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Daraki-Chattan Cupules

Acheulian rock art petroglyphs
Bhanpura: 200,000-500,000 BC

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Cup-like hollows, known as cupules, on a wall at Daraki-Chattan rock shelter
Some of the 500 cupules in the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter, an Acheulean site in the Chambal basin of the Bhanpura-Gandhisagar region. Image by Robert G. Bednarik. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Oldest Rock Art in the World

The Daraki-Chattan rock shelter in central India is home to one of the oldest sites of rock art on the planet.

It harbours the oldest collection of "cupules" in the world, dating to between 500,000 and 200,000 BC, making it an important centre of Stone Age culture.

When more advanced dating methods become available, it is possible they will be dated to the early Acheulian culture around 700,000 BC, or earlier.

Daraki-Chattan's sister site, the Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka, has a smaller trove of petroglyphs of similar antiquity.

Although some scientists are wary of describing cupules as a form of prehistoric art, the eminent archaeologist Giriraj Kumar, secretary general of the Rock Art Society of India (RASI) believes that Daraki-Chattan's cupules constitute the world's oldest art.

Australian archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik, arguably the world's leading authority on this form of paleolithic art, agrees. The cupules, he says, are clear signs of artistic expression.

What are Cupules?
Cupules are cup-shaped, man-made hollows created in rock surfaces. They are created by pounding the rock surface with a heavy cobble known as a hammerstone. A relatively shallow cupule may take several thousand blows to reach the required depth. These abstract markings were made throughout the Stone Age by hominids on every continent, except Antarctica, but we still know almost nothing about who made them and why.

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Discovery & Excavation

Daraki Chattan rock shelter was discovered in 1992, by the archaeologist Ramesh Kumar Pancholi.

In 1995, Kumar started to investigate and document the site, where excavation commenced in 2002. The walls of the shelter were found to contain over 500 cupules, plus a further 28 cupules which were recovered from fragments of exfoliated slabs at the cave entrance.

Cave Location and Layout

Daraki Chattan rock shelter is a small and very narrow quartzite cave set in the Indragarh Hill, near Bhanpura, in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The cave measures approximately 1.4 metres in width at its entrance. From this point, it narrows continuously in width, to 34 cm, and then briefly widens to 40 cm before terminating after about 9 metres.

It is approximately 7.4 metres in height.

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Daraki-Chattan Cupules

The walls around the entrance to the cave were heavily exfoliated, so much of their surface was missing. To recover as much of it as possible, an excavation of the layers of sediment around the entrance was duly launched.

This netted a large quantity of slab fragments, many of which still retained cupules on their outer surfaces.

Moving into the cave, its two vertical walls are pitted with heavily patinated cupules up to a height of about 4 metres above the floor.

Space is at a premium. Cupules towards the rear of the cave have less than 42 cm of clear working space between them and the wall opposite, creating significant difficulties for the artist.

Curiously, all of the cupules on the walls appear to have been created during a single period of cupule production.

Elsewhere, a few cupules were hammered out of the rock floor of the passage, while a single cupule can be seen by the entrance area just above the excavation.

In addition, a boulder some eight metres from the cave, has several cupules that are so badly weathered that they are barely detectable.

The cave has also yielded a quantity of linear rock engravings well as hammerstones used for producing cupules.

To understand how the petroglyphs at Daraki-Chattan fit into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540.000 BC).

How Old is Daraki-Chattan?

Daraki-Chattan is a Lower Palaeolithic site, with floor sediments containing Acheulian culture artifacts from the surface downwards.

According to Kumar, the oldest cupules date to the Late Acheulean period of the middle Stone Age, between 500,000 and 200,000 BC.

The expectation is that - when better dating techniques become available - some petroglyphs will be found to be much older, perhaps 700,000 BC, or even older.

Some of the hammerstones recovered were dated to almost 500,000 BC.

In addition, an examination of local river sediment revealed a date range of between 1.8 million years and 400,000 BC.

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Mutual Antiquity of Sites

Although evidence of extreme antiquity is stronger at Daraki-Chattan than at Bhimbetka, the cupules in the Auditorium Cave might turn out to be older than those at Daraki-Chattan, or vice versa.

In either case, the new dates will undoubtedly bolster the claims of the sister site, like the discovery of the Venus of Tan-Tan validated the original discovery of the Venus of Berekhat Ram.

Other paleolithic caves likely to harbour cupules dating to the Lower Paleolithic, include:

For cupules in Europe, see: Cupule Signs in French Caves (60,000-10,000 BC).

References

(1) "Understanding the Technology of the Daraki-Chattan Cupules." Giriraj Kumar and Ram Krishna. Rock Art Research 2014 - Volume 31, Number 2, pp. 177-186.
(2) "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.
(3) "Pleistocene Paleoart of the World." Edited by Robert G. Bednarik, Derek Hodgston. BAR International Series 1804 (2008)

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