By: Minhaj Sami

We are aware of the recent history of the sub-continent, but are not educated much about the previous eras of the subcontinent. We are taught about the Mughal dynasty but not the starting eras of the nation. Getting acquainted with the first few eras of the subcontinent help us understand the beginning of the civilization, connect to our cultural roots, get to know the origin of the tools we use in our daily life and learn about the evolution of people of sub-continent over thousands of centuries. Hence learning about early eras is of paramount importance and value.

The earliest era of the subcontinent was the prehistoric era. We do not know much about human civilization before this period. Humans were basically cavemen during this whole period. This is the time in which the foundations of civilization were laid down.

The prehistoric period is the earliest era of the subcontinent that we know of. It goes as back as 400000 BC and lasted till 1000 BC.  In this era people couldn’t write hence known as pre historic period. As there are no written accounts, the culture of this period is studied using artwork, tools and pottery found at the archaeological sites.

In the beginning of the period, people migrated to the subcontinent from present day Iran.

There are three main prehistoric periods:

  • The Stone age (30 000 BCE – 3000 BCE)
  • The copper age (3000 BCE – 1050 BCE)
  • The iron age (1050 BCE – 500 CE)

The stone age is the period when humans started using stones for utility purposes. It comprises of further three periods:

  • Paleolithic Age (2 million BC – 10 000 BC)
  • Mesolithic Age (10 000 BC – 8000 BC)
  • Neolithic Age (8000 – 4000 BC)


Paleolithic age:

It was attributed with paintings, reliefs on cave walls, incised designs and erection of small sculpture (eg clay figures of animals, bone carvings and ivory carvings). The period also saw the invention of archaic tools made of chips. Men used to hunt to feed, using sharp tools. Agriculture wasn’t practiced during this era. Moreover, people used to live in caves.

Lower paleolithic age:

People used to live in rock shelters and caves. They used to settle near water bodies as stone was more accessible from there. Animals were hunted using axes made of limestone – fish and birds were hunted. Some of the important Lower Paleolithic Sites in India are –

Belan Valley of Mirzapur,

Didwana in Rajasthan,

Narmada Valley,

Soan Valley.


Middle paleolithic age:

The main transition that took place on this era was that the tools transitioned from axes to snowflakes. They were pointed and sharp and used to hunt small animals. Flakes were constructed by rubbing the side of a stone with a bigger stone. This is why this period is known as flake tool industry. The historic sites during this period are

Potwar plateau: It is between Indus & Jhelum

Sanghao cave: It is near Peshawer

Upper paleolithic age:

This period coincided with the last age of ice age. This period witnessed the pioneering of a lot of tools. Major progress was made in stone tool manufacturing; several bone tools were created which comprised of harpoons, burins tools, fishing tools and needles. Furthermore, Blades and burins were also invented. Chota nagpar plateau, son, maharashtara, belan and Orrisa were the prominent places of this era.

Mesolithic period:

Meso means middle and lithic means stone, in Greek. Hence the name means middle stone age. It was a transitional period between paleolithic and neolithic era. The climate became warm and humid during this time. Food hunting and gathering continued to take place. Animals were started to get domesticated; Cattles and dogs were kept as pets. Tools which were used during this time were very small and hence called microliths. Microliths were small bladed stone tools. Some of the microliths were trapeze, point, core, lunate and backed blade. These tools were used for harvesting and slicing. Moreover, other technological innovations also took place: bow and arrow, for hunting, querns and hammer stones for grinding and pulverizing plant foods. The belief of the people of this era was in life in death and consequently buried people with goods. People also started covering themselves up with animal skin. The inhabitants of the subcontinent during this period had a profound interest in art. A huge number of paintings were created which are a testimony, to the capabilities of the people of that time to innovate new technology, advanced social structure as well as material culture. The paintings depicted animal hunting, food collection and dancing. The paintings also aid us in understanding the religious structure of that time as well as the division of labor on basis of gender. Historic sites of this period are

Langhnaj which is present day Gujarat – the evidence of burial of dead was found here –

Bagaur which is present day Rajasthan; it had a microlithic industry

Adamgarh which had the earliest evidence of domestication of animals.


Neolithic period

Neo means new and lithic means stone age. Hence, it is called the new stone age. This period is characterized with the use of stone stools, widely used agricultural practices and its megalithic architecture. This was the last era of stone age.  It was a farming and Pastoralism based village culture.  Common practice of agriculture commenced in this age. The lifestyle of people transitioned from nomadic to settled. Houses were constructed which were made of mud and reed. Common rights over property were established. Art and pottery were well liked too. The pottery of this period consisted of greyware, mat impressed ware and black burnished ware. Polished stone tools, burins and chisels were commonly used. The ruins of fire baked earthen pots have also been found at various places. Construction of villages also took place. People of this age also used tools and weapons made of bones – like arrowheads, scrapers, needles etc. These reformed tools helped in improving the performance of activities like hunting, cultivating etc. Neolithic men were also equipped with the skills to spin cotton, weave cloth and make boats. Important sites of this period are Koldihwa and Mahagara (lying south of Allahabad) – This site provides evidence of circular huts along with crude hand-made pottery. There is also evidence of rice, which is the oldest evidence of rice, not only in India but anywhere in the world.

  • Mehrgarh (Balochistan, Pakistan) –  In this site people cultivated crops such as cotton and wheat and resided in houses built of sun- dried bricks.
  • Burzahom (Kashmir) – The domestic dogs were buried along with their masters in their graves; people lived in pits and used tools made of polished stones as well as bones.
  • Gufkral (Kashmir) – This neolithic site is famous for pit dwelling, stone tools and graveyards in houses.



Chalco means copper and lithic means stone so this age saw the use of both – stone and copper – In the manufacture of products.

This was the first metal age of India and was the part of bronze and copper age. The tools used in this period were made of low grade metals. Copper and bronze were used in the manufacture of various tools. This era is characterized by the copper artefacts, beads of stones and stone tools. Hunting, fishing and farming were the main occupations of the people of this period. Animals which were kept included –   Cattles, goats, sheep, buffalos and pigs. A lot of innovation also took place in agriculture. Rice cropping pattern and cotton farming developed. Crops which were grown were lentil, bajra, green pea, green gran, black gram, jowar, wheat and barley. People began to settle near hills and rivers. Houses made of cow dung were resided in. They were rectangular and had one room – quite advanced for the time.  People were also really captivated by pottery painting, especially black and red. Polychrome painted pottery was the type ceramists specialized in. Pots with openings were also cut into the walls. Moreover, the tradition of burying humans with, their ornaments due to religious reasons under their houses also commenced. Important settlements of this period were

Gilund (Rajasthan)

balathal (Rajasthan)

Ahar (rajhastan)