Recently, Maharashtra state archaeologist Tejas Garge announced that his team had uncovered petroglyphs depicting humans and animals. “Our first deduction from examining these petroglyphs is that they were created around 10,000 BC,” Garge told the BBC. When the BBC reported on the discovery of 12,000-year-old petroglyphs in the Konkan region of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, a strange choice made by BBC Marathi reporter Mayuresh Konnur (or whoever translated his work in to English) has led to a hyperdiffusionist claim that Ice Age Indians traveled from Africa and brought knowledge of animals like rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses with them. Consider this reaction from the fringe: “So, how are archaeologists going to explain the thousands of rock carvings discovered on hillocks in the Konkan region of western Maharashtra that show images of hippos, rhinos and other never-seen-in-India creatures interacting with humans 12.000 years ago?” Paul Seaburn of Mysterious Universe ignorantly asked.
The BBC’s English-language article on the discovery had asked how ancient Indians might have carved images of animals that are not native to western India. “Did the people who created them migrate to India from Africa?” the BBC asked.
But this question represented the translator’s own ignorance. In fact, the evidence on the BBC’s own website demonstrates that the fault lies entirely with the employee tasked with adapting for English-language readers an article originally published in Marathi on the BBC’s Marathi-language service. Given the differences between the two articles, I assume that Konnur did not translate his own work.
The Marathi version of the article is much longer and has many more qualifiers. In it, Garge is more circumspect about the age of the rock art. In the original article, Garge said that he dated the petroglyphs by comparing them to rock art in other areas of India where similar figures date between 25,000 and 3,000 years ago. While the Google Translate version of the Marathi text is quite garbled and unclear, if I have begun to pick up the rudiments of the language correctly (and I admit to having only a superficial understanding of Marathi after a very brief study), he seemed to say that the petroglyphs were provisionally dated to 12,000 years old on stylistic grounds, but could be as young as 700 years old or as old as 40,000 years—“kamīta kamī 700 varṣān̄cā āṇi kāhī ṭhikāṇī 40 hajāra varṣaṁ” (“minimally 700 years old and in a few places 40,000 years old”).
The BBC left out much of the archaeological information from the Marathi version and mistranslated its own article, adding in other information that was not present in the original. Here is the original, cleaned up from Google Translate as best I can read Marathi with the aid of a dictionary, followed by the English language version:
You can see where the English-language adapter for the BBC has imposed his or her own ignorance on the article. Reference to Africa does not appear in the original. This is problematic because, as you might know, India has rhinoceroses and once had hippopotamuses.
The Indian rhinoceros, justly famous, has been known in the West since the time of Ctesias, the Greek writer who described a “unicorn” in his fantastical account of India that was almost certainly this rhinoceros. Other ancient accounts of the creature appear in Megasthenes 15 (in Strabo, Georgraphy 15.1.56); Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 3.1-5; Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander Romance 3.16-17; etc. India was the source for rhinoceroses in the West down to European exploration of sub-Saharan Africa in early modern times.
The rhinoceros’s historic range in India covered the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which is north of Maharastan. I am no expert in fossil Indian rhinoceroses. There is, however, a 1946 book on the subject by Dirk Albert Hooijer entitled Prehistoric and Fossil Rhinoceroses from the Malay Archipelago and India that I have not read but whose title speaks to the larger range of the rhinoceros in the Ice Age.
It’s true that India does not have hippopotamuses, but it did in the past. Paleontologists have unearthed remains of the hippopotamus and other members of its family in India, where the animals lived down to the end of the last Ice Age. It is not clear to me (since I have not seen a picture) that the petroglyph animal is in fact intended to be a hippopotamus, but given the date and location, it is not impossible.
The bottom line is that we are already seeing the birth of fringe claim about Ice Age travel between India and Africa based largely on one guy’s mistake in adapting a Marathi article into English without sufficient background in the ecology and paleontology of India.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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