From Hominins to Horse-riders: Vast Span of Humanity in Indian Cave Art

The rock shelters of Bhimbetka in central India go back to the dawn of humanity, but what is the deal with ancient pictures of people astride horses and elephants?

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Paintings of people riding animals that appear to be horses at Bhimbetka.
Cave paintings at Bhimbetka, showing people riding animals that appear to be horsesCredit: deepak bishnoi / Shutterstock
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In central India lies a famous prehistoric site called Bhimbetka, consisting of hundreds of rock shelters and caves spanning seven foothills in the Vindhya Range. Though they were first identified as sites of prehistoric interest in 1957, many questions remain about the petroglyphs and wall paintings in these rock shelters, some of which are touted as the oldest-known art in the Indian subcontinent.

Some think the paintings could be up to 30,000 years old. But if the Bhimbetka paintings go back tens of thousands of years, a mystery arises regarding the images of people riding elephants and other animals that look like horses.

The snag is that the horse was only domesticated about 5,500 years ago in the central Eurasian steppe, by a people known as the Botai. So either prehistoric residents of India beat the Botai to the game by millennia or the paintings are not that old after all.

Indian experts on rock art and Prof. Robert Bednarik, expert extraordinaire in this field, can help make order. “The petroglyphs of Bhimbetka are very old, the paintings are not,” Bednarik sums up.

Admiring the rock shelters at Bhimbetka Credit: ImagesofIndia / Shutterstock.com

Bhimbetka indeed may sport some of the oldest art in the world – but it isn’t figurative drawings, it’s engravings in the rock. Some will ask, “but is it art at all?” As for the widely publicized date of about 30,000 years ago, it could apply to some of the art at Bhimbetka, which has been occupied by humans and their predecessors for eons – but not to all of the art.

None of the rock art in the Bhimbetka shelters has been securely dated scientifically, Bednarik spells out. There are petroglyphs there that may predate the evolution of Homo sapiens and there are paintings of hunts that may go back tens of thousands of years. But the drawings of people exploiting quadrupeds are relatively modern.

This outcome fits with recent revelations about the evolution and spread of homo-kind. It begs adding that Bhimbetka wasn’t just a way-station: it was occupied for hundreds of thousands of years and for good reason. The Times of India describes it as “enchanting “ with rock shelters “perhaps more imposing and majestic than most man-made residences of the twenty-first century” and notes its abundant spring-water and that the hills were alive with the sound of potential prey, from deer to boar to hare.

Prof. Bednarik: 'The petroglyphs of Bhimbetka are very old, the paintings are not'Credit: Ar. Arnav Saikia / Shutterstock

Passage through India

Israel was on the route out of Africa, and back to it from Eurasia, at least 2 million years ago. Homo erectus, for instance, likely passed through the Levant en route to the Dmanisi cave in Georgia where its bones from that time have been found. Israel is rich in artifacts from deep prehistory and has been extensively excavated, though most of the finds are stone tools; skeletons are rare.

Having left Africa and passed through the Levant, we don’t know what routes hominins and modern Homo sapiens took to get where their remains have been found in Asia. It had been hypothesized that modern and archaic humans reached southeast Asia and Australia by walking along the Indian Ocean coast, arriving in northern Asia via Siberia and avoiding the Gobi Desert.

New research suggests that the Gobi, like Arabia, may have been green at times and was therefore not an obstacle. Also, there were clearly multiple dispersals of early and later modern humans. Seepage out of Africa was more or less continuous, and there were returns to Africa. Hominins and early humans didn’t have GPS or geographical goals, and the coastal route is evidently not the only one.

Bhimbetka, in central India, was extensively occupied by hominins, Bednarik explains, and we know this by the discovery of stone tools typical of the Middle Paleolithic, Acheulean and even earlier tools that date up to many hundreds of millennia ago. Among the tools found at Bhimbetka are Acheulean-style hand axes, cleavers and more primitive hammers.

The Auditorium Cave at the Bhimbetka, with cupules and linear grooves engraved in the wall.Credit: Dinesh Valke

The age of the Bhimbetka petroglyphs, cupules and grooves in the rock is not as clear. Some surmise they could be as much as 700,000 to 290,000 years old.

