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  • A Re-Examination of the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record of Northern Tamil Nadu, South India
  • Michael D. Petraglia
A Re-Examination of the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record of Northern Tamil Nadu, South India. Shanti Pappu. Oxford: BAR International Series 1003. £48 ($72 US). ISBN 1-84171-198-5.

Systematic, well-designed archaeological surveys have been noticeably rare in Indian Paleolithic studies. The relative poverty of methodical surveys to the present day is the case despite extremely productive results from a handful of earlier investigations. Certain earlier surveys over broad areas have identified large numbers of Paleolithic sites in Quaternary settings, amply demonstrated by comprehensive investigations in the Thar Desert, the Raisen District, the Ghataprabha Basin, and the Hunsgi-Baichbal valleys. Formal surveys and countless informal collections have identified numerous Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic sites in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. As these surveys have thoroughly illustrated, the richness of the archaeological record of India is unparalleled in comparison to many outlying regions, and its potential wealth for understanding the evolution of human behavior is immense. Unfortunately, many field investigations have been plagued by an inexplicit behavioral orientation, concurrently sensitive to the geoarchaeological and formational history of deposits. This has led to major uncertainties about the age of Paleolithic material, as clear links often can not be made between artifacts and the deposits from which they are derived. Moreover, many non-Indian specialists have remained suspicious of behavioral reconstructions since many past investigations have not taken into account the contribution of natural agents and processes.

In light of the inadequacies of prior research, Shanti Pappu has implemented a formal survey in the Kortallayar Basin of southeastern India. The survey was an explicit attempt to improve upon the prevailing situation, assigning behavioral meaning to the variability evident in the Paleolithic archaeological record of the region. As part and parcel of her survey, the surveyor paid close attention to the depositional history of localities and the sedimentary contexts of artifacts in order to assess the degree to which site contents and material arrangements were the consequence of human activities. Pappu's analysis of the formational properties of the archaeological record has resulted in a masterful and sophisticated treatment, ultimately allowing her to make convincing statements about hominid adaptations. Additionally, the analysis of stone tool technology and typology provides important supplementary information about the nature of Paleolithic assemblages on the Indian subcontinent. Particularly interesting information about raw material choices and mobility patterns are ascertained from her technological analyses.

In one of the five chapters comprising this volume, Pappu describes the results of her ethnographic experiences, centered on the Irula, with a series of transhumant populations that variably practice hunting and gathering. Ethnographic information is mined for data about residential settlements and activity areas, special purpose camps, territoriality and mobility, subsistence strategies, implement use, and butchering and food sharing practices. Pappu further explores a number of topics that she finds relevant for assessing the archaeological record, especially site types, mobility, subsistence, reoccupation, artifact recycling and reuse, and raw material choices. In investigating these topics, Pappu reminds the reader on several occasions that caution needs to be exercised in making any direct analogies to the archaeological record. While she does make prudent use of [End Page 362] the ethnographic information, the brevity of this work makes it a somewhat awkward fit with the wider Paleolithic issues at hand. One gets the sense that an expanded ethno-archaeological work on the transhumant populations of the region would be better as a stand-alone volume.

The veracity and high quality of the Kortallayar survey findings are remarkable in light of the fact that the fieldwork was initiated and completed by a single researcher during the course of her Ph.D. research. While Pappu successfully follows in the footsteps of others in conducting impressive one-person research operations, readers will likely get the impression that much more information and efficiency would have been gained by assembling an interdisciplinary team. Undoubtedly, intandem observations by Quaternary geomorphologists and geoarchaeologists would have likely shed much more light on the depositional character and environmental settings of the Kortallayar localities, assisting in understanding site formation and identifying areas for more productive behavioral...


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pp. 360-361
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