CHENNAI: Situated 60 km northwest from the urban landscape of Chennai, near a meandering tributary of Kortallaiyar river, Attirampakkam could be the oldest pre-historic site in South Asia. If researchers are to be believed, the village, an open-air paleolithic site, is home to tools fashioned out of stone by hunter-gatherers 16 lakh years ago.
The simple yet sophisticated stone tools embedded in the silt have revolutionised the study of pre-history of India, which was considered relatively young till geologist Robert Bruce accidentally discovered Attirambakkam in 1863.
Stone-made hand-axes and cleavers used by our Pleistocene (Ice Age) ancestors were found buried at Attirampakkam. The age of the artefacts spotted in the trenches was estimated using cosmic ray exposure dating (26Al/10Be) using the help of French scientists. This was the first time that an archaeological site in India was dated using this technique.
Excavations at Attirampakkam were initiated in 1999 by Sharma Centre for Heritage Conservation, to establish the cultural identity of the population and secure a chronology of environmental changes they adapted to. The 18-year-long research has yielded information about geographical changes in the site too, said researchers.
Probing the site resulted in identification of eight major sedimentary horizons at Attirambakkam. However, a nine-meter layer of sediment is what interested Shanti Pappu, a researcher and a specialist on Tamil Nadu’s pre-history. Embedded in the layer were several stone tools suggesting the presence of an Acheulean — an ancient industry that manufactured stone tools characterised by distinctive oval and pear-shapes.
“We found around 3,000 artefacts made out of quartzite in one trench alone, suggesting that the population was mining the rock and manufacturing it near the side,” said Pappu. The cleavers used by the paleolithic ancestors are identified by their distinct flaking patterns, sharp working edge, two lateral sides and the symmetry of the tool itself. These tools were knapped from stones primarily for butchery and even chopping wood.
“This discovery changes the perspective on stone-age men being primitive. The ability to mine rocks from granite or quartz hills, and to transport them to another site to manufacture tools shows sophistication in analytical thinking,” observed Pappu, adding that the uniformity in the shape and symmetry of these tools showed capacity for organised and collective working.
These rocks were always made out of basalt, quartz, flint, quarzite, granite and sandstone, suggesting these paleolithic men had functional knowledge of rocks and minerals, she said. Above the layer of sediment from which these tools were excavated, the researchers also claim to have found ferruginous gravel bed capped by clay-rich silts, followed by fine-grained ferricrete gravels, and finally capped by an archaeologically sterile layer of clayey-silts. “We know that at least two different cultures existed in this site,” said Pappu.
Attirambakkam is believed to hold a treasure trove of information. Most of India’s pre-history was deduced from stones, bones and metals owing to limited excavation of fossils in the sub-continent. “In Attirambakkam, we squeezed blood out of stones to chronicle history,” said Kumar Akhilesh, a researcher from Sharma Centre for Heritage Education who worked on the dating of these tools.