Recent Recovery of Unpublished Field Notes of Theodore D. McCown's Paleoanthropological Explorations in the Narmada River System, India, 1964-1965

Article excerpt


Since the discovery in 1982 of the "Narmada Man" fossil cranial remains in the middle Narmada (Narbadda) Valley of India (Fig. 1) by the geologist Arun Sonakia, several scholars in the international community of palaeoanthropologists have sought to determine the specimen's antiquity, its stratigraphic context, and the nature of its associated middle Pleistocene stone tools. Removed from the deposit were Acheuliantype hand axes, cleavers, and fossilized bones and teeth of extinct faunal species. Research within the Narmada River system was directed in 1964-1965 by the late Theodore D. McCown (1908-1969) with his team from the University of California at Berkeley. McCown's untimely death and other circumstances precluded the publication of a report of his explorations. However, his handwritten notes (Document 1), letters (Document 3), and a typed list of the locations that he explored with his team (Document 2) have been recovered (Tables 1 and 2). In the present article these materials were copied and minimally edited. They are of historic value and are potentially useful as a guide to a number of sites for investigation by twenty-first-century palaeoanthropologists. These goals can be attained through exploration and excavation of the localities within the Narmada River system, which are discussed and listed here. McCown's interpretation of the prehistoric stone tools and biotic specimens he encountered along the Narmada River and its vicinity is that those artifacts and faunal remains exposed along the present-day flood plain had eroded out of adjacent higher stratigraphic levels of middle Pleistocene age and became re-deposited. His usage of cultural and lithic traditions as Early, Middle, and Late Stone Ages reflects his application to the African system of chronology and diagnostic lithic features current at the time he was writing. Today there is a preference among South Asian prehistorians to identify these lithic-cultural traditions as Early, Middle, and Late Palaeolithic. Post-leistocene (Holocene) stone tool traditions fall within the Late Palaeolithic.



"The proposal I made in connection with the sabbatical leave application for 1964-1965 was to carry [out] our field research in Central India, primarily in the Narbadda and Tapti Valleys, concentrating on prehistoric archaeological problems of Pleistocene time.

"This area of Central India, especially the middle stretch of the Narmada valley from Harda to Jabalpur, has been regarded for a century as representing the Middle Pleistocene fauna of peninsular India. The presence of ancient man in India has been attested by chipped stone tools through discoveries made in the last century and in the Narbudda Valley since the 1930s. Reasonable evidence has been available of tools typologically like Middle Pleistocene tools from Europe and Africa with indications Late Pleistocene and post-Pleistocene forms present also.

"From Jabalpur to the Arabian Sea, the river current turns a little and southwest for a distance of about 150 kilometers. To the south the valley is bounded by the Satpura Range which effectively marks the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau. To the north the Vindhya Range with its continuation westerly of the Malwa Plateau forms a distinct boundary. The valley continues eastward and north of Jabalpur until the water divide is reached which separates the eastward flowing of the Son River. A major river enters the valley south and west of Jabalpur, coming from the southeast, and because of its size is regarded as the upstream continuation of the Narbadda. Physiologically it is a major southern tributary which turns eastward about 300 km south of Jabalpur and has a source on the mountains that roughly divide this part of Madhya Pradesh from Orissa.

"If the Indus River is excepted, this is India's only flowing river of any length and volume in a major rift valley. …