Every evening after archaeologist Shanti Pappu and her colleagues head home for the night, two watchmen patrol the team’s excavation site — a plot of dry scrubland near Sendrayanpalayam village, about a two-hour-drive from Chennai in southern India.
Without such vigilance, the site could easily be disturbed.
To the left of the carefully dug trenches, for instance, lies a bulldozed pit, dredged to remove sand and gravel for a public works project before the researchers started their excavation in 2019, says Pappu, the founder of Sharma Center for Heritage Education in Chennai. A similar instance of land-gouging, or a passer-by randomly collecting exposed artifacts — mostly stone tools, crafted by human ancestors tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago to dig for tubers and slice through meat — would disrupt the careful process of excavation that’s integral to the team’s research.
“We dig very, very slowly, just five centimeters at a time, ensuring nothing is disturbed around each stone tool,” says Annamalai, a member of the excavation crew who goes by a single name, speaking through an interpreter. But a bulldozer, he adds, destroys everything at one go.
Undisturbed plots are vital for meaningful prehistoric research. A stone tool or fossil is only as good as the context in which it is found, whether on the soil surface or deep underground. Disturbed artifacts are like pages ripped at random from a book — perhaps good for a brilliant quote that’s worth revisiting, but useless to understand the whole story. And anything that interferes with the location of the artifact can dramatically change how researchers interpret how human ancestors lived in the region.
Much of the land holding the country’s buried past is, however, being disturbed and rapidly transformed for modern development — agriculture, roads, infrastructure, and expanding cities. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in particular, the government has pushed for more roads, industrial corridors, and large hydroelectric dams, even proposing changes to existing environmental and archaeological heritage protection legislations to ease the way for businesses.
Protecting prehistoric sites can involve years of litigation over land acquisition, as well as battling encroachments. And vandalism and theft is rampant across sites and monuments. The ephemeral nature of the sites is a major roadblock to the slow, deliberate pace of fieldwork for prehistoric research, which often spans decades.
Such research isn’t just an academic exercise, says Katragadda Paddayya, an emeritus professor at Deccan College, Pune. “We have lot of diversity in languages, cultures, [and] ethnic groups,” Paddayya says.
“Archaeology, history, and anthropology,” he adds, “have a big role to enlighten the society about what India is: an area with tremendous diversity, and that there are various archaeological and anthropological processes behind this diversity.”
Sites like Sendrayanpalayam could hold answers to the region’s role in human evolution, Pappu says, just like its more famous counterpart, Attirampakkam, about 2.5 miles away. Attirampakkam has been a hotbed for archaeologists since 1863, when British geologist Robert Bruce Foote first discovered stone tools in the region. More recently, studies led by Pappu and Kumar Akhilesh, director of Sharma Center, catapulted the site into international spotlight when they reported that early humans in Attirampakkam were making and innovating stone tools even earlier than similar tools were thought to have spread by humans migrating out of Africa.
The ephemeral nature of India’s prehistoric sites is a major roadblock to the slow, deliberate pace of fieldwork for prehistoric research, which often spans decades.
But such sites for sustained, long-term research are hard to come by. Many of the sites that Paddayya discovered in Karnataka when he began his field studies in the 1960s are now rice fields, for example, thanks to extensive networks of irrigation canals. In 2018, an independent researcher highlighted that construction of a government medical college and a hospital had begun on an important prehistoric site in Maharashtra before the area could be studied in detail. And in central India, a site called Hathnora, which has yielded the oldest known human ancestor fossil in the country, lies unprotected on the banks of the Narmada River, threatened by erosion and relentless human bustle.
Even formally-protected archaeological heritage isn’t safe. In 2019, India’s minister of culture and tourism, Prahlad Singh Patel, told the upper house of parliament that more than 300 monuments and sites listed as protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the government body that manages the country’s archaeological heritage, had been encroached in some form.
