This lady reveals our past

Sunday 15 May 2005

A fossil from the early Stone Age

a recent discovery of fragments of fossilised bones from the Narmada basin has once again brought to the fore the question of the antiquity of the first humans on the Indian subcontinent. Anek Ram Sankhyan, a senior anthropologist with the Kolkata-based Anthropological Survey of India (asi), had unearthed collarbones and a lower rib from Hathnora, a Madhya Pradesh village located in the Narmada valley in 1998. Following a preliminary study, it has now been found the bones belong to a woman about 135 centimetres tall who lived in central India in the early Stone Age (Current Science, Vol 88, No 5).

"The bones are believed to be up to 500,000 years old and could be that of an archaic Homo sapiens," Sankhyan told Down To Earth. He says there is not enough evidence to say whether the bones belonged to a true pygmy or a dwarf. "She would have been shorter than the shortest pygmy female among the Jaravas or Onges today," he says after comparing the fossilised bones from Narmada with skeletons of Jaravas and Onges preserved in the asi museum.

Sankhyan believes she probably had an injured shoulder or arm because morphological changes in the collarbones suggest an overuse of the right hand and a sparing use of the left. The asi scientists estimated the age of the bones indirectly by locating and dating prehistoric animals and objects found next to the specimens at the same soil depth.

Sankhyan and other experts believe the specimen is probably of an archaic H sapiens (The modern humans -- Homo sapiens sapiens -- evolved about 40,000 years ago). But this may not help solve a running debate over the age of the first fossil recovered from the same site about 15 years before the asi discovery. In 1983, Arun Sonakia, a palaeontologist with the Geological Survey of India, discovered the right side of a skull quite close to the site where Sankhyan found the bones. That was the first evidence for prehistoric hominid species roaming India. Coincidentally, both the prehistoric remains are of women, though the features of the specimens are markedly different.

While asi scientists are quite clear that the bone fragments belonged to a member of H sapiens, Sonakia thinks that the human skull has more features of a Homo erectus, a different species that lived on earth some 2 million to 400,000 years ago.

According to experts, these were the only pre-historic human fossils ever found in South Asia. Sankhyan says the archaic H sapiens in central India may have been early inhabitants of the subcontinent who were driven out, or replaced, by fresh waves of human migrations into India. The current theory of human evolution says all modern humans owe their origin to waves of migrations out of Africa that replaced the H erectus elsewhere in the world.

The absence of prehistoric human fossils from India has been a major hurdle towards a better understanding of the identity of India's earliest inhabitants. These two finds from Hathnora are the only human-like remains from India so far.

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