Rock Art

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ROCK ART Found in many different regions of South Asia, evidence for rock art dates back to the late Upper Paleolithic period (c. 15,000 b.c. and continues through the Mesolithic (c. 8000 b.c.) and Neolithic (c. 7000 b.c.) up through the Historic period. While some rock art is painted or engraved on the walls of rock shelters and caves, movable rock art is found on smaller pieces of stone that could be set in special locations for rituals and then carried away. A carved stone pebble with what may be the face of a human and a slab of stone with incised lines that may be calendrical notations were found in the Upper Paleolithic cave site of Gar-i-Asp, Afghanistan. Recent research in the Zhob and Loralai valleys of Baluchistan have reported what may be Upper Paleolithic paintings and Chalcolithic engravings. More than thirty thousand rock carvings dating from the Upper Paleolithic to the Early Historic period have been reported along the upper Indus Valley and its tributaries in the mountains of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Engraved rock slabs have been found in the Neolithic levels at Burzahom in Kashmir, and a Mesolithic/Chalcolithic chert blade core with an engraved geometric motif was found at Chandravati, Rajasthan. More than five thousand painted rock shelters have been reported in the hills of peninsular India, the most famous in the region around Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh.

Rock Art of Central India

Many different techniques were probably used to create graphic symbols and naturalistic representations on rock surfaces, but the only ones preserved are paintings made with permanent mineral pigments or engravings that physically modified the surface of the rock. Prehistoric rock art was usually executed on easily accessible surfaces in caves or rock shelters, but in some regions the paintings were clearly made with the help of elaborate scaffolds or ladders. The colors used for rock art are the commonly available iron minerals that come in red, orange, brown, and black (hematite) or yellow (limonite). White pigments were made using limestone, natural chalk, white kaolin clay, or scintered calcium carbonate (kankar) nodules. Occasionally, green pigments were made from glauconite (terra verde) or the greenish weathered surfaces of chalcedony nodules.

The simplest technique of application was to use the colored nodule as a crayon. Faceted nodules of hematite have been found in the Lower Paleolithic levels at Bhimbetka Cave, but the only modifications to the walls dating from this time are two depressions that may be the earliest evidence for cup-shaped petroglyphs. Faceted hematite nodules have also been found in the Upper Paleolithic levels of Bhimbetka and can be associated with the earliest prefigurative geometric designs. Green anthropomorphic figures often overlap the geometric designs and have been dated to the Upper Paleolithic, but some scholars believe that they may belong to later periods. The most complex forms of painting would have involved the preparation of pigments by grinding and mixing with water or organic solutions derived from plants or animal fat. Complex paintings of large animals that may represent deified bison or deer at Bhimbetka and other sites may have been produced with specially prepared pigments and brushes made from twigs or animal hair. Many of these large deified animal paintings are thought to belong to the end of the Upper Paleolithic or the subsequent Mesolithic period. Other techniques of application involve handprints or fine incising with sharp stone tools and filling the lines with color.

The major themes of rock paintings vary from region to region and change over time. The earliest Upper Paleolithic paintings appear to be geometric designs; these are followed by the introduction of depictions of humans and large-scale animals filled with cross-hatching and concentric designs. Mesolithic rock paintings follow some of these same trends, but there is more emphasis on narrative scenes depicting the hunting of game with barbed spears or groups of animals and humans. The Neolithic paintings tend to focus on various everyday activities like hunting, gathering, collecting honey, and feeding pigs. The types of animals depicted in the paintings include all of the major animals seen in tropical jungles, from elephants and tigers to rabbits and lizards. Hunting is sometimes associated with male figures defined by clearly visible genitalia, while some figures of women with prominent breasts and large hips are associated with gathering activities. Most anthropomorphic figures are not distinguished by sex, unless that is the subject of the painting. Prehistoric rock art in peninsular India is followed by depictions of warriors with what appear to be classic iron weapons, riding horses or driving wheeled chariots. These paintings date to the early Iron Age, around 1000 b.c., and continue throughout the Historic period.

Rock Art in Northern Pakistan

Three of the great mountain ranges of South Asia come together in the northern regions of Pakistan: the Hindu Kush on the west, the Karakorum in the center, and the Himalayas, which extend east across India and Nepal to the edges of Myanmar (Burma). The Indus River and its tributaries emerge from the glacial lakes and snow fields of these mountains. Beginning in the Upper Paleolithic, some 20,000 to 10,000 years ago, people began moving up these rivers in pursuit of game during interglacial periods. The earliest anthropomorphic figures and animal petroglyphs of large horned goats, sheep, ibex, and snow leopards probably date to this time period. Petroglyphs, or rock engravings, are made by pecking or bruising the surface of large flat boulders using smaller hammer stones. Due to the heavy brown weathered surface or patina on the rock surface, the freshly produced lines reveal the light colored stone and show up very clearly. Over thousands of years, these engraved lines themselves become weathered, and later petroglyphs can be identified by the different color of the patina and by their superposition on earlier engravings.

Large engravings of humped zebu cattle indicate the presence of herders who would have begun to frequent the region during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, moving up from the Indus plain and then returning with trade goods from regions farther north. Anthropomorphic masks carved on some boulders have parallels with Chalcolithic cultures of southern Siberia, providing evidence for early contacts with Central Asia in the third millennium b.c.

During the first millennium b.c., nomads from the Eurasian steppes began to move down these valleys, and their carvings of stags and ibex with large backward curving horns can be linked to Scythian artistic traditions dating to the eighth century b.c. and even earlier animal-style art from Siberia that dates from the eleventh to the ninth centuries b.c. Later carvings of people, gods, temples, and ritual symbols can be attributed to the ebb and flow of pilgrims, traders, and armies along this major trade route. Achaemenid Persians, Sogdians, Hindu pilgrims who worshiped either Shiva or Vishnu, and Zoroastrian fire worshipers all contributed to the rock art of this region.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer

See alsoNeolithic Period ; Palaeolithic Period


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