REVIEW> Lycett on Paddayya and Basak, 'Prehistoric Research in the Subcontinent: A Reappraisal and New Directions'

A. Charles Muller's picture
[Re-posted from H-Asia]
K. Paddayya, Bishnupriya Basak, eds.
Mark Lycett

K. Paddayya, Bishnupriya Basak, eds. Prehistoric Research in the Subcontinent: A Reappraisal and New Directions. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2017. xix + 346 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-93-8408295-6.

Reviewed by Mark Lycett (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Asia (September, 2019) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

This volume is a collection of essays solicited from senior scholars of South Asian prehistory by the Centre for Archaeological Studies and Training in eastern India. Like many edited volumes, this work includes contributions that vary in subject, focus, and detail. It is an intriguing mixture of broad overviews of general topics, regional or project-specific reviews of field studies, and problem-oriented studies of specific topics. Quite apart from the quality of individual contributions, which is uniformly very high, the eclecticism of this collection raises a number of issues for the reader. Not least of these issues is the question of audience. To whom is this volume directed? Scholars of the prehistory of the subcontinent would likely find much to work with in the more specific studies and research reviews. Those with little background in the history and current state of play in Paleolithic research, however, will find many of these contributions difficult to follow. Scholars seeking an overview of the status and contributions of prehistoric research in South Asia would more likely find refuge in the broader essays that introduce the volume. For a volume subtitled A Reappraisal and New Directions, there is very little systematic review of the important questions in prehistoric research and their connection to the broader scope of human history in the subcontinent. While many of the individual contributions address these larger themes to some extent (especially the essays by K. Paddayya, Bishnupriya Basak, Robin Denell, Vidula Jayaswal, Parth Chauhan and Rajeev Patnaik, and V. N. Misra), it would have been helpful to include a discussion of the intellectual context of these arguments in the introduction (which is otherwise very helpful in laying out the regional and historical context of individual contributions). 

Without a broader discussion of theoretical trends, methodological challenges, and substantive controversies, readers unfamiliar with the current state of the field may miss key elements of several contributions. Why, for example, does J. N. Pal make so much of the identification and distribution of Toba ash?[1] Why are site formation processes so important to assessing the integrity and context of Paleolithic deposits in peninsular India? Why is the chronology of microliths controversial? Why are landscape, mobility, and settlement systems important foci of current research? Each of these questions has its roots in the literature of Paleolithic archaeology, hunter-gatherer studies, and methodological concerns with archaeological evidence. Those who lack familiarity with these literatures may be at a loss. Some chapters review the necessary background while other chapters presume a readership familiar with the issues at hand. 

If, as an archaeologist of later time periods, I were to lay out some of the big questions for the earliest periods of prehistory, I might include the following: hominin radiation into the subcontinent; variability in technologies, adaptations, and practices across the region; the role of environmental variables in structuring this variability; the persistence of technologies and practices in later time periods; the emergence of multiple, heterogeneous loci of food production in the Neolithic; and the development of complex spatial and social mosaics of differently organized societies that characterize the region from the Neolithic onward. Many of these questions are addressed directly by individual contributions. Others are implicated but not directly discussed. Some questions and some eras of prehistory are less fully discussed. The Neolithic makes few appearances and the Iron Age is virtually absent. In this volume, prehistory centers on the Paleolithic and Mesolithic.

Issues of framing aside, the individual chapters include presentation of recent research results and incisive discussions of important issues. The chapters break down into three broad approaches: large-scale overviews, regional or project-specific research reviews, and problem-oriented studies. The volume begins with a posthumous contribution by Misra, one of the leading prehistorians of his generation. Misra provides a personal review of the history of Paleolithic and Mesolithic research in India and an assessment of several important topics. By tracing a familiar line running through the work of Robert Bruce Foote, H. D. Sankalia, and Sankalia’s students and successors, Misra divides the history of the discipline by both chronology and problem orientation from an era of exploratory collection through academic professionalization and the increasingly explicit problem orientations of recent scholarship. Following this overview, the chapter goes on to review several specific methodological approaches and advances, including interdisciplinary and ancillary science studies, bioarchaeology, and ethnoarchaeological research. Nonspecialists will find this chapter especially useful.

