Emslie Horniman Award – James Blinkhorn

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Award Holder: James Blinkhorn
University: University of Oxford
Title of Research: Gateway of India: Investigating the Late Pleistocene occupation of the Thar Desert, west India

My fieldwork has involved undertaking the first Palaeolithic excavations in Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India, for thirty years, accompanied by a suite of surface surveys, that offers the highest quality dataset in the region with which to address a major topic in palaeoanthropology: the dispersal of modern humans from Africa. Since the last major period of Palaeolithic research in the Thar Desert, summarised by Allchin et al. 1978 and Misra & Rajaguru 1986, palaeoanthropological debates regarding modern human origins have swung heavily in favour of the ‘Out of Africa’ models, although the nature, timing and location of relations with other Late Pleistocene hominins, such as Neanderthals, and ‘Denisovans’, remain enigmatic. The Thar Desert offers a unique location to investigate modern human dispersals for a number of reasons. Located at the eastern extent of the mid-latitude belt, it shares a desert landscape with South-West Asia and Arabia, which ultimately link this region with Africa, and stand in stark contrast to the monsoonal climates of the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia beyond. Genetic evidence suggests India was rapidly colonised by the earliest migrations of modern humans from Africa, and it is parsimonious to suggest their presence in the Thar Desert before arriving in central and southern India, which currently offers most archaeological evidence from the relevant period. Finally, recent palaenvironmental studies have illustrated the widespread presence of sediment formations dating to the Upper Pleistocene, offering the clear potential to locate archaeological sites that may attest to the earliest modern humans in South Asia.

This constellation of factors led me to characterise the Thar Desert as the ‘Gateway of India’, and I proposed to undertake a program of excavation in order to determine spatial, chronological and environmental patterns of variation in Palaeolithic assemblages. Six sites were selected based upon the presence of previously dated Upper Pleistocene sedimentary formations, extending from the eastern margin of the desert, near Jaipur, to the arid core at Jaisalmer. In practice, it was impossible to undertake such an ambitious program of excavation. In order to offer an understanding of spatial and environmental diversity amongst Palaeolithic lithic assemblages in the Thar Desert that can be integrated into a firm chronological framework, I diversified my fieldwork strategy. I decided to undertake a series of surface surveys of dated sediment formations, which would offer the possibility of terminus post quem dates for identified assemblages. In addition, I would undertake an excavation in a location that lacked a published account of Upper Pleistocene sedimentation, in order to present new archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence.

My previous experience of undertaking archaeological fieldwork in India had been as a member of relatively large research teams, and although I have designed and executed programs of survey within such a framework, undertaking a two month program of survey by myself presented a number of challenges. This was the first time I have had to arrange the logistical support I required to undertake my fieldwork, predominately finding appropriate means to travel to the various and inevitably remote regions I wanted to visit. In addition, working alone meant that I needed to make sure that my drivers and staff at hotels were aware of my activities in case of emergencies. Fortuitously, I did not need to call for such assistance, although logistical difficulties I did encounter in the field included trying to convince drivers that I did indeed wish to visit such remote places, and trying to describe, in broken Hindi, the work that I was undertaking to the people I met in isolated parts of the desert. The only major disruption to may planned survey work was easily anticipated – the colourful spring festival of Holi, during which I took the opportunity to enjoy the lively paint throwing festivities.

My survey work has been highly successful in producing a high calibre of archaeological evidence from surface assemblages.  A range of up to 30 metric and attribute features of lithic artefacts were recorded in the field and complemented by a photographic archive, expanding considerably upon basic metric and typological data recorded by previous studies. However, each of the six locations I investigated presented different challenges, particularly in associating surface assemblages with the dated sedimentary landforms. Where dated sequences have been reported from lake cores (Sambhar Lake and the Jaisalmer Raans), more complex sediment formations were encountered on the lake edge preventing direct associations between archaeological sites and dated sediments. However, this indicates future archaeological research coupled with palaeoenvironmental studies at these sites will be highly profitable. Discovering Palaeolithic artefacts in association with dated fluvial (Mid Luni Valley) and aeolian landforms (Chamu and Shergarh Tri-Junction) provided a considerable boost to morale, and confirmed the validity of the research strategy I had devised.

The results of my survey work clearly pointed toward a repeated association between Middle Palaeolithic industries and MIS 3 landforms. Although earlier researchers had noted the association between Palaeolithic archaeology and humid landforms, I have been able to capitalise upon the numerous palaeoenvironmental studies published within the last decade which have offered a robust chronological framework for the humid landforms. However, although my survey was able to ground truth this hypothesis, the recovery of stratified and directly dated archaeological evidence from such humid landforms is critical for the broader discussion of the ramifications of such findings.

The second stage of my fieldwork, undertaken in collaboration with Prof. Hema Achyuthan, Anna University, Chennai, involved the excavation of a test trench to recover stratified archaeological assemblages from the Thar Desert, as well as a range of sedimentary and geochronological samples for further analysis. Upon arriving in Nagaur District, we spent our first night in a local dharamsala, a pilgrims guest house, as the area lacked regular lodgings. Eventually, we were able to rent a couple of rooms for our stay, which were mostly used for storing our equipment. As the temperatures rarely dropped below 30°C at night (and exceeded 45°C most days) we took to sleeping on the roof top for the breeze, the view of the stars, and the calls of peacocks to wake us up at sunrise. 

The excavation was swiftly undertaken with the assistance of ten local labourers. Most found the work to be a welcome source of additional income, and many found my excitement over recovering stone artefacts, which are widely available on the surface in the surrounding areas, quite peculiar. As the only archaeologist amongst this sizeable group, monitoring the excavation and recovering artefacts from sieves  left me stretched, and as the labourers took their breaks for chai, I was able to catch up upon my recording and photography. However, as my team grew to understand my aims the work become much more fluid and a sense of pride in maintaining a neat excavation became evident. The final day of our work was taken up with sampling the excavated section for various analyses, and although this required far fewer labourers than the excavation work, we attracted a large audience, slightly bemused at the lengths we went to in ensuring we recovered very particular sediment samples.

Following the excavation of this 4.5m deep section, which yielded a 1,450 piece lithic assemblage, the largest excavated Palaeolithic sample from Rajasthan, all artefacts and samples were returned to the Geological Department, Anna University for further study. Steadily analysing the lithic assemblage and working in an air conditioned laboratory was a stark contrast to the more hot and hectic excavation. In addition to undertaking the lithic analysis, working with a number of Prof. Achyuthans students I was able to undertake grain size and XRF analyses of the sedimentary samples, and separating out pedogenic carbonates for stable isotope analyses.

The results of a recent typological study (James 2011) has indicated that significant differences occur between the Upper Pleistocene lithic assemblages of South Asia on either side of the Thar Desert. As a result of my survey and excavation work in the Thar Desert, I will be able to offer a detailed assessment and provide chronological structure for this pattern. My fieldwork has illustrated the high potential for Palaeolithic research in the Thar Desert to begin to address questions regarding the colonisation of deserted landscapes. Of broader significance, the recovery of Middle Palaeolithic assemblages dated <45ka is problematic to reconcile with a prominent hypothesis regarding the dispersal of modern humans to South Asia (Mellars 2006), suggesting a more diverse range of hypotheses need to undergo further investigation.