In a place called Bhimbetka there are a total of 750 caves and shelters spread over a 10-x-4 kilometer area. The caves depict paintings belonging to the Paleolithic (10,000 B.C.), Mesolithic (5,000 B.C.) and the Chalcolithic (2,000 B.C.) periods. The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka are in the foothills of the Vindhyan Mountains on the southern edge of the central Indian plateau. Within massive sandstone outcrops, above comparatively dense forest, are five clusters of natural rock shelters, displaying paintings that appear to date from the Mesolithic Period right through to the historical period. The cultural traditions of the inhabitants of the twenty-one villages adjacent to the site bear a strong resemblance to those represented in the rock paintings. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Bhimbetka reflects a long interaction between people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its rock art. It is closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy as demonstrated in the rock art and in the relicts of this tradition in the local adivasi villages on the periphery of this site.

The nominated Bhimbetka rock shelters site lies within the Vindhyan Hills, an area of massively sculpted sandstone rock formations clustered around Bhimbetka Hill. The area has abundant natural resources - perennial water supplies, natural shelter, rich forest flora and fauna, and these conditions of plenty seem to have been conducive to the development of sustainable and persistent societies and the creation of notable rock art.

The site includes five clusters of rock shelters, with one large complex in the buffer zone. The rock shelters display persistent traditions of rock painting, spanning periods from the Mesolithic to the Historic. They also display a profusion, richness and variety of mural subjects and, as a collection, form one of the densest known concentrations of rock art. Many of the rock shelters within the area are set within fairly dense forest, which displays a high diversity of flora and fauna, still harvested by the local people. Overall the landscape has a strong appealing aesthetic quality, derived from the beauty of the naturally sculpted rock formations and the contrasting lush, densely wooded vegetation, which together give the place a 'timeless' quality.

The site complex was discovered by V. S. Wakankar in 1957. Almost 100 years earlier, in 1867, rock paintings had been discovered in Uttar Pradesh and the first scientific article on Indian rock paintings was published by J. Cockburn in 1883. Bhimbetka was first mentioned in 1888 as a Buddhist site, from information obtained from local adivasis. Two shelters were excavated in 1971 by Bajpai, Pandey and Gour. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Drawings and Paintings in Bhimbetka

The most famous place in Bhimbetka is Zoo Rock where one can see paintings dating back to 10,000 B.C. made with limestone and also some paintings made between 5,000 years and 7,000 years ago with vegetable colors and iron. The Zoo Rock depicts a variety of animals from horses to elephants and from bulls to antelopes. There is a distinct difference in the paintings made in 10,000 B.C. and those made in 5,000 B.C. It makes one wonder if the animals themselves evolved or was it that man just became a better artist.There are also caves that depict paintings of man’s daily life thousands of years ago. You have paintings showing group dance and others depicting hunting scenes. [Source: Glorious India]

Some caves have paintings, which date back to 2,000 B.C. Here, man is shown wearing clothes and the weapons are more sophisticated. The paintings too have improved. For instance, while horses were shown as nothing but line sketches in the 10,000 B.C. paintings, a horse painted in 2,000 B.C. The superimposition of paintings shows that the same canvas was used by different people at different times.

The drawings and paintings can be classified under seven different periods: Period I - (Upper Paleolithic): These are linear representations, in green and dark red, of huge figures of animals such as bisons, tigers, and rhinoceroses. Period II - (Mesolithic): Comparatively small in size, the stylised figures in this group show linear decoration on the body. In addition to animals, there are human figures and hunting scenes, giving a clear picture of the weapons they used: barbed spears, pointed sticks, bows and arrows. The depiction of communal dances, birds, musical instruments, mother and child, pregnant women, men carrying dead animals, drinking and burials appear in rhythmic movement. Period III - (Chaleolithic): Similar to the paintings of Chaleolithic pottery, these drawings reveal that during the period the cave dwellers of this area had come in contact with the agricultural communities of the Malwa plains and started an exchange of their requirements with each other. [Source: Glorious India]

Period IV & V - (Early Historic): The figures of this group have a schematic and decorative style, and are painted mainly in red, white and yellow. The association is of riders, depiction of religious symbols, tunic-like dresses and the existence of scripts of different periods. The religious beliefs are represented by figures of yakshas, tree gods and magical sky chariots. Period Vl & Vll - (Medieval): These paintings are geometric, linear and more schematic, but they show degeneration and crudeness in their artistic style.

