Robert Foote: Finding India’s Stone Age



On 25th March 2011, the Indian and world archaeological community was blown away by a small, two-page article in the journal Science, one of the most prestigious international scientific journals on the planet. The article announced with zero fanfare that there was now irrefutable proof of the existence of an Early Pleistocene Presence of Acheulian Hominins in South Asia. In layman’s terms, the antiquity of human ancestors colonising Southern India was now a solid 1.51 million years ago, if not earlier – older than any dates of such a colonisation of Europe.

How did this come about? What was the back story?

The discovery of the first very early Acheulian stone tools in India goes back to 1863. The Acheulian tradition of making bi-faced stone tools (tools flaked in such a way that the cutting edge is sharp on both sides) such as hand axes and cleavers is considered the handiwork of one of our closest ancestors – Homo erectus (1.8 - 0.25 million years ago or mya).

These tools were first described from the site of Saint-Acheul, a suburb of Amiens in France. Tools were first discovered here as early as 1789 but it was only in the period between 1836 and 1864 that Jacques Boucher de Perthes put them on the map of the archaeological world.

Today, the Acheulian bi-face is considered the first great innovation in stone tools after crude Olduwan tools were first made by Homo habilis (2.4-1.5 mya) in Africa. The earliest known Acheulian tools come from the West Turkana region of Kenya and are dated to 1.76 million years ago.

This stone handaxe found at Attirambakkam is the oldest human artefact found in the Indian subcontinent.
This stone handaxe found at Attirambakkam is the oldest human artefact found in the Indian subcontinent.|LHI

This article traces the primary discovery of these tools in South Asia, and the story and impact of this discovery.

Who Was Robert Bruce Foote?

The man who put India on the map of world prehistory was a geologist called Robert Bruce Foote. Foote was born on 22nd September 1834 in England and was educated in England at a time of remarkable discoveries. Human evolution and human prehistory were at their most nascent stage at this time, and the young Robert was fascinated by them. He was a keen student of the works of Charles Darwin (evolutionist), John Evans (archaeologist and geologist), Charles Lyell (evolutionary biologist) and Jacques Boucher de Perthes (archaeologist and prehistorian).

In 1851, the Government of India set up the Geological Survey of India, whose main objective was to ascertain the mineralogical wealth of India. This helped the colonial government fill their coffers, while mapping the terrain would also make ruling India simpler and easier.

The Geological Survey of India in 1870 CE with Robert Bruce Foote, standing second from right 
The Geological Survey of India in 1870 CE with Robert Bruce Foote, standing second from right |Wikimedia Commons

In 1857, Thomas Oldham was appointed as the Geological Surveyor General and, the very next year, a young geologist was hired by the Geological Survey of India to replace one of their surveyors who had died due to a sunstroke while on the job in the Madras Presidency. His name was Robert Bruce Foote.

The young geologist soon established himself and, while surveying the region in 1863, came upon a number of irregularly broken stones, which he immediately recognized as being very similar to those published by Boucher de Perthes. He was surprised to find tools of great antiquity almost identical to those found in Europe, and in Britain.

Foote’s was the first discovery of a stone tool in the Indian subcontinent and he made it at the site of Pallavaram, today a small town in Chengalpattu district of Tamil Nadu, on 30th May 1863. The story goes that he was on the Pallavaram Parade Ground when he came across a roughly flaked Acheulian hand axe lying amidst stone debris purely by happenstance. This was barely a month after the birth of his eldest son Henry, who also went on to conduct unique excavations and surveys at the Billa Surgum Caves in Andhra Pradesh (1884).

The first two tools found by Foote
The first two tools found by Foote|Egmore Museum, Chennai

In the same year, Foote and his colleague William King discovered more tools at the site of Attirambakkam, 60 km from Chennai on 28th September 1863. Foote published his discoveries in great detail in his 1866 article On the occurrence of Stone Implements in Lateritic Formations in Various Parts of the Madras and North Arcot Districts. After this, more of these artefacts were discovered at many more locations in and around Pallavaram and Attirambakkam, and in the Madras Presidency at large.

It was on the basis of Foote’s work that India was catapulted into the Palaeolithic cultural phase. Interestingly, barely a year and a half before Foote’s discoveries, Alexander Cunningham had been appointed Archaeological Surveyor. In the following three decades, Foote recorded over 450 prehistoric sites. His work added a solid chapter to the prehistory of India and the pre-literate phase was being talked about for the first time.

These discoveries came almost back-to-back with Joseph Prestwich’s discoveries of similar tools together with ancient fossils in England and France in 1859. Foote made many emphatic presentations of his work on his trips to Europe, thus establishing what came to be known as the ‘Madrasian Culture’ among prehistorians worldwide. Students of archaeology should note that this was a long time before prehistoric discoveries in Africa and the Levant, and that this raised many an eyebrow among scholars in the late 19th century.

