Jwalapuram: Stories Buried in Ash

Buried in the small village of Jwalapuram in the Kurnool District of Andhra Pradesh are priceless clues about India’s earliest humans.

Historians are still divided about the origins of humans. Did we all really come out of Africa?

Historians are still divided about the origins of our race - the Homo sapiens. Since the the 1990s, there has been an overwhelming body of work around how all modern day humans, originated from a single place and tribe in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which left Africa in 2 waves between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. The ‘Out of Africa’ theory was reinforced by research done by scientists Allan Wilson (University of California) and Rebecca Cann (University of Hawaii) who suggested that all humans ultimately descended from one tribe that moved out of Africa. It was believed that humans, as we know them today, took the long route to traverse the known continents and settle along the coast, in the second wave. Based on this , it was further believed that the first humans would have reached India approximately 50,000 years ago.

Excavations at Jwalapuram 
Excavations at Jwalapuram |Wikimedia commons 

The ‘Out of Africa’ theory suggested that tribes moved out of Africa in two waves. The first Humans would have reached India around 50,000 yrs ago 

In 2007, Ravi Korisettar, a well-known Indian archaeologist working with a team of international and local archaeologists, including Michael Petraglia (Professor of Human Evolution at the University of Oxford) excavated the site of Jwalapuram, in Andhra Pradesh. What they found was one of the most significant clues to the understanding of our evolution. Contrary to the ‘Out of Africa’ theory, excavations at the site proved that the human settlements here were more than 75,000 years old. This was a significant discovery and there was a lot to back it. Most importantly, a cataclysmic event that occurred, at that time, 2500 kms away in Indonesia.

About 75,000 years ago a super volcano erupted at Mt. Toba, on the modern day island of Sumatra, Indonesia that had a catastrophic impact across the region. One of the largest volcanic events to have occurred on earth in the past two million years, this volcano, the last in a series of 4, was 100 times larger than any volcano ever seen till date. So large was this eruption that the volcano was active for about 10 years and it took another 10,000 years for the volcano to cool down!

The  volcano eruption at Mt. Toba created a depression where Toba Lake stands today
The volcano eruption at Mt. Toba created a depression where Toba Lake stands today|Wikimedia Commons

The Toba volcano was active for about 10 years and it took another 10,000 years to cool down

During the period when the volcano was active, strong winds spread volcanic ash Mt Toba threw up, over a large region covering the Indian Subcontinent. The ash began raining down and fell upon oceans as distant as the South China Sea in the east to the Arabian Sea in the west. The tuff or the debris from the volcano, scientists believe would have  blocked the sun, darkened the skies and affected rainfall for a period of 10 years, creating what they call a ‘volcanic winter’.

The impact of Toba’s outburst was felt in Jwalapuram too. In fact excavations have shown that a large part of the Indian Subcontinent was covered in 1-3 m volcanic ash through this period.

But the big discovery wasn’t just the finding and dating of the ash at Jwalapuram. It was the stone tools found above the ash layer, remarkably similar to those that were discovered in contemporary South Africa, that was significant. The toolmakers in Jwalapuram were Homo Sapiens, the modern human species and  they were here in the subcontinent, even before the African migration started. According to Michael Petraglia's piece in Nature, international journal of Science ‘It were modern humans - rather than other earlier human species - that lived in the Indian subcontinent. The Indian tools look a lot like those from African Middle Stone Age about 100,000 years ago, when modern humans were thought to have lived’

Understandably, when this theory was proposed in 2007, there was quite a furore in history circles leading to a fair bit of debate. Till then it was generally believed that modern day humans reached India, from Africa much later.

Illustration of early human settlement
Illustration of early human settlement|Wikimedia Commons

That was not all. Further digs in the Jwalapuram site, brought even more insights. Just above this huge layer of ash were hundreds of different types of stone tools made by ancient humans. But shockingly, underneath the 75,000 year old layer of ash were an equal number of similar implements, indicating a continuous human settlement on the site, much earlier!

Over the years many other excavations have thrown up similar findings, seriously questioning the ‘Out of Africa’ theory. Just recently, this June 2017, archaeologists in Morocco excavated a skull of a modern human or Homo Sapiens at the cave of Jebel Irhound dating back 300,000 years. If true, this means that the modern human must have been around much earlier than anyone imagined.

Back at Jwalapuram, archaeologists are still amazed how a volcano in Indonesia impacted a settlement in the heart of the Indian Peninsula - and how it got frozen in time, only to clear the mist from our past!

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