The landscape was a geological crumb cake – a ruddy tableland bristling with boulders, rocks and pebbles. Every step that archaeologist Jinu Koshy took was like a shuffle dance.
A short while into the trek, echoes of bleating goats boomeranged, signalling an approaching ravine. Koshy stood at the nibbled edge of the chasm, looking for rock shelters.
It was the 42-year-old archaeologist’s first trip to this desolate mesa in the western region of Andhra Pradesh. The terrain was similar to Jwalapuram, an area 22 km southwest of the spot, that Koshy had helped excavate about a decade ago, a dig that had unearthed some of South India’s oldest rock art in cave shelters. Since the landscapes of the old and new sites bore close resemblances, Koshy had a gut feel that he was on the cusp of a similar momentous discovery.
“But I didn’t find any rock art,” said Koshy, 42. “It was pretty disappointing.” The Chennai-based archaeologist was left twiddling his thumbs.
But not for long.
Earliest graphic novels
If you have seen the 30,000-year-old stick figures in the caves of Bhimbetka in Central India or the 2,200-year-old dazzling murals of Ajanta and Ellora in Western India, you will agree that cave drawings are chronicles of life. In many ways, they are the original graphic novels – stories tattooed on walls of ancient migratory routes.
“Rock art is the earliest visual manifestation of the innate artistic urge of the human being,” said Chandramouli Navuluri, an expert on cave paintings, specifically, on rock art finds in Andhra Pradesh – a geologically-rich area teeming with some of the oldest cave art in South India. Deep orange turtles, limestone-painted human figures and coal-scrawled abstractions were found in many rock shelters in this region, and were relatively easy-to-decode tales about our ancestors and their surroundings. “Rock art speaks by itself,” said Navuluri, a professor at Pondicherry University. “So, even a layman, simply by looking at the representation of the animal figures, can interpret how the contemporary society might have looked like.”
Discovering these early graphic novels was proving elusive for Koshy on his trek in 2018. Disappointed, he paused near a boulder along the way, a popular resting spot for shepherds and archaeologists alike. He was exhausted. The sun was beating down and walking on the uneven terrain had worn out his ankles.
There were a few young shepherds in the vicinity. Using a mix of various languages, accompanied by flailing hands, he asked some of them if they had seen any drawings or scribbles in the canyons. The boys, sunburnt from herding sheep all day, responded with a nod.
Koshy was elated. He summoned his last reserves of strength and resumed his trek. Drenched in sweat, he soon reached the serrated rim of a small valley. He scrambled to its base. Ducking through the thorny path of a dry stream, he spotted a rock shelter. As he crawled closer, he gasped.
Despite the fading light, Koshy could see ochre-tinted relics of ordinary life on the walls of these outcrops. He had discovered cave paintings.
“That was a huge rock shelter with hundreds and thousands of elements of rock art,” said Koshy. “Animals like ungulates, deer species, boar, humans, abstract symbols.”
Finding El Dorado
More than half a century ago, veteran archaeologist Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar had made an unexpected train stop in Central India to survey passing hills and stumbled upon astounding Stone Age cave art in Madhya Pradesh. Now, Koshy was having his eureka moment.
“As soon as I found these paintings, I thought that this place definitely has potential for more exploration and we might yield hundreds of paintings from these shelters,” said Koshy.
In the trips that followed, Koshy, along with a few of his students, discovered more than 200 caves with these prehistoric drawings. Koshy believes the area could possibly have been home to a vibrant community of prehistoric people with children jumping around streams and adults foraging edible tubers, hunting antelopes with stone tools and mincing its meat with stone implements.
“For an archaeologist and a rock art researcher, finding such huge area having thousands of artistic representations is a gold mine…[an] El Dorado,” said Navuluri, comparing Koshy’s discovery to the affluent, fictional town in South America that seafaring explorers hoped to find.
Koshy believes the paintings are roughly 12,000 years old. His estimate is based on timestamps on small, sharp tools found elsewhere in the region. Similar middle Stone Age artefacts have been found in these caves, which allow for a comparison.
In one cave, there were 2,000 rusty paintings created using haematite – purple, iron oxide-rich stones. Its Ice Age occupants perhaps first outlined the drawings before filling the silhouettes with a mix of haematite and some liquid.
On one part of the rock shelter was a palm-sized antelope, decorated with lines and incomplete triangles, and above it was a figure with spiky hair, arms and legs stretched out. Hidden amidst all this was a smudgy drawing of a creature that seemed like a turtle.
But there were also some figures that resembled creatures that have never before been sighted in Indian rock art finds – drawings that looked like erect-standing, pouch-bearing kangaroos.
“There we have a kangaroo with [a] raised hand and a mouth which is rounded,” said Koshy, pointing to ochre-tinted drawings of upright, marsupial-like creatures on the walls of one of the rock shelters to me. He climbed up the cave wall to show his other finds. “One is here, one is here and one more is here and the bigger one is there.”
It seemed like the perfect plot for the next Indiana Jones movie: why were these kangaroo-like figures on these walls? Did they ever jump around in this region?
This is possibly the first time archaeological finds related to marsupials have been unearthed in India, although fossil discoveries had been made more than a decade ago. In 2005, palaeontologist Sunil Bajpai discovered 52-million-year-old teeth in a coal mine in Gujarat. “One of them was not a correct identification, it turned out to be a bat,” said Bajpai, an academic at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee. “But the other, a lot of people have put it in the category of marsupial with a question mark.”
Koshy suggests the presence of the marsupial-like figures can be traced back to human migration. Modern humans are said to have migrated to India from Africa more than 65,000 years ago. Over the next 20,000 years, some groups reached Australia. Is it possible that some of these adventurers, traversing at least 8,000 km, returned to recall stories of long-tailed, erect marsupials that future generations harked back to?
Clash of beliefs
“The kangaroo-like animal [illustrations] in these rock shelters can be evidence to say that prehistoric humans may have migrated back,” said Koshy, who teaches archaeology at the University of Madras in Chennai.
But an Australian rock art expert, who did not wish to be identified, dismissed Koshy’s interpretation. Most of the Australian rock art featuring these marsupials shows them with distinctly curvaceous rumps and hopping or grazing – realistic to some extent. In comparison, the rock art figures of the pouched mammals found in Andhra Pradesh, with their straight tails and frozen posture, are relatively simplistic.
Koshy hypothesises this difference to the dilution of memory. Picture this as a game where friends pass around a message, but on a generational scale. The original words, or in this case, pictures, will get moulded into something else as it is passed down.
Navuluri, though, finds all this ridiculous. “Given the distance both aerial and surface, can you imagine an individual going all the way to Australia, crossing the oceans and coming back and drawing a figure or doing so based on the memory of his ancestors,” said Navuluri. “That is something superfluous.”
A clash of beliefs is not the only battle that Koshy will have to wage. So far, his savings have paid for the expeditions. But there are still 13 more valleys to be surveyed. “We have only explored 40% of the valley, still 60% has to be explored,” said Koshy as he nudged into the front seat of a jalopy to begin the bone-rattling downhill drive from the mesa. “This could be the biggest rock art complex in India. In the near future, we will get the answers for that.”
All photos and illustrations courtesy Anupama Chandrasekaran.
The writer is an independent podcaster who publishes audio documentaries focusing on deep history.