Sunday Monitor

Understanding human evolution through cave paintings

SANSKRITI SINGH explores the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters in Madhya Pradesh

Art, which is ever evolving, is an expression of human intelligence, philosophy and emotions. It is always interesting to know what thoughts led to the beginning of art amongst the earliest humans. It is not surprising then that everything that connects us to the past piques our interest. The beginning has a certain beauty that attracts us towards it.
The first Venus figurines which archaeologists found opened a whole realm of new ideas and created a new dimension of studies of human mind and beliefs through art. For instance, the feminine figurine of fertility may symbolise not only a belief system but also the structure of a metrical society that had been a part of the early socio-cultural fabric.
One can also study the first rock paintings in our country in the gigantic caves located in Madhya Pradesh. The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are a World Heritage Site and, according to the Archaeological Society of India, show signs of the earliest human habitations. The rock art shows the evolution in painting as a form of expression.
Human mind is always ready to embark on any vehicle that takes one back in time and provides insights into the lives and struggle of the ancestors. The name of the place has a fascinating story itself. Bhimbetka is derived from the word Bhimbaithaka, which means the sitting place of Bhīma, one of the Pandava brothers from Mahabharata. Legend says that during their banishment they had resided in this region of the state, although there is no scientific evidence. Nonetheless, the site’s relevance in history is worth knowing.
It has been established that the Homo erectus inhabited the area over a million years ago. Dr Vishnu Wakankar was fascinated by the formation of rocks in the region and en route to another place he discovered the paintings. A set of excavations led to the discovery of the fascinating world of valuable revelations about human history in this part of the world.
There are about 15 rock shelters and numerous rock paintings showing the life of early man. The paintings, as old as 30,000 years, showcase the evolution of human understanding of shapes, forms and the developing capabilities of expression through paintings.
These paintings cover the journey from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic periods.
During one of my archaeology classes, I came to know that the typical composition of minerals used for paintings have helped in their preservation for thousands of years. I was fascinated and intrigued by the human mind. How wonderful it would be if we could go back to those times and witness the evolution.
Some of the paintings show the use of geometrical designs to draw humans or animals. These are similar to the shapes used by toddlers today. The paintings have elephants, horses, peacocks, deer and bison. One can also find depictions of humans riding horses with arrows and spades. As the ability to paint evolved so did the sophistication of the images. The quality of paintings became finer as the work evolved with human mind.
As I believe, archaeology is a world full of imagination and wonders and the remains are like a time machine that transports one back to the stone age. Human’s first attempt to art is the very basis of the deep satisfying art that we see today, not only as a medium of expression but also a way to understand the unseen past.

(The author is a student of Archaeology at Maharaja Sayajirao University)

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