“The most central site of the whole [Bhimbetka] complex is Auditorium Cave, which has a cathedral-like ambience,” Bednarik says. “It is one of the two earliest rock art sites currently known in the world (the second is Daraki-Chattan Cave, elsewhere in India). Both sites have cupules (cup-shaped petroglyphs) and rare linear grooves that were made in a pre-Acheulean period featuring handaxe-free tool assemblages.”

Some of the extremely early petroglyphs in Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan were underneath Acheulean occupation layers, Bednarik adds – in other words they predated the artifacts from the Acheulean culture. Which means? Nothing specific – The Acheulean tool industry began about 1.76 million years ago and continued into the Middle Paleolithic and beyond. Note that when a more sophisticated tool industry comes along, it doesn’t immediately replace the older one; both may exist in tandem, even for millennia.

Other intriguing stone tool finds at a different Indian site, Dhaba, indicate that the Toba “super-eruption,” which took place about 74,000 years ago in Sumatra, did not cause the mass extinction of humans in the Indian subcontinent as had been suspected. We know that humans in India survived the event because stone tool manufacturing did not cease.

Though that doesn’t mean that anybody today descended directly from these survivors. The thinking is that all humans alive today outside Africa descended from people who left Africa about 60,000 to 50,000 years ago and earlier emigres went extinct (though not because of Toba). If so, the people who drew submissive horses and elephants on the rock shelter walls didn’t descend from the earliest human residents of Bhimbetka, let alone whoever hammered the cupules and curvy lines into the rock before Homo sapiens even existed.

We must add that not everybody agrees on whether the cupules and lines qualify as art, let alone how old they are.

Cupoles at Bhimbetka. The engravings are very very old, but are they art?Credit: Dinesh Valke

Neigh, not prehistoric

Nor is there any clear answer on the dating of the horse and elephant riding pictures. That said: “The horses and elephants of Bhimbhetka belong to the historic period,” Prof. Manoj Kumar Singh of the University of Delhi, an expert on the site, wrote to Haaretz.

Cave paintings at Bhimbetka, in central India. Horse paintings are generally associated with battle scenes.Credit: PRAKASH HATVALNE / AP

Prof. Saleem Shaikh, who researches the finds at Bhimbhetka, seconds that assessment. “The horse paintings found in Indian rock art sites are assigned to the historic and late historic periods (2500 years to 500 years),” he says. Very little effort has gone into scientifically dating the prehistoric art of India, he says, and we do not have scientifically sound dates for the horse paintings

Shaikh adds that In Indian rock art sites, horse paintings are generally associated with battle scenes and sometimes hunting scenes – but horse remains only appear (so far) in burials from the Megalithic period, about 3,000 years ago.

So no, the images in the rock shelters do not indicate that the horse was domesticated in what is today India before the Botai and then the Yamnaya tamed the animal and rode off on its back in all directions.

Rock paintings of elephants at Bhimbetka. Elephants may have been held captive, but they were never domesticatedCredit: Anju2016

As for the elephant, it has technically never been domesticated. By definition, domestication includes breeding programs that change the morphology of the animal (or plant) for our convenience. Just look at teacup Bichon Frises or Malteses and compare them with their point of origin, the mighty wolf. The mini-dogs were basically created by taking runts and mating them with other runts to wind up with mega-runts, and this has not been done to the Asian elephant.

But if we’re talking about captive elephants, Harappan seals show that they existed in Indus civilization some 4,500 years ago. The elephants on the seals are depicted with ropes on them. This doesn’t mean the Harappans rode the beasts, but wild elephants in nature do not normally wear ropes. In 1988, the scholar Lahiri Choudhury suggested that rock art indicates captive pachyderms as early as 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, but cautioned that the dating could be off.

“From my experience I regard nearly all of the paintings as being of Late Holocene ages, but there may also be some Mesolithic ones, which would be of the early Holocene. Most certainly there are no paintings of the Pleistocene, i.e. older than 12,000 years,” Bednarik sums up. And there we have it. Some rock art at Bhimbetka may precede modern-humankind itself but not the paintings of people astride the horse and elephant. The Botai can keep their title as domesticators of the horse, and as for the elephant, well, as we said, domestic it is not.

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