Petroglyphs in Bhimbetka Shelters
Rock art dated 200,000-500,000 BC
The Auditorium Cave in India is an archaeological site of great significance to Stone Age culture, due to its very ancient rock markings.
It contains some of the world's oldest known "cupules" - cup-shaped hollows, pounded out of the rock by hammer-stones - which date back to between 200,000 and 500,000 BC.
Cupules are the oldest known form of rock art produced during the period of paleolithic art, although their unexciting, if mysterious, nature commands much less artistic respect than (say) the dramatic cave painting of Chauvet and Lascaux.
The cave is the largest of the Bhimbetka rock shelters, located in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh about 45 kilometres south-east of Bhopal.
It is part of the Bhimbetka World Heritage Site which includes seven hills and more than 750 rock shelters.
The Auditorium Cave cupules may yet rewrite the conventional eurocentric narrative of prehistoric art, and place Asia at the very beginning of mankind's artistic awakening.
The Auditorium Cave is embedded in sandstone rock surrounded by dense forests.
It comprises a large level tunnel, some 25 metres long, leading to a high-ceilinged chamber with three exits opening in three different directions, so that the overall layout of the cave resembles a cross.
At the center of this cross - clearly visible from all four entrance passageways is a large rock, which measures 2.5 metres in height and 3.4 metres in width. This is known as "Chief's Rock".
Archaeological investigations began at the Bhimbetka complex in the 1970s, under the direction of archaeologists V.S.Wakankar, S.K.Pandey and V.N.Misra. Excavations were carried out at eleven sites of the Bhimbetka main hill, notably Auditorium Cave (Wakankar), and an adjacent rock shelter (Misra).
Inside the Auditorium cave, archaeologists found 11 petroglyphs.
Nine cupules were discovered in a large vertical panel on the eastern side of Chief’s Rock face. Later, two more of these cup-like markings were found - this time underground. They included a tenth cupule, plus a single meandering groove, next to it.
The nine cupules were of greatly varying depths, ranging from 1.1 mm to 13.4 mm.
They were pounded out of the rock by striking the surface with a hand-held stone tool (hammer-stone).
All the cupules were found in the central part of the cave, well protected from the weather, yet they were extremely corroded due to their exceptional antiquity.
The two underground petroglyphs were found 1.5 metres below the surface, on the sloping surface of a boulder.
They were covered by remains dating from the Acheulean period (700,000-200,000 BC).
The Middle Palaeolithic layer (up to 200,000 BC) above the Acheulean debris was so solidly cemented by calcium carbonate deposition that there was no possibility of disturbance after the cupule was created.
The coincidence of the nine above-ground cupules with the two buried petroglyphs, suggested that all of them were made at about the same time, and this was verified by micro-erosion tests.
The Bhimbetka petroglyphs in the Auditorium Cave are now thought to date to between 200,000 BC and 500,000 BC. Once more advanced dating methods become available, it is quite possible they will be dated to 700,000 BC, or even earlier.
The Acheulean tool culture in India is divided into four periods.
To see how cupules fit into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
A subsequent study of the 540 cupules and three linear grooves at Daraki-Chattan rock shelter confirmed that all were created well before the Late Acheulean occupation of the site, and are indisputably related to the Lower Paleolithic.
Twenty-six of the cupules were found in and below the Acheulean strata, continuing all the way down to the lowest sediment deposit.
It is reasonable to suppose that this supports the proposed antiquity of the cupules at Bhimbetka.
According to Bednarik, the age evidence at the Auditorium Cave is weaker than it is at the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter. Even so, he says, "if Lower Paleolithic petroglyphs occur at one site of Madhya Pradesh, it should not surprise us that there are others. On the contrary, they are to be expected to exist."
Several other sites with extremely old abstract markings like these have been found in India. The most promising include Pola Bata, some 20 km southwest of Bhanpura, in Madhya Pradesh, and Bajanibhat, a rock shelter near Kotaputli, in Rajasthan.
For more examples of Neanderthal rock art, see:
(1) "The Earliest Petroglyphs in the World." (2019) Robert G. Bednarik. researchgate.net
(2) "The cupules on Chief's Rock, Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka." Bednarik RG. (1996). The Artefact - 19:63-72.
(3) "Preliminary Results of the EIP Project." Rock Art Research 2005 - Volume 22, Number 2, pp. 147-197. R.G. Bednarik, G. Kumar, A. Watchman, and R. G. Roberts.