Early origins

31 August 2017

For 15 years, Australian and Indian researchers have been working collaboratively in central India to discover the “world’s oldest rock art” thought to be dating to almost 2 to 5 lakh (200,000 to 500,000) years old.

Since 2002, Australian and Indian experts have been excavating rock art discovered in 1995 in the narrow Daraki-Chattan Cave at Indragarh Hill in central India. The project culminated last November into an expedition seeking to secure sound evidence for the age of rock art thought to be in the order of 2 to 5 lakh years old. As well as evidence of tool making, the excavation has uncovered definite evidence of human visual creation from the Lower Palaeolithic in the form of petroglyphs, cupules, engraved lines, and hammerstones used for producing cupules.

The other oldest discovered rock art site is also located in the region, implying that the cognitive and intellectual evolution of humans commenced in southern Asia.

‘This shifts the centre of attention from Africa to India,’ explains Professor Robert G. Bednarik, one of three Australian researchers involved in the project. He points out the significance of these discoveries, that culture and art began much earlier in India than in the more commonly thought of French caves. ‘Another colonialist myth hits the dust,’ he adds.

Discovered in 1995, Daraki-Chattan Cave rock art in central India is one of the two oldest known art-like productions in the world. This image shows the front entrance of the cave. Credit: Robert G. Bednarik.

Rock art constitutes the primary evidence available about the cognitive world of our early ancestors, defining their thoughts, experiences and the reality they existed in. It occurs worldwide and is the main cultural resource that has survived from periods before the introduction of writing.

According to Professor Bednarik, this collaborative project also results in the transfer of scientific skills and ideas between Australian and Indian researchers.

‘Australian researchers work with Indian physicists who are establishing an optically stimulated fluorescence lab in Bhopal. Not only has the project provided the opportunity to hone their theoretical basis, they have also benefited from participating in practical sampling under stringent requirements by observing the established practices.’

Microscopy of the petroglyphs, which are hundreds of thousands of years old, located at the north wall of the Daraki-Chattan cave. Credit: Robert G. Bednarik.

Australian rock art research is regarded as some of the best in the world, and in many areas of the field Australians are the undisputed leaders. Endeavours such as the Daraki-Chattan dating project not only reinforce this position, but emphasise how Australian researchers can contribute expertise and experience to help other countries achieve successful results.

Samples of the rock art have been dated by experts in India, Australia and Greece. ‘Collaborations tend to involve many flow-on effects, in publishing, extending research partnerships, developing other collaborations, working with the media and with political key players, and ultimately in the development of beneficial economic policies,’ says Professor Bednarik.

This project is supported by the Australia-India Council (AIC). The AIC advances Australia's interests by supporting activities that enhance awareness and understanding between the peoples and institutions of Australia and India.

Last Updated: 31 August 2017