The Indian Subcontinent: A Missing Piece of the Human Origins Puzzle

Two critical dispersal events in human evolution are the appearance and spread of Homo erectus and Acheulian technology in the Early Pleistocene and Homo sapiens with varied technologies in the Late Pleistocene. Both these events have been considered as exclusively out of Africa movements of hominin populations. As a result, the Indian Subcontinent currently plays little role in human origin narratives. It is argued here, that the earliest appearance of Acheulian technology is of similar antiquity in the Indian subcontinent as it is in Africa, and an evolutionary origin for Acheulian-producing hominins outside of Africa cannot be completely ruled out. Furthermore, while it is difficult to evaluate the status of hominins in India during MIS 5 (due to lack of hominin fossils), it has been demonstrated that anatomically modern humans were present from the earliest phases of MIS 3, possessing a fully developed microblade technology – leading to the possibility of a secondary modern human dispersal originating from the Indian Subcontinent. It is suggested that variability in climate and environment might have played a significant role in the evolution of diverse hominin populations with competitive interactions between those inhabiting the tropical Indo-Malayan and temperate Palaeoarctic biogeographic zones. We will look to the future, and discuss how further research can help highlight the important role the Indian subcontinent can play in piecing together the human origins puzzle.

Sheila Mishra

Prof. Sheila Mishra completed her graduate archaeology degree from Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada in 1976. Over the years, Sheila’s career has benefited from the interdisciplinary nature of her undergraduate program, providing a background not only in archaeology but also geography, biology, physics and anthropology. Her postgraduate degrees and further professional affiliation was with Deccan College, Pune, where she entered as an MA student in 1978 and retired as professor and head of department in 2015. Sheila has spent the last 40 years focusing on Indian Palaeolithic, and has excavated two key sites in her career: Morgaon in Maharashtra dating to the Acheulean, and Mehtakheri in Madhya Pradesh, a 48,000 year-old Late Palaeolithic site that produced evidence of microblade technologies. The two parallel investigations were amongst the most defined periods in Indian Prehistory, and have provided useful insights into human occupation and adaptation to the South Asian region. Recently, Sheila has turned her attention to problems of developing a better understanding of the poorly defined technological and economic developments that must have occurred in the enormous chronological gap between Acheulean (500 Ka) and blade industries (50 Ka) that existed in South Asia.