Middle Palaeolithic Stone Tool Technology in the Kortallayar Basin, South India

Article excerpt


Recent approaches towards the study of Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages in India vary greatly. Most reports on excavations or surveys contain lists of tool types and often use types as `index fossils' for culture-stratigraphic successions. Others emphasize tool manufacturing techniques (Corvinus 1983; Jayswal 1978), and may put forward observations on hominid behaviour in their regional settings (Allchin et al. 1978; Misra 1989; Murty 1981; Paddayya 1982; Pappu 1997; Sharma & Clark 1983). Artefacts are also examined in terms of attributes which may inform on natural formation processes (Petraglia 1995; Pappu 1999: 135). This paper examines stone tool technology from the surface collection of artefacts from Middle Palaeolithic sites in the Kortallayar basin, South India, with emphasis on the lithic reduction sequence. This is one of the few regions in India where site formation processes have been studied, to identify well-preserved Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites (Pappu 1996; 1997; 1999) and to make observations on hominid behaviour. This paper also places assemblages from the study region within the context of the relatively little known Indian Middle Palaeolithic, with implications for further studies of varied hominid behaviour patterns.

The region

The study region (FIGURE 1) in the Kortallayar Basin, Tiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu, South India comprises an area of 200 sq. km. Upper Gondwana formations (the Allikulli hills and outliers; Muralidharan et al. 1993; Pappu 1996: 15) are the source of the raw materials in the form of quartzite and quartzitic sandstone pebbles and cobbles and quartz nodules, which were redistributed over the region via colluvial, sheet and stream flood processes (FIGURE 2). A regional survey (1991-1995) documented 22 localities with Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artefacts. Middle Palaeolithic sites have varied artefact densities ranging from 3-4 to 28 artefacts/sq.m, covering areas of 50 sq. m to around 1 sq. km. Sites occur in rock-shelters in the Allikulli hills; on hill slopes; in open-air contexts in low-to-medium-energy episodic sheet wash deposits; and erode out of ferricretes and ferricritized gravels (Pappu 1999: 132). Most localities have stratified Lower to Middle Palaeolithic horizons (FIGURE 2), testifying to the intense and continuous occupation of this region during the Pleistocene.


Middle Palaeolithic assemblages

An understanding of the complete lithic reduction sequence, as opposed to a listing of tool types, was necessary to study hominid behaviour patterns during the Middle and Late Pleistocene. Attributes chosen included general ones applicable for all tool types (such as raw material, blank form, patina, cortex percentage and position, dorsal flake scar patterns, dimensions, etc.) and those specific to certain artefact types (such as distinct measurements for bifaces, cores, etc.). Artefacts were divided into cores, debitage and finished tools. A few general types were chosen, acknowledging the fact that there is considerable gradation between types owing to technological or non-functional causes. A brief description of these assemblages is followed by a discussion and implications for hominid behaviour. Codes for the names of sites are listed in TABLE 1.


Raw material

The principal raw material comprised quartzite, followed by quartzitic sandstone, and quartz (TABLE 2). These were derived from the weathering and reworking of the Upper Gondwana Satyavedu and Sriperumbudur formations of the Allikulli hills, and their outliers. No site is more than 4 km from raw material sources.


Blank types

Tools made on cobbles and pebbles are seen at all sites but form an important percentage at sites located on hillslopes, where they would have been easily accessible. …