With sites holding the evidence of India’s past rapidly disappearing, researchers worry about whether complex questions about humankind’s distant past can be answered. “We cannot say we don’t want this development because people’s welfare and development is equally important,” says Paddayya. But given the scale of that development, “a lot of the sites are getting destroyed.”
The Indian subcontinent is nestled between several regions with rich histories on human evolution, says Parth Chauhan, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. There’s Africa and Europe to the west, and southeast Asia to the east, all home to some of the oldest specimens of Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of modern humans who roamed the planet for 1.8 million years and was the first known human species to appear out of Africa. Evidence from India could theoretically link records between these regions. It could also show if the subcontinent was a route for dispersing early and modern humans.
In the past two decades, using advanced techniques to date sites, researchers studying prehistoric sites have been presenting a more confident picture of when human ancestors may have lived on the subcontinent. In 2011, Pappu’s team reported that early humans, possibly Homo erectus, were making bulky stone tools in Attirampakkam as early as 1.5 million years ago during the early Stone Age or the Lower Paleolithic period. Scientists have dated sites in Karnataka and Punjab to 1.2 million and more than 2 million years ago, respectively, although the latter claim has been heavily contested.
While existing research helps fill in gaps of humankind’s early history in the region, researchers say it isn’t enough. Dates from individual sites must be taken with reservation, Paddayya says. To understand the origin of India’s ancient Stone Age cultures, we need dozens of dates and many more areas need to be surveyed in detail, he adds.
Pappu agrees. The Sendrayanpalayam site is fairly well-preserved and represents a slightly different environment relative to Attirampakkam. Studying more such places could help show when and how humans came to live and adapt in south India.
But the fate of additional sites remain uncertain. In eastern India, multiple former prehistoric sites located in the Ayodhya hills of West Bengal are now agricultural fields, says Bishnupriya Basak, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Calcutta, who spent over 20 years documenting tiny stone tools in the region. The only prehistoric areas that haven’t been transformed are those on very rugged terrain where tilling the land is hard.
The lack of preservation of sites affects research, Basak says. “If I want my student to do a Ph.D. in Ayodhya Hills, at sites I did not study in more detail, I wouldn’t have any control over preservation of any site because they’re going under agriculture.”
Formal protection, however, is a big challenge in India, says AMV Subramanyam, the superintending archaeologist of the Chennai Circle of ASI. Land is valuable and acquiring sites from private landowners or from other governmental departments for protection under the ASI can involve years of litigation and bureaucratic hurdles.
The case for site preservation can be especially hard to make in a densely populated country where millions of people live in poverty. In the Pallavaram area of Chennai, for instance — which rose to prominence after Foote, the 19th century British geologist, found stone tools there the same year as his famous Attirampakkam discovery — the ASI and the local residents have been at loggerheads for years. In 2010, the government passed legislation that barred construction in two areas in Pallavaram earlier deemed to be archaeologically important, while restricting such work within an additional 650 feet. Residents and builders with land around those sites responded with mass protests and lawsuits.
The lack of preservation of sites affects research, Basak says. “I wouldn’t have any control over preservation of any site because they’re going under agriculture.”
“At least 10,000 families who built houses on approved plots are affected, unable to make any alteration to their houses,” V. Ramanujam, then the vice president of Federation of Civic and Welfare Association of Pallavaram, told The Times of India in 2013.
G. Vijaya, whose family has been living in Pallavaram for more than five decades, told the Times of India in 2016 that land rates had plummeted due to the ban on construction-related activities. “We cannot sell a part of our land to get our daughters married,” Vijaya said.
In 2018, ASI eased the restrictions. “Someone had filed a plea to deprotect the site. The court then asked us to investigate and give details of the site,” Subramanyam says. After some trial excavations, he says, “we’ve submitted to the court that although the site has been encroached, it has archaeological potential to remain.” While researchers are fencing off some areas, Subramanyam says, they cannot protect the whole site.
