Eighteen scientists from different disciplines bring our understanding of early human occupation of South Asia up to date

The last decade has been eventful in terms of our understanding of human evolution and the peopling of the world. Along with new archaeological discoveries, the rapidly advancing science of population genetics and ancient DNA sequencing are filling in a lot of the blanks and are turning what were once hypotheses into theories based on facts. For example, we now know that all modern human populations outside of Africa came from a small sub-section of the African population that moved out into Eurasia around 70,000 years ago. We also know that the earliest evidence for modern humans, Homo sapiens, goes back to 300,000 years ago, earlier than previously thought. We have found out that Homo sapiens interbred with their genetic cousins, Neanderthals and Denisovans, and that most of us today carry some of their genes.

What about India?

Amidst all this, how much has our understanding of the peopling of India, whether by our hominin predecessors or modern humans, improved? The book that will answer the question is titled Beyond Stones and More Stones: Defining Indian Prehistoric Archaeology and it is a collection of 11 papers by 18 highly regarded names from around the world in fields such as archaeology, anthropology and genetics. It is edited by Prof. Ravi Korisettar, well-known for his role in excavating Jwalapuram in the Jurreru valley of Andhra Pradesh. That excavation led to the discovery of stone tools under and over layers of volcanic ash left behind by the Toba eruption of 74,000 BC. The volcanic eruption, which happened in the Indonesian island of Sumatra, had impacted life all the way from East Asia to Africa, and has now become an archaeological marker.

As is pointed out in the book, the biggest challenge in trying to grasp Indian pre-history is the measly availability of fossils. Therefore, much of our understanding is based on the discovery, analysis and interpretation of stone tools and settlement areas. This causes a problem because stone tools were made by hominins such as Homo erectus and modern humans the Homo sapiens, and through much of prehistory it is not easy to make out which tool was made by whom.