Foote’s Contributions to Prehistory

Let us clarify at the outset that Foote’s discovery of stone bi-faces was not purely a matter of chance. To put it in his own words:

“In the early sixties of the last century, one interested in the origin of mankind had been greatly stirred by the thorough confirmation by the great English geologists, Joseph Prestwich, John Evans and Hugh Falconer, of Boucher de Perthes’ discovery in the drift beds of the Somme river valley, of chipped flint implements, the earliest human artefacts then known. The news of this remarkable revelation had turned my thoughts to the necessity of looking for possible similar traces of early human art in South India, where my work then lay (Foote 1916).”

Obviously, Foote had kept abreast of the work being done and debated in Europe. He had already made it very clear that he agreed with Darwin (1859) that the world was much older than the 6,000 years the Church had attributed to it. Darwin, in turn, was influenced by Charles Lyle (Principles of Geology 1830-33), who had already made a case against this and had cited Sir William Jones’s translations of the Manusmriti to explain the cyclical nature of time. Thus, the work done by Foote in India and the work of his contemporaries in Europe was the beginning of what we know today as ‘Victorian Anthropology’.

Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous British scientist who stoutly defended the theory of evolution, heard James Fergusson’s lectures on the evolution of Buddhist cave temples and was fascinated by India. He wrote to Grant-Duff, the Governor of Madras, to make arrangements for fresh investigations into the fossil-rich Billa Surgum Caves of Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh), and this led to the 1883-84 excavations by Foote and his son Henry.

Foote divided the Indian human past very comprehensively into the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Early Iron Age and Late Iron Age. His explorations had yielded 459 sites which included 42 Palaeolithic, 252 Neolithic, 17 Early Iron Age. Lacking modern-day dating methods, Foote used geology and stratigraphy to date his tools. He closely studied the sedimentary to ascertain antiquity. He was also among the first to identify Middle Palaeolithic accumulations as not being coeval to the hand axe-cleaver complexes of the Acheulian.

The spread of handaxes/Acheulian tool using hominids
The spread of handaxes/Acheulian tool using hominids|Wikimedia Commons

At his Billa Surgum excavations in Kurnool, Foote and his son Henry discovered the fossils of many living and extinct species, of which a number of bones bore cut marks and signs of working. Many of these he rightly classified as bone tools. He also rightly compared them to the Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian bone tools from France. Subsequent work done by MLK Murthy (1974) and K Thimma Reddy (1976) in adjacent caves yielded a complex Upper Palaeolithic culture using a number of stone and bone tools and exploiting local jungle resources to their optimum capacity.

The Aftermath

Foote was followed by many great prehistorians of India, among them H D Sankalia, K Bannerjee, V D Krishnaswami, V D Mishra, V N Misra, D K Bhattacharya, K Paddayya, K Thimma Reddy, Gudrun Corvinus, S A Sali, MLK Murty, Bridget Allchin, J D Clark, Zarine Cooper, Sheila Mishra, Ravi Korisettar, Michael Petraglia, S B Ota and Shanti Pappu. Of these prehistorians, Bannerjee and Pappu excavated at Attirambakkam – Bannerjee on behalf of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1964-65; and Pappu 1996, 1999, 2001 (during and after her PhD).

Excavations at Attirambakkam  
Excavations at Attirambakkam  |Prof. Shanti Pappu  

Pappu and her team have done truly path-breaking work and are continuing to do so. They have established the nature of the Attirambakkam site during the Lower Palaeolithic period as being a large wetland with a lacustrine (lake) environment, where prehistoric man came for food and water. Tools were lost on the banks of this lake and this was proven not just by the laminated clays in which the tools were found but also by the vertical positions in which tools have been found. To add to this, the team discovered footprints of large ungulates (rhino/hippo/elephant) in the lake-bottom clays. They also discovered fossils of prehistoric horses and wild cattle.

They went on to date the very tools and the layers in which they were found, using cutting-edge radiometric and palaeo-magnetic dating techniques. The Cosmogenic-Nuclide dating technique was a radical way of counting the years since the artefact had been buried. The two methods both gave the same spread of dates, and the mean date of 1.51 million years ago was now the precise date for the Lower Palaeolithic in peninsular India.

Stone tools from Attirampakkam  
Stone tools from Attirampakkam  |Prof. Shanti Pappu  

These dates are very close to the dates for the origin of such bi-faces in Africa and have very securely placed India as one of the earliest ‘Out Of Africa’ destinations by early hominids’, 141 years after the initial discovery by Foote.

Pappu and Kumar Akhilesh went on to work on overlying Middle Palaeolithic deposits and now have dates in excess of 350,000 years for the period.

Bruce’s Foote-print

Thus, not just for being the first person to find Lower Palaeoliths or Palaeoliths of any kind but for also finding and differentiating the Middle Palaeolithic (or as he called them Chelleo-Mousterian) sites, for discovering bone tools using Upper Palaeolithic cave dwellers, and for putting India on the map of world prehistory, Robert Bruce Foote is rightly called the ‘Father of Indian Prehistory’.

Despite many offers from European museums, Foote did not sell them his collection as he believed that it should stay in India. His collection was acquired by the Madras Museum in 1904 for a sum of Rs 33,000. It is on display for all Indians to look at and contemplate their existence in the evolutionary scheme of things. The hand axe from Pallavaram and the cleaver from Attirambakkam, which started this off, now rest quietly in the museum’s showcase.

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