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Prehistoric India

Life in the sub-continent before recorded history begins.

In a country of the size and complexity as India, it is almost impossible to make statements about the past (or even the present) which reflect reality for more than a subset of all the people involved. This is also true of the prehistoric period and is further complicated by the lack of systematically concluded archaeology in many parts of the sub-continent and by the numerous historiographical and ideological arguments that have marked the making of Indian history through the years.

Nevertheless, it is possible to make some observations about the prehistoric period, based on the partial excavations made in different areas and the finds noted in a variety of places. Firstly, it appears that, in common with our understanding of life in other areas many thousands of years ago, life was short, dangerous and difficult. Life expectancy was around 25, by which time the hardships of life could already have led to the onset of osteo-arthritis. Migration from place to place in search of food was a common, perhaps almost daily event. The small numbers of people joined together in a family-tribal band meant that the arrival of a new disease could wipe out a complete people. Animals, hunted for food or avoided for fear of becoming food, represented potent threats which might easily deal a wound that might be life-threatening or else lead to a crippling injury. Life was hard.

Animals were, over the course of generations, domesticated, hence providing some regularly replenished sources of beef, mutton and goat meat. People in some areas appear to have learned how to grow crops so as to provide a diverse set of food sources and, hence, slightly more in the way of food security. However, climate changes (about which very little is known) endanger sedentary people more than the nomadic, who tend to be much more capable of adapting to changing circumstances. Intermarriage and trade and bartering between different groups would have helped spread skills and items that might have made the difference between life and death – although uncovering anything at all about individual lives seems to be a task impossible to accomplish.

Little if anything is known about language or communication, although some rock paintings suggest a ritualistic approach to hunting and fertility. The provision of grave goods (such as microliths and an ivory pendant) also suggest for at least some people a belief in the possibility of life after death.

For more details, see Thapar, Romila, The Penguin History of Early India: from the Origins to AD 1300 (London: Penguin Books, 2003).

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