In fact, when it comes to formal protection, monuments like temples from more recent history may more easily gain protection under ASI than ancient Paleolithic sites. “A monument is a smaller area and you can define the area clearly,” says Subramanyam. “You can define a site also, but it can run into many acres. Some of the sites are more than 100 acres. Bringing that whole area under ASI is a challenge.” But even the lists don’t guarantee actual protection. Across the country, the ASI struggles to find the resources to manage heritage sites. And without adequate protection, sites are frequently vandalized and artifacts and fossils stolen for personal collection or sale.
This apathy towards prehistoric sites and artifacts, Pappu says, stems from a lack of awareness about what prehistoric sites are, what they represent, and why they matter. Pappu and her colleagues have termed it the “Taj syndrome,” referring to India’s disproportionate focus on glamorous monuments from the recent past like the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. “Nobody pays any attention,” she says, to non-monumental heritage.
Prehistoric sites tend to be subtle, lacking the tangible, attractive features that recent historical sites have on offer, such as beautiful architecture, striking statues, or wall paintings. Archaeologists have also largely failed at communicating the value of prehistory to the public, says Chauhan.
Correcting that would require a massive awareness program, Akhilesh says. “Protection by local people is more important in my opinion,” Pappu adds. “They’re aware, they are proud of their heritage, and that’s about it.”
Generating widespread awareness, experts say, requires persistent, targeted efforts. In Attirampakkam and surrounding areas, that’s been partly possible because of its long history of research. Since Foote’s visit in 1863, several archaeologists have studied the area’s Stone Age cultures, hiring people from the local villages to help with field work.
At Pappu and Akhilesh’s excavation sites, it’s the field staff — all from the surrounding villages — who usually handle outreach. When someone from the local community visits, often a wandering shepherd or a curious farmer, a staff member explains what the team is doing and why. “He may not be entirely accurate,” says Pappu. “But what’s important is that even if there are errors in what he’s saying, he’s able to explain to anyone who comes locally, and they know their own region’s heritage.”
Children and teachers also regularly visit Pappu’s field sites, learning not just about their local heritage, but also some dos and don’ts, such as resisting the temptation to pick up stone tools in their neighborhood.
For Chauhan, too, public outreach among local communities is integral for both research and preservation of his study sites. “We’re hoping that eventually some local people will get involved in the long run in the subject and maybe go for a degree in archaeology, and do their own research,” he says.
But in some places, where land-related conflicts are extensive, even well-publicized awareness campaigns may not be enough to preserve heritage sites. “There’s a pattern where, in some areas, they are willing to cooperate with archaeologists. In other areas, they’re not willing to cooperate,” says Chauhan. “It’s definitely a cultural and a regional imbalance.”
Where people are willing to cooperate, it will also be necessary to involve land developers and government agencies, says Chauhan.
While countries including the United States, United Kingdom, and South Korea have legislation that requires development projects to evaluate sites they’re targeting for archaeological materials and assess how their activities may affect those remains, current Indian laws to protect archaeological legacy fall short for prehistoric sites. Currently, only development projects that fall within about 985 feet of ASI-protected sites and monuments can be legally required to submit an impact assessment. A more robust law, says Pappu, would “not only help in the rapid documentation and salvage of archaeological sites, but also have a huge potential for generating jobs for archaeologists and the local community as well.”
In the absence of new laws, researchers like Chauhan are working with other experts to make a list of sites like Hathnora that need urgent protection. They’re also trying to approach local administration as well as the state government to see if those sites can be protected in any way, he says.
More and better interactions with local communities, government agencies and developers may be key to studying India’s long gone past. “Those entrusted with the job of studying heritage, they have a social responsibility too, apart from doing excavations; they should also appreciate that the heritage we’re studying is ultimately people’s heritage, and all information we collect should go back to the people at large.” says Paddayya. “Then governance in the country becomes much easier.”
Cibe Chakravarthy contributed reporting.
Shreya Dasgupta (@ShreyaDasgupta) is an independent science writer based in Bangalore, India. Her work has appeared in Mongabay, Nature, BBC Earth, Smithsonian.com, New Scientist, Ensia, and other publications.