Nearly 160 years ago, a 24-year-old English geologist stepped off a steamer at Madras port to join as the latest recruit of the Geological Survey of India. Young Robert Bruce Foote had arrived in the subcontinent to map minerals in the southern regions of the colonised country. It was hardly expected then, that this young Englishman would go on to discover around 459 prehistoric sites in the country, earning the title of the “Father of Indian Prehistory”.

Foote’s invaluable contributions to the study of geology and archaeology laid the foundation for subsequent research in the field by Indian scholars. His book, The Foote Collection of Indian Prehistoric and Protohistoric Antiquities, catalogues, with detailed notes and descriptions, thousands of prehistoric artefacts found by him. In memory of the pioneer, filmmaker Ramesh Yanthra from Chennai has made a 25-minute documentary on Robert Foote’s life and his path-breaking work.

“It took us three years to make this documentary since we had to find archival evidence to support what we were being told by locals and experts,” said Yanthra. “None of this was available on the internet or even in most books.”

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Archaeologist and geologist

Foote was a trained geologist and an accidental archaeologist. It all began in 1863 when he was surveying, along with his colleague William King, the rock formations near the town of Pallavaram, which is now a part of the city of Chennai. Foote struck upon a small curious-looking stone, with sharp edges and points. He noticed that it looked like it had been chiselled by hand. It was only much later that Foote realised that he had stumbled upon a two million-year-old artefact in the first paleolithic site to be identified in British India.

In his 33-year-long career at the Geological Survey of India, Foote travelled extensively across South India on horseback, to discover and map minerals across the landscape. His work on quaternary sediments, especially alluvial and laterite sediments in river basins in South and Western India, still remains relevant for geological research. In his leisure time, he occupied himself by documenting artefacts he found on his travels, which were significant in understanding the habits and culture of prehistoric man.

A sketch by Robert Foote. Credit: Geological Survey of India
A sketch by Robert Foote. Credit: Geological Survey of India

Apart from his discovery in Pallavaram, some of the other important Palaeolithic sites Foote found were in Attrampakkam in Tamil Nadu, Kaira in Bijapur, Halkundi in Bellary and Lingadahalli in Chikmagallur in Karnataka. “Foote was not a trained archaeologist, so he would send the artefacts to experts to verify how old they were,” said Yanthra.

After Foote’s initial discovery, other officers of the Geological Survey of India identified several other prehistoric tools and implements in the river basins of peninsular India. But Foote was still singular: he was the only person who took a keen interest in both prehistoric archaeology and geology, wrote Ragunath S Pappu, retired archaeology professor at the Deccan College in Pune.

Foote's sketch of Kanjamalai hill near Salem district. Credit: Geological Survey of India.
Foote's sketch of Kanjamalai hill near Salem district. Credit: Geological Survey of India.

Indeed, when Foote later observed the distribution of Palaeolithic sites in southern India, he found that the Palaeolithic man avoided dense forested regions with heavy rainfall – as Pappu wrote, this explained why settlements were not found in the Western Ghats. Most Palaeoliths were located towards the eastern coast, and usually in places where quartzite is found. Foote found that prehistoric settlements were closely related to geological formations in the region, and Palaeolithic men preferred using quartzite for most artefacts and weapons. “He was not a mere collector of antiquities but was deeply interested in the cultural significance and meaning of his finds,” wrote the archaeology professor.

Ivy Cottage, Robert Foote's retirement home in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu.
Ivy Cottage, Robert Foote's retirement home in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu.

Father of Indian Prehistory

It was while working on his first documentary on Gudiyam caves, a site of prehistoric tools in Thiruvallur district near Chennai, that Yanthra began to form an interest in the life of Robert Foote. It was Foote who had discovered the site and found Palaeolithic tools in the area. “The way we are so curious about knowing about the lives of our forefathers, I was curious about Robert Foote,” said Yanthra.

He spent three years, and a total of Rs 5 lakh on the 25-minute documentary. Yanthra visited many of the sites discovered by Foote, located his retirement home and even contacted his great-grandson Jonathan Foote in the United Kingdom. “I felt the future generation should know about his work and the importance of his discoveries,” said Yanthra.

Foote sold his entire collection of prehistoric tools to the Madras Museum in 1904 for Rs 33,000. According to an article published in the journal Man and Environment, Foote had refused to sell the collection to scholars abroad, on the grounds that he did not want it to leave the country. During his explorations, Foote had no monetary incentive to collect and document prehistoric artefacts. In fact, Foote himself said this about his passion for archaeology:

“I made several finds of prehistoric implements and then became a confirmed collector of prehistoric remains and my love for them has only gone on increasing during the forty three years that have elapsed since I discovered the first paleolith known in India.”

Robert Foote's sketch of Kanyakumari. Credit: Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India.
Robert Foote's sketch of Kanyakumari. Credit: Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India.