The colours used by the cave dwellers were prepared combining manganese, haematite, soft red stone and wooden coal. Sometimes the fat of animals and extracts of leaves were also used in the mixture. The colours have remained intact for many centuries due to the chemical reaction resulting from the oxide present on the surface of the rocks.

Pachmari Hills

Rock paintings and images dated to 9000-3000 B.C. have been found in the Pachmari Hills in the Satpura Range of Central India, an area rich with caves, gorges, rock shelters, and lush vegetation. Laura Anne Tedesco of the Department of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Many of the sandstone rock shelters across this area have been decorated along the ceilings and walls with paintings depicting a wide range of subjects. The tradition of rock painting extends as far back as the Mesolithic (ca. 9000–3000 B.C.) into the early medieval historic period. Images of vegetation and animals indigenous to this region of South Asia are among the most commonly portrayed, indicating the importance of these resources to the earliest hunter-gatherer occupants of the shelters. [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Game animals such as bulls, bison, elephants, and wild boar are depicted along with images of lizards, fish, scorpions and birds, such as peacocks. Humans are typically represented as hunters using spears, sticks, and bows and arrows. Female human figures are only occasionally shown in the earliest paintings, though they appear more frequently in later images. The pigments used to create the paintings were derived from naturally occurring materials such as hematite, iron oxide, and kaolin. Variations in color were achieved by mixing the darker pigments with white kaolin (ground limestone). While the majority of paintings in the Pachmari Hills are from historic periods, the earliest Mesolithic depictions provide visually rich and compelling images of the natural environment and some aspects of Mesolithic life.


In neolithic times, Indians raised cattle, sheep, goats, wheat, millet and barley. Mehrgarh is a Neolithic (7000-3200 B.C.) site on the Kachi plain of Baluchistan, Pakistan, and one of the earliest sites with evidence of farming (wheat and barley) and herding (cattle, sheep and goats) in south Asia. The site is located on the principal route between what is now Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. The habitation of the site has been divided into seven periods, the first being the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period that dates to circa 7000 B.C. or even earlier. The site was abandoned between 2000 and 2500 B.C. during a period of contact with the Indus Civilization and then reused as a burial ground for some time after 2000 B.C. [Source: Glorious India]

Mehrgarh has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The archaeological site of Mehrgarh consist of a number of low archaeological mounds in the Kachi plain, close to the mouth of the Bolan Pass. Located next to the west bank of the Bolan river, they are some 30 kilometres from the town of Sibi. Covering an area of some 250 hectares, most of the archaeological deposits are buried deep beneath accumulations of alluvium although in other areas ‘in situ’ structures can be seen eroding on the surface. Currently exposed excavated remains at the site comprise a complex of large compartmental mud-brick structures. Built of hand-formed plano-convex mud bricks, the function of these sub-divided units is still uncertain but it is thought that many were for storage rather than residential. Mounds, MR3 & MR1 also contain formal cemeteries, parts of which have been excavated. [Source: Department of Archaeology and Museums of India]

The archaeological sequence at the site of Mehrgarh is over 11 metres deep, spanning the period between the seventh and third millennium BC. The site represents a classic archaeological tell site, that is an artificial mound created by generations of superimposed mudbrick structures. Its excavators have proposed the following chronology:
IA Aceramic Neolithlic c.6500-6000 BC Mound MR3
IB Ceramic Neolithic c.6000-5500 BC Mound MR3
II - c.5500-4500 BC Mound MR4
III Early Chalcolithic c.4500-3500 BC Mound MR2
IV-VII Chalcolithic c.3500-2500 BC Mound MR1

The earliest Neolithic evidence for occupation at the site has been identified at mound MR3, but during the Neolithic-Chalcolithic period the focus shifted to mound MR4. The focus continued to shift between localities at the site but by 2600 BC it had relocated at the site of Naushero, some six kilometres to the south. During this period the settlement was transformed from a cluster of small mudbrick storage units with evidence of the on going domestication of cattle and barley to a substantial Bronze Age village at the centre of its own distinctive craft zone. The absence of early residential structures has been interpreted by some as further evidence of the site’s early occupation by mobile or transhumant groups5 possible travelling through the nearby pass seasonally. Although Mehrgarh was abandoned by the time of the emergence of the literate urbanised phase of the Indus Civilisation, its development illustrates the development of the civilisation’s subsistence patterns as well as its craft and trade specialisation. Following its abandonment it was covered by alluvial selts until it was exposed following a flash flood in the 1970s. The French Archaeological Mission to Pakistan excavated the site for thirteen years between 1974 and 1986, and they resumed their work in 1996. The most recent trenches have astonishingly well preserved remains of mud brick structures.

