The culture based on the artefacts belonging to periods before man learned to write is called 'Prehistoric Culture.' With the systematic and careful study of the remote geological deposits, river terraces and the human tools and fossils associated with them, the archaeologists are able to explore and explain the man and his culture of the prehistoric times. Exploring prehistory is not an easy task, it requires a highly integrated team work with expertise from different fields of study, proper training, adequate resources to carry out such research and collect information and analyse them to come to valid generalisation and conclusion.
In Nepal, such a study of prehistoric culture is still in its infancy; little is known of the diverse geographical regions and potential prehistoric sites of the country. The quest for prehistory started around 1960 as some native and foreign scholars got involved in exploration and even collected some stone tools from different parts of the country. Further, a significant discovery of 11 million years old tooth fragments of early hominid Ramapithecus near Tinau Khola of Butawal in 1980 generated greater attention at home and abroad. It’s equally important here to note the scientific exploration and excavation work done few years back in some parts of the country particularly in the river terraces of Dang-Deukhuri valley and the high mountain caves in Mustang region.
After 20 years of field work in the Siwaliks in the western part of Nepal, Gudrun Corvinus of Evlangen University of Germany published the results of her exploration with scientific description and analysis of prehistoric tools and the chronological sequence of cultures flourished in western Nepal. Similarly, a Nepal-German project on High Mountain Archaeology led by Angela Simon from University of Cologne, Germany discovered various artefacts and skeletal remains of the cave burials with multi-storey cave system and culture of prehistoric times dating around 810 BC. These remarkable findings helped enhance our proper understanding of Prehistoric cultures evolved in different ecological zones of the country.
Having suitable environment of dense forests, riverbanks and valleys, rock shelters and limestone caves, Nepal was definitely the safe home site of the early hominids cultivating their first Stone Age Culture. The stone tools discovered in different location are valuable to understand the multiple dimensions of prehistoric cultures evolving in different periods of time to adapt to their environment. Before the last glacial period, climatic barriers might have prevented free movements of prehistoric man. With the beginning of the hospitable climatic condition, the density of prehistoric occupations in the Siwalik foot-hills increased considerably.
Since the proportion of prehistoric tools is considered as one of the important variables to understand the density of prehistoric population, the population density was very low in the Palaeolithic period because the sites of earliest hand axes are rare in Nepal. The earliest stone tools that men had invented in the prehistoric times are known as the Acheulian on the basis of the site where this type was first recorded at a site called St. Acheul in France. In the context of Nepal, Gudrun Corvinus for the first time recovered well-fashioned early hand axes and bifacial tools of Acheulian types made of quartzite at Satpati in Nawalparasi district from in situ geological strata, which folded and uplifted in the latest phase of Himalayan uprising.
This holds great significance, because the majority of Acheulian sites are not in stratified context even in India. Further, she explored some other Palaeolithic locations in Gadari, Bhrakuti, and Arjun Khola terrace in Dang-Deukhuri valley. Based on these findings, Corvinus has given a comprehensive account of the occupation of prehistoric man in those areas and declared Satpati as the oldest prehistoric settlement in western Nepal. She also suggested that the site of Bhrakuti must have been a workshop of prehistoric tool makers. The earliest tools discovered from the upper Siwalik context are of crucial significance for defining the antiquity of South Asian Acheulian as some tools from Patu industry point to connection with Southeast Asia rather than with India.
There has been a blank slot between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods because of non-availability of tools assemblages belonging to Mesolithic periods in the context of Nepal. As Corvinus discovered the Mesolithic-macrolithic industries from the site of Patu village of Mahottari district and Dang-Deukhuri valley, the gap of intermediate period of Nepal's prehistory has now been closed. It is interesting here to mention that the Mesolithic industry of Nepal point to their connection with Hoabinhian tool complex of North Vietnam. A great number of findings of different cultural periods within a limited area of western Nepal lend support to the dense occupation of prehistoric man in the region.
The picture changed in the later Neolithic period with occurrence of Neolithic tools covering somewhat larger areas than that of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. This shows that the favourable climatic environment of the post-glacial period enhanced greater mobility of Neolithic man throughout the entire length and breadth of Siwalik and Mahabharat mountain ranges. Many scholars are of the opinion that the Naag tribes were the earliest primitive band appeared throughout the hilly region of the Himalayas with hunting gathering mode of production. Almost all the Neoliths collected from various regions of Nepal are surface collection, but the pre-defined type of these cultural materials provides the authenticity of the evidences of Neolithic settlements in Nepal.
It is interesting to note that the Neoliths in Nepal are considered as 'thunderbolt' or vajra-dhunga coming down from the sky and they are kept at home for avoiding death and diseases and also for safe delivery of an infant. As the time passed on, the Neolithic population of Nepal gradually started domestication of animals and started farming as the forested environment favoured them to initiate the new mode of economic production. The discovery of burial and settlement caves in the high mountain of Mustang region further changed the prehistoric scenario. Numerous skeletal remains and a large number of cultural objects of different periods have been discovered at the man-made caves of Chokhopani, Mebrak and Phudzeling of the Mustang district.
The excavation and investigation carried out with more integrative approach gives a hope to unravel even the mystery of human origin, evolution and migration of man in the context of Nepal. The modern concept of prehistoric archaeology has now moved in the direction of explanation rather than mere description. By adopting such conceptual scheme of interdisciplinary approach, the human phenomenon of prehistoric Nepal will come into light in totality and the results of archaeological research will have greater relevance to the present context.
(Shrestha is a former Associate Professor of Archaeology at Tribhuvan University.)