G. L. Badam’s chapter follows with a broad overview of prehistoric climate, faunas, and biodiversity. Badam’s contribution is prefaced with regional overviews of paleontological and geologic research in South and Southeast Asia before focusing on a detailed consideration of the paleontological record of peninsular India. There is a wealth of information on the Pleistocene faunas and environments in this chapter. It is an exceptionally thorough and useful compilation and review of these data. The concluding discussion of biogeography is helpful in understanding the dynamics of past environments and faunas.

These two overview chapters are followed by a series of more regionally focused studies. Sushama G. Deo, S. N. Rajguru, Sheila Mishra, and Richa Jhaldiyal review the geomorphology of the northern Deccan in order to evaluate Lower Paleolithic chronologies and paleo-environments. Pal discusses recent research on paleo-environments and Paleolithic archaeology in the Son Valley of north central India. Chauhan and Patnaik follow with a discussion of the site of Pilikarar in the Narmada Valley. This chapter includes both a close analysis of the archaeological assemblage and a useful overview of the importance of South Asia in Lower Paleolithic research. Paddayya provides tremendous insight into his three-decade-long research program in northern Karnataka, focusing on the questions that have animated his work as well as the results of his fieldwork. Here, we get some insight into why site formation processes and social geographies have been so important to Paleolithic research. Basak focuses on recent research in West Bengal. This chapter makes use of many approaches and ideas from the archaeology of technology and agency as well as landscape and settlement approaches to foraging groups with the goal of “building an ethnography of landscape” (p. 211). This goal is no small task for a late Pleistocene landscape consisting largely of chipped stone artifacts. The final two chapters are especially welcome as they concern areas less often discussed in the literature. Syed Mohammad Kamrul Ahsan and Jayanta Singh Roy review the fossil wood stone tool assemblages from northeastern Bangladesh. Tiatoshi Jamir, David Tetso, and Zokho Venuh report on excavations of a mid-Holocene cave site in Nagaland. This chapter discusses one of the latest time periods treated in this volume. The authors suggest that the cave was occupied by foragers sharing their landscape with Neolithic farmers.

Several of the chapters, although localized in scope, are better seen as topic specific rather than region specific. In a broader frame, Dennell reviews the evidence for hominin radiation from Africa into Europe, South Asia, and Southwest Asia. Drawing on ecological modeling, he notes that South Asia was likely a favorable environment and supported a relatively large and successful population of human ancestors. Jayaswal reviews the evidence for the persistence of microlithic technologies, long seen as a diagnostic mark of the Mesolithic time period, from the Upper Paleolithic well into later and even recent time periods. The decoupling of technological practices from chronologies is an important step in moving beyond the classificatory systematics of earlier generations and understating the complicated, mixed social and technological landscapes of the past five thousand years. Kumar Akhilesh, Shanti Pappu, Sudha Ravidranath, and Uday Raj take on the problematic association of microlithic tools with the Teri Dunes of Tamil Nadu. Their thorough and closely reasoned discussion includes more general consideration of modern human dispersal into South Asia and adaptation to coastal environments as well as chronology, technology, and the geomorphology of dune deposits. 

Taken as a whole, this volume is an excellent addition to any library focused on South Asian prehistory and Paleolithic research. It is beautifully produced and includes important contributions and thoughtful overviews. For scholars with a less direct interest in the Paleolithic, some chapters will be more helpful than others. I am enthusiastic, however, about both the quality of contemporary research represented by this volume and the increasing availability of that research through the publication of collections like this one. I look forward to more.


[1]. See, for example, Michael Petraglia et al., “Middle Paleolithic Assemblages from the Indian Subcontinent before and after the Toba Super-Eruption,” Science 317, no. 5817 (2007): 114-16.

Citation: Mark Lycett. Review of Paddayya, K.; Basak, Bishnupriya, eds., Prehistoric Research in the Subcontinent: A Reappraisal and New Directions. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

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