the Uttar Pradesh state tourism department is already planning to build a road into the jungle to bring tourists to see it

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