These Millennia-Old Cave Paintings May Be Among India’s Oldest

Locals have known about the artworks for generations, but government archaeologists only began documenting them this summer

Aravalli mountains
The cave paintings are located in the Aravalli mountain range in northwestern India. Tushar Dayal via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

Archaeologists say cave paintings found in northwestern India’s Aravalli mountain range may have been made more than 20,000 years ago. As Shubhangi Misra reports for the Print, the area where the art is located, in the state of Haryana, is also home to much older tools and tool-making equipment dated to as long as 100,000 years ago.

Banani Bhattacharya, deputy director of the Haryana Department of Archaeology and Museums, tells the Print that experts have found at least 28 ancient sites in Haryana to date. Some trace their roots to the time of the Harappan—or Indus Valley—civilization, which began around 2500 B.C.E., while others are much older. Drawing on the long history of settlement in the area, archaeologists have been able to trace both the development of tool-making and the emergence of art.

“Some are line drawings, which are the oldest, when humans hadn’t really figured out how to draw complex patterns,” Bhattaharya says. “Then we can see drawings of different geometric shapes, foliage, animals and human figures. We’ve found some symbols that look like cup marks, which had presumably been kept for some special purpose.”

Materials used to make the art changed over time, with most completed in ocher but other, more recent ones, rendered in white.

“Stone Age paintings generally use red and ocher colors,” Bhattaharya tells the Hindustan Times’ Sadia Akhtar. “Stones of these color[s] used to be available locally and inhabitants crushed the stones for preparing the color for paintings.”

The Times reports that people who live near the site have known about the paintings for generations. Many walk or graze goats nearby. But the Indian government’s archaeology team only began investigating the caves this summer.

“We know that these paintings must be quite old,” Hamid, a resident of the nearby village of Sela Kheri who uses only one name, tells the Times. “It’s evident if you look at them. However, one can’t understand or make sense of symbols or the writing. They have gathered dust over the years.”

According to Sukhbir Siwach and Sakshi Dayal of the Indian Express, local environmental activist Sunil Harsana, who has been documenting wildlife, vegetation and other features of the area, took photos of the art and brought it to archaeologists’ attention.

“The caves are in an area that is difficult to reach, so we have to plan before going,” Harsana says. “It is on a high cliff and the terrain is very difficult, it is the maximum difficulty level in terms of climbing. This is probably why the caves and the art survived as well, because people don’t normally go there.”

These Millennia-Old Cave Paintings May Be Among India's Oldest
Experts say the newly documented cave paintings bear striking similarities to the Bhimbetka rock shelters (pictured here). Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Bhattacharya tells the Times that the timing of the paintings’ creation hasn’t been established yet, but they appear to date back to the late Stone Age. In addition to the paintings, the team has found rock art and ceremonial sites. Some of the discoveries were found out in the open, but most were on the ceilings of rock shelters. The paintings and the places where they were found share features with the Bhimbetka rock shelters in the state of Madhya Pradesh, located southeast of the new archaeological site.

Haryana Principal Secretary Ashok Khemka tells the Indian Express that the government plans to give protected status to the Mangar Bani forests where the discovery was made. Teams will continue to investigate and document the site.

“In the near future, we will carry out trial trench digging, document and map all rock shelters and open-air sites,” Khemka says. “Carbon radio dating and accelerator mass spectrometry techniques will be used to date the cave paintings.”

Harsana, the local activist, says it’s important for the government to follow through and make sure the area is actually protected.

“A heritage site has been found here,” he tells the Times. “It is crucial that experts conduct the necessary investigations and ensure that people are made aware of the significance of the site. These sites need to be protected so that future generations are able to understand the history of the region.”