Settlements and Life in Mehrgarh

Perhaps the most important feature of Mehrgarh is the fact that one can witness its gradual development from an early village society to a regional center that covered an area of 200 hectares. Mehrgarh was also a center of manufacture for various figurines and pottery that were distributed to surrounding regions. Research shows that people here lived in houses and were involved in hunting, domesticating of animals and farming grains such as rice, barley and wheat. This hunting-farming society developed gradually and their pursuits were creative. During the early period these people used stone and bone tools such as polished stone-axes, flint blades and bone-pointers. By 6000 B.C. the hand-made pottery appeared and in the 5th millenium B.C. Metallurgy and potter-wheel were introduced later. The people pf Mehgarh produced fine terra-cotta figurine and pottery with exotic geometric designs and produced and wore ornaments of beads, seashells and semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli. [Source: Glorious India]

Research and archaeological work at Mehrgarh had been led by Jean Francois Jarrige, an archaeology scientist and Director of the Musee Guimet in Paris. Dawn reported: “Most of the ruins at Mehrgarh are buried under alluvium deposits, though some structures could be seen eroding on the surface. Currently, the excavated remains at the site comprise a complex of large compartmental mud-brick structures. Function of these subdivided units, built of hand-formed plano-convex mud bricks, is still not clear but it is thought that many were used probably for storage, rather than residential, purposes. A couple of mounds also contain formal cemeteries, parts of which have been excavated. [Source: Dawn, February 19, 2005]

“Although Mehrgarh was abandoned by the time of the emergence of the literate urbanized phase of the Indus civilization around Moenjodaro, Harapa, etc., its development illustrates the development of the civilization's subsistence patterns, as well as its craft and trade. Mr Jarrige said that many beautiful ceramics had been found at the site in Balochistan and were believed to be of the era as early as eighth millennium BC. The French archaeologist said that studies suggested that the findings at Mehrgarh linked this area to the Indus civilization.

“There are indications that bones were used in making tools for farming, textile, and there are also evidences of the use of cotton even in that period. Mr Jarrige pointed out that the skeletons found at the site indicated that the height of people of that era was larger than that of the later period. He said that the architecture at that time was well developed. Rice was the staple food for those people and there were also indications of trade activities.

“The French expert spoke of the difficulties he and his team faced during the exploration work in the area and regretted that some time back, owing to a feud between the two tribes, the Mehrgarh site had been vandalized and the exploratory work had come to a standstill. The work has not yet been resumed fully. He also expressed his concern over the situation where a large number of antiquities belonging to Mehrgarh and other archaeological sites in Zhob and Loralai were available in the market. He called for efforts towards curbing such business, arguing that these antiquities belonged to the entire humanity, and not just a few individuals.”

Early Agriculture in India

In the period of the Neolithic revolution, roughly 8000-4000 B.C., agriculture was far from the dominant mode of support for human societies. Agro pastoralism in India included threshing, planting crops in rows—either of two or of six—and storing grain in granaries.Barley and wheat cultivation—along with the rearing of cattle, sheep and goat—was visible in Mehrgarh by 8000-6000 B.C. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to Gangal et al. (2014), there is strong archeological and geographical evidence that neolithic farming spread from the Near East into north-west India. Yet, Jean-Francois Jarrige argues for an independent origin of Mehrgarh. Jarrige notes the similarities between Neolithic sites from eastern Mesopotamia and the western Indus valley, which are evidence of a "cultural continuum" between those sites. Nevertheless, Jarrige concludes that Mehrgarh has an earlier local background," and is not a "'backwater' of the Neolithic culture of the Near East."Singh et al. (2016) investigated the distribution of J2a-M410 and J2b-M102 in South Asia, which "suggested a complex scenario that cannot be explained by a single wave of agricultural expansion from Near East to South Asia," but also note that "regardless of the complexity of dispersal, NW region appears to be the corridor for entry of these haplogroups into India." +

Oldest Known Dentistry, in Mehrgarh

The first known dental work was done 9,000 years ago at Mehrgarh, a Neolithic villages in present-day Pakistan. Nine individuals from a sample of 300 buried in graves dating from 5500 to 7000 B.C. Had holes drilled in their molars. David Frayer, a professor of anthropology from the University of Kansas, wrote in Natural History, “This is certainly the first case of drilling a person’s teeth. But even more significant this practice lasted 1,500 years and was a tradition at this site. It wasn’t just a sporadic event.” The oldest recorded dentistry before the discovery was found in Denmark and dated to 3000 B.C.

