The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 29, 2001

Did elephants live in Kashmir Valley?
Maharaaj K. Koul

EXHAUSTIVE excavations near the world-famous saffron fields at Gallander village in Pampur tehsil, about 18 km south of Srinagar, on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, have thrown up significant archaeological finds which can push back anthropological evidence of human history in India by lakhs of years.

Kashmir, has a recorded history of 2,000 years. The graphic details of the later Stone Age (Neolithic) dating 2700 BC is available at Burzhama, north of Srinagar, where excavations offer details of a culture that inhabited the valley around 4,300 years ago.

"If the data is correct and evidence of human activity can be proved, then it would be a very significant discovery, as it would push back the antiquity of man in India by about 400,000 years. Human settlements in India don’t go beyond 200,000 years", said Prof D.K. Bhattacharya of the Department of Anthropology, who also teaches archaeology at the School of Archaeology, New Delhi, run by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).


Geo-scientists have discovered a set of 57 basalt tools, believed to belong to the Palaeolithic Age. Tools of the lower Palaeolithic period (2.5 million to 600,000 years ago) were never reported in Kashmir till this find, though they were found in Afghanistan and Baluchistan. Afghanistan had terrestrial routes for animal and human migration all through the Pleistocene period and even earlier.

The prospect of elephants in Kashmir has thrown up exciting possibilities.
The prospect of elephants in Kashmir has thrown up exciting possibilities.

ASI director-general, Komal Anand has acknowledged that "It would indeed be a revolutionary discovery for South Asia if the stone tools turn out to be related to some phase of the early Pleistocene period".

It all started on September 1, 2000. The geology students of the local Government Degree College, Sopore, were returning from a study tour at Pahalgam. They halted at the site to inspect the nearby Karewas (Wudar in Kashmiri), believed to be at least 50,000 years old. Something unusual on the face of a vertical cliff of the Karewas attracted the students. A.M. Dar, who was in charge of the touring party, and his colleague, M.S. Lone, immediately contacted the Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Kashmir, Srinagar.

After carrying out excavations for some days, the experts from the Kashmir University found the fossil of a mammoth. It was believed to be 50,000 years old. Earlier there were reports of bone fragments in the valley and in the Akhnoor area of Jammu region. But what lent significance to this discovery was the fact that the fossil contained the complete lower and upper denture part of the tusk.

The fossil was believed to be the largest and earliest of a mammoth. It comprises a skull measuring 5ft by 4ft with complete lower and upper jaws and a broken tusk 2 ft and 9 inch long, measuring about 25 inch in girth at the proximal end and a vertebra. "Such clear body parts in one piece need no expert study to establish the fossil is that of an elephant," said Prof M.I. Bhat, Head of the Geology and Geophysics Department, after the discovery. Though fossil bone fragments, thought to be of elephants, were known to have been found in Kashmir, the new find makes it clear that elephants did exist in the valley!

Samples of the skull and soil have been sent to Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad; Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeo-Botany, Lucknow and the National Geo-physical Research Laboratory of India, Bangalore. Besides the samples have also gone to National University of Australia, Canberra, which specialises in studies in this field.

M.S. Shalla, a local veterinarian who specialises in morphology, who helped in the excavations, said the denture of the animal suggests that the mammoth must have died young. "It is a male mammoth of 25-30 years with the largest known skull size and might have weighed between 7-8 tonnes", he says. They have recorded signs of hunting and butchering, including some of the ribs which were recovered just near the skull. Though it has a three-foot-long tusk, given its proximal end circumference of 25 inches, Shalla calculated the length of the tusks could have been around 12 ft.

Similar elephant fossils are known to have been found in the Narmada Valley and the Indo-Gangetic plains. While elephants continue to exist in these places, their extinction in Kashmir could possibly be due to the rise of the Pir Panjaal mountainous range resulting in adverse climatic conditions for elephants in Kashmir Valley. Interestingly, no animals are found today in the area in which the mammoth fossil has been found.

It may be recalled here, that mammoths were the ancestors of both the Asian and the African elephants. It had a pointed skull and very unusual tusks, curved in a spiral shape with the tips pointing towards each other. Its body was shaped into a great hump at the back of the neck and the ears were small.

