Arrival of the first Indian

Archaeologists unearth the timeline of the migration of the modern human into India

Jayanthi Madhukar

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First indianThree thousand years is "very recent" for Dharwad-based archaeologist Dr Ravi Korisettar. You see, his time trail goes back thousands and thousands of years ago. What happened in Sumatra, Indonesia, about 74,000 years ago has helped him in making a "major breakthrough," a finding so significant that he likens it to the discovery of the wheel

"I have been involved in the investigation of the evidence of India's earliest inhabitants for decades," he says, "and finally, the volcanic ash from the super-volcanic eruption of Toba (Toba eruption) helped me pin down exactly when the first Indian arrived in India."

The breakthrough? The first Indian, who was thought to have arrived 50,000 - 60,000 years ago, had come much earlier than that. They were here even before the volcano erupted about 74,000 years ago.

The eruption of super-volcano Toba is considered by scientists to be the largest such event on earth. So catastrophic was it that Korisettar believes it was a biological bottleneck which wiped out almost all of humanity. About 2,800 cubic km of magma spewed out - "that would be the mass equivalent to 19 million Empire State buildings" - and the volcano collapsed inwards to form a sunken caldera which is now Lake Toba. Twenty
eight thousand million tons of gases dispersed all over the globe due to air currents and covered the earth with about five to six inches of ash. In the vicinity and around, death was instant. For the rest, it was harsh times as the earth got colder - since the ash cover did not let the sun rays in - and rainfall and climates altered dramatically. Verdant landscapes turned to wastelands and terrifying winters due to the onset of the Ice Age led to the death of most of the survivors.

Archeologists have puzzled over a singular question for long: Were "modern humans" already living in India before the volcano erupted? To find answers, Korisettar and a multidisciplinary team of international and local archaeologists decided to work together. It included his close friend Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist and professor of human evolution at the University of Oxford, who has spent several years searching for evidence that can solve the riddle of the human exodus from Africa. The team started work seven years ago, covering 1,000 acres of land, in Bellary and Kurnool districts where Toba volcanic ash deposits were preserved. They worked in winter - September to January - and at any point about 20 members were on the field. International associations meant access to modern dating labs in Oxford and Australia, and field experts.

Korisettar recalls an anecdote. A decade ago, he was walking with a visiting professor at the Paleolithic site at Pune's Bori region, alongside river Kukadi. He spied an unusual white powder-like substance spread out on the other side of the river. Rolling up his trousers, Korisettar waded to the other side and examined the substance. It was Toba ash, discovered for the first time and confirmed by dating process. "People thought I was mad when I had first suggested was Toba ash," he laughs. "But I was convinced this ash was different from volcanic ash found in other parts of India."

But the lack of chronological evidence (of modern Indian) was exasperating. The team was excavating caves, which in the past had yielded stone artefacts, beads and cave paintings. They were yet to find any concrete
evidence. "It was quite frustrating," Korisettar recalls. And then he remembered a small village that he had passed by in Andhra Pradesh. "It was called Jwalapuram and I thought that Jwala, in Hindi, means fire so who knows?" Villagers there told him about digging up huge quantities of ash during mining activities. "Where was the ash coming from? Could it be Toba ash?"

First indian2Located in the Jurreru river valley in AP's Kurnool district, this small unknown village topography has thorny bushes and quartzite boulders. The river that once ran through the valley has now become small streams. The nearest town, Baganapalli, is 11 km away. Locals work as miners who scrape the ash. Korisettar and team began digging below the ground and discovered the thick ash holding the missing pieces of the puzzle.

They found hundreds of stone tools made of local materials such as quartzite and limestone above the ash which was confirmed to be Toba ash. They found serrated stone flakes, which Korisettar says were used to clean
animal hides.

But as they excavated below the ash, often going more than five metres deep, the team found cutting tools as well. "The hallmark of modern humans was to make tools, arms, and ornaments." They also found a piece of striated red ochre, a mineral used for cave paintings.

The tools could be dated, thanks to the Toba ash, to over 74,000 years. And the team, including Petraglia, made their implications clear: The Toba eruption was not as catastrophic as thought because modern humans in peninsular India had survived. Also, they would have arrived in India long before the Toba eruption.

And Jwalapuram, where the evidence was unearthed, would have been perfect for living with verdant greenery, springs trickling down the rocky crevices and the shallow river flowing like a sheet of water without any obstructions. "There was water, vegetation, animals and rocks ideal for making tools," Korisettar says. Post Toba, the modern humans would have simply moved up slope where they had access to water and rocks. The living conditions would have been harsher.

"This finding that modern Indian was here before 74,000 years will help understand the larger picture," he stresses. "Its significance will give answers to the migration routes taken during the Out of Africa exodus."

Thanks to molecular archaeology, it is proven that all of us have originated from the African Eve who lived on earth about 2,00,000 years ago. Human migrations - Out of Africa - took place across two timelines. One, dubbed Out of Africa Part 1 was a failed migration by a small group which happened 1,30,000 years ago. The group either died out or returned to Africa.

The other migration, Out of Africa Part 2, happened after the Toba eruption. It is then, as the predominant theory went, a small group of humans crossed the Red Sea, moved along the Arabian Peninsula, India and South East Asia and reached Australia about 50,000 years ago. Small offshoots from this group migrated to Europe about 45,000 years back.

That the modern human arrived in India 74,000 years ago throws up the possibility that the first migration may not have been a failure. Several groups may have travelled across the Arabian region which would have had river valleys and lake shores and slowly reached Asia. Within India, the route has been traced via Central India, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

The puzzles are still aplenty: What were the migration routes? How did the humans disperse locally and the paleoclimatology (science of past climate studies). Already, a team from Japan has come to study the findings.

Korisettar is now working on cataloguing the tools found - about 1,000 in number - with the help of latest techniques. A new building has been given for the purpose of creating a museum in Bellary.

"Understanding history will offer many lessons, like, the way the climate will behave and so on," Korisettar says. One needs to be lucky to get the evidence to support a theory. He acknowledges that luck played an important role. It was later that Korisettar found out that Jwalapuram was named after the corruption of a word - Jola. That means millet in Kannada!