The discovery was reported in an article in Nature by Roberto Macciarelli of the University of Pontiers in France. “Four teeth show signs of decay associated with the hole, indicating that the intervention in some cases could have been therapeutic or palliative,” he said. No evidence of a filling was found but it is possible that there could have been something that decayed away.

The drilling was done to molars in both the upper and lower jaws to adults. In four of the cases the teeth appeared to have been drilled where the teeth had rotted but in the other cases no tooth rot was present. The holes were between a half millimeter and 3.5 millimeters deep. They appear to not have been done for aesthetic reason because the holes way out of view.

The drilling is believed to have been performed with a flint point spun with a bow. An experimental reconstruction of the probable method involved a small thin piece of flint attached to a bone.

Judging from the angle of the holes they were not self made and because the people who had the dental work were performed on them were not buried in special graves it appears that dentistry was available to anyone and was not just the provenance of the rich. One of the individuals had three molars drilled. Another had one molar drilled twice.

Advent of Metals in India

Rama Shankar Tripathi wrote: After many centuries, perhaps, the neolithic man in India learnt the use of metals. Gold was probably his earliest discovery, but it served as a material for ornaments only. His implements and weapons were made of other harder metals. The remarkable finds in a large number of ancient sites prove that in South India stone was directly superseded by iron, whereas in North India axes, awls, swords, spearheads, daggers, harpoons, etc., were at first made of copper, and it was in turn followed by iron. Hoards of such copper implements have been discovered “all across Northern India almost from the Hooghly to the far side of the Indus, and from the foot of the Himalayas to the Cawnpore District.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi , Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The times when the use of these metals became general are known as the Iron and Copper ages. It is, however, important to remember that, unlike other countries, there are no traces in India, except in Sind, of a Bronze Period intervening between the Neolithic and Iron ages. Bronze, which is an alloy of copper and tin, is harder than pure copper, and is doubtless better suited for the manufacture of weapons, but the early men in India somehow did not make it the ordinary material for use. The few implements of this metal, that have been discovered in Jubbulpur, were, in the opinion of antiquarians, either experimental or of foreign origin. And bowls and other objects, found in South Indian cemeteries, were simply articles of luxury meant for domestic purposes, and would hardly indicate the existence of an age when bronze tools were commonly used.

So far we were almost groping in the dark. We now see the twilight of Indian civilisation. The remarkable archeological discoveries at Harappa in the Montgomery district and Mohenjo-daro in the Larkana district, besides other sites in the Punjab, Sind (like Canhudaro, Jhukar-daro), and Baluchistan (e.g., Nal, Kelat State), make it abundantly clear that several centuries before the period of the Kigveda, there were busy centres of life and activity along the course of the river Indus. They show that the people possessed a high degree of culture, which was similar to, and in many respects more advanced than that of contemporary Mesopotamia, Elam, and Egypt. Chalcolithic is the name usually given to this age — an age “in which arms and utensils of stone continue to be used side by side with those of copper and bronze.” To get a glimpse into this remote past, we must take note of the relics unearthed at Mohenjodaro, which are essentially akin to those found at other places. The picture may be dim, but the outlines are sufficiently firm.

Products from Ancient India That Made Their Way to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt

Smelting ore probably began in China or India and made its way westward. Much of the copper in ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece and Rome came from Cyprus, whose name is the source of the word copper. To melt copper out the rock it is necessary to keep a fire at least 1981°F (1083°C). This was most likely done in ancient Copper Age sites by continuously blowing a fire through tubes made from wood, bamboo or reeds. Archaeologists recreating the process need about an hour of constant blowing to produced several copper pellets the size of BBs. Producing copper for an ax using this method would take several weeks.

Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. Blue India dye is derived from a blue powder extracted from the “indigofera” plant. The dye was known to the Greeks and Romans and used by Egyptians to dye mummy cases.

The ancient Egyptians obtained goods from India and China. A strand of silk has been found on a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy. This astonishing discovery provides evidence of trade between ancient China and the Mediterranean 1,800 years before Marco Polo traveled the famed Silk Road.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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