It was covered with an undercoat of yellowish brown woolly hair, from where its long black and thick hair originated. Experts assert that it was more comfortable in cold climate and some carcasses of the species, discovered in Siberia, were almost completely preserved. The mammoth survived in England and France till the glacial period. And, with the increase in temperature the animal moved up north till its ultimate extinction.

"The area from where the mammoth fossil was discovered", says Bhat "was once drained by a river, which had a source in the neighbouring glaciers". Seven layers shrouding the fossil offer a distinctive view of the geological evolution in the area. Presumably, said Dar, the spot had been a lake thrice and a river bed twice while there is one each of palaosol and aeoline deposits. The fossil is one of the most beautiful specimens found till date in the Valley. The age of the skull coincides with the advent of Homo erectus, says Bhat.

The mammoth probably lived in hot and humid climatic conditions in the valley, he added. The finding had thrown open the possibility of further vertebrate fossil hunting in Kashmir. Bhat said the finding is considered significant by local geologists who say it brings the valley closer to vertebrate fossil-rich Shivalik hills of Jammu region in terms of ancient wildlife and climate. It could, thus, throw new light on the past, he asserted.

Led by G.M. Bhat of the Jammu University’s Geology Department, who was then on deputation to the Kashmir University, a four-member team carried out exhaustive excavations for nearly two months in the area adjoining the area where the mammoth fossil was found. And they discovered the basalt tools, believed to be of the Palaeolithic Age.

Bhat said the tools showed that the ancient man had the wisdom to select what rock was best suited to his purpose, since finds elsewhere in the world have also shown the tools to be of basalt rock. He further asserted that the extinction of giant animals like elephants at the end of the Ice Age could have been the work of man.

The implements excavated by them included flake implements, choppers and spearheads. However, they are yet to find a ‘widget’ which the Stone Age man used in hunting gigantic animals.

These tools might have been used for hunting and butchering of animals by the Stone Age Hominids who inhabited this part of the world a few lakh years ago. This is among the earliest evidence of hunting by hominids in the world in general and this part of South Asia in particular. However, results of various tests which are anxiously awaited, shall give the exact status of the site.

The sedimentary strata at Sambur near the pre-historic archaeological site, have been dated back to about 7,30,000 years by the early excavators, said Bhat. This site was older than the Sambur site and surpassed and identical discovery made at the pre-historic site of Geshar-Benot Ya’Aqou near the banks of river Jordan in Israel, which was 78,000 years old, maintained Bhat.

It is believed that hominids — human ancestors of the homo erectus species, whose favourite dish was elephant meat, were the first to leave Africa, the cradle of humanity, and arrive in the Middle East from where they are believed to have migrated to Asia and Europe, said Bhat. He further added that if the age of the present site is established, it will be proved that the cradle of humanity may have been outside African continent as well could it have been in the Kashmir Valley?

"We have evidence of animal migration into India from West Africa and Central Asia, through Afghanistan and Baluchistan. However, the present find provides evidence of human migration and demonstrates the route of the Central Asians to midland India through the valley of Kashmir", adds Bhattacharya.

Interestingly, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have been helping the cause of the local scientists as the fear of militancy in the valley has stunted research activity. Gautam Kaul, who recently retired as director-general of ITBP visited the site to encourage the scientists and to offer small services. The para-military force provided scientists with plaster of Paris to help preserve ancient tools. In a letter sent by Ms Anand to the ITBP in early February, it was stated that "it is noteworthy that the field work in Kashmir done by Be Terra and Paterson in the 1940s also yielded a huge tusk of mammoth elephant from the same locality".

Former ASI Director B.M. Pande, who has also worked in Kashmir, said this was a significant discovery particularly in the light of the pre-historic tools, which had been reported earlier from Pahalgam belonging to the Neolithic and Aeneolithic periods 3,000 to 8,000 years ago.

The authorities have posted some policemen to prevent damage to the site by enthusiastic crowds. The discovery has prompted interest among both geologists and the general public. Local people have been making a beeline for the discovery site to see the fossil. It is difficult for them to believe that mammoth could have ever lived in Kashmir where tuskers can now be seen in films or only the circus.

"Our target is to find the fossil of the Paleolithic man. We have found the roots and soon we will climb the tree", boasts Bhat. He surely seems to be on cloud nine and wants to touch the stars. His colleagues believe that one day they will accomplish the goals they have set for themselves. Till then it is wait and watch!

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