This Prehistoric Art Discovered In India Could Reveal A Mysterious Long-lost Civilization

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After the discovery of a number of prehistoric rock-carvings in the Konkan region in India, a group of explorers set out in search of more. Traveling from village to village in the area, the team began to uncover more and more carved images. And their discoveries are now posing some big questions about the Indian sub-continent’s past.

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Konkan is a section of west Indian coastline, and is part of Maharashtra, one of the country’s largest states. It lies next to the Arabian Sea and has been ruled by a variety of peoples throughout the centuries. As a result, many ruins and artifacts have been discovered there which paint a picture of its rich history.

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In the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, for example, the Ellora and Ajanta caves contain examples of incredibly ancient artworks. Taken together, the discoveries within these UNESCO World Heritage Sites shed light on the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions of the time. Not only that, but they also show the impact those peoples had on the cultures that followed.

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With each civilization leaving its own unique mark on Maharashtra, scholars today can paint a picture of what life might have been like centuries ago. Yet the further back one attempts to look, the more difficult such a task becomes. To understand the region as it was around 10,000 years ago, for example, is a tall order, and so any new discoveries from this era are significant.

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So, when the explorers making their way through Konkan began to rack up the new discoveries, one could forgive the archaeological community a little excitement. The rock-carvings, otherwise known as petroglyphs, were found by an investigative team headed by Manoj Marathe and Sudhir Risbood. The pair, it seems, found the bulk of the ancient artworks in the Rajapur and Ratnagiri areas of the Maharashtra.

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Over time, the pair discovered hundreds and hundreds of these carvings across the region. Believe it or not, they had been lying there completely unseen by human eyes for thousands of years. With a small number of exceptions, that is.

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Image: Ratnagiri Tourism

Of the 52 or so villages within which the petroglyphs had been discovered, residents of just five of them had known that such artworks existed. In fact, those known carvings have been treated as holy sites by villagers.

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The team had to cover thousands of square miles in order to search for the petroglyphs. So large was the area they were attempting to investigate that they had to recruit additional help from the locals.

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“People started sending photographs to us. We even enlisted schools in our efforts to find them,” Risbood, one of the lead explorers, recalled to the BBC. “We made students ask their grandparents and other village elders if they knew about any other engravings. This provided us with a lot of valuable information.”

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With the help of local residents, the explorers uncovered petroglyphs all over the region. The images appear to be quite similar to rock-carvings found in other parts of the world. In addition, they were etched into the rock in a very specific way. For the experts, this suggests the pictures could potentially be among the earliest ever discovered.

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Thought to be over 10,000 years old, the petroglyphs portray a vast array of different figures, which surprised archeologists. In fact, such is the variety of birds, animals and geometrical designs illustrated, that experts find themselves with some big questions to answer.

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Image: Ratnagiri Tourism

Given the nature of their depictions, it appears that hunter-gatherers had carved the petroglyphs. Their focus on animals is certainly suggestive of a people concerned with catching food. As if to support that theory, so far there have been no images found that might suggest a knowledge of agriculture.

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“We have not found any pictures of farming activities,” Tejas Garge, the region’s archeology department director, explained to the BBC. “But the images depict hunted animals and there’s detailing of animal forms. So, this man [who created the images] knew about animals and sea creatures. That indicates he was dependent on hunting for food.”

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Shockingly, the evidence seems to point towards a lost Indian civilization. Many of the petroglyphs are of animals which would have been familiar to hunter-gatherers based in this area at the time. It seems likely, therefore, that the drawings were based upon everyday things that those people would have seen. But given the subjects of certain other carvings, this idea brings up some interesting points.

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Some of the etchings were, in fact, of animals such as the rhinoceros or the hippopotamus. And while some parts of India are home to the rhino, the hippo has never been found anywhere on the sub-continent. Which means that people of this time and place shouldn’t really have any idea what they looked like. Yet there they were, carved into rock.

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This, then, has forced researchers to consider two theories which might explain pictures of hippos in Maharashta. Had the hunter-gatherers of this previously unknown civilization actually migrated from Africa to India? Or had these animals themselves once lived in the region?

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In order to help answer these questions, the government of Maharashtra has pledged $3.2 million to analyzing the carvings. This, in part, is due to the efforts of the explorers who discovered the petroglyphs. Marathe and Risbood not only found the carvings, but also campaigned for the backing of the authorities to study them.

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Marathe and Risbood’s efforts may never uncover the truth about the unusual Konkan petroglyphs. Yet the study of prehistoric art is an important and enthralling pursuit for people in modern times. More than that, it can also help to create a clearer image of the human experience thousands of years ago.

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Image: Bernard Gagnon

In India alone, numerous archaeological discoveries have helped to shape our understanding of prehistoric human life. The Bhimbetka rock shelters, for example, show signs of the earliest traces of humanity in India. A UNESCO world heritage site, the shelters contain paintings thought to be around 30,000 years old. In a similar way to the Maharashta carvings, they, too, are suggestive of the manner in which the people who created them lived.

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Similarly, the newly-discovered Konkan petroglyphs are sure to shed light on the unknown civilization from which they derive. Thanks to the efforts of people like Marathe and Risbood, some of the mysteries of their creation might one day be solved. But even if they aren’t, what a wonderful addition they make to art, and human, history.

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