Ladakh News

The Prehistory of Ladakh

By Jigmet Namgyal, Stawa 01-20

Prehistoric rock art in Domkhar village, Ladakh

Prehistoric rock art in Domkhar village, Ladakh

Prehistory, the period of human history before written records, covers an enormous span of time. It starts more than 2.5 million years back with the emergence of the first tool-making hominins (human-like beings) in East Africa and extends to modern times. It is an exciting quest to explore the lives of the earliest humans that lived in the distant past. The study of prehistory contributes a great deal to our understanding of those periods and places where written records, inscriptions and other literary sources do not exist. It enables us to reconstruct and explain the lives of early humans as they changed and evolved over thousands of years. The study of prehistory may also provide insight to understand the advent of early humans in Ladakh prior to its known history.

Ladakh has a complex landscape and its ecological configuration is quite distinct from the rest of the subcontinent. Earlier, unlike the rest of the country, we did not know that people were present in Ladakh in prehistoric times, as the documented and recorded history of the region starts with the advent of Buddhism. However, consistent efforts by geologists and archaeologists over the last three decades have started to give us insights to human presence in Ladakh since prehistoric times. The prehistoric past of the region has now been firmly established with evidence of human occupation in Ladakh over the last 15,000 to 10,000 years if not earlier.

The rugged mountains of Ladakh were formed over 45 million years ago with the folding of the Indian plate into the Eurasian plate. Earlier it was believed that the history of human occupation / immigration in Ladakh goes back to the Seventh-Eight century CE around the advent of Buddhism in the region. This is also the period when Ladakh was establishing cultural contact with neighbouring areas like Tibet, China and Central Asia for the first time through the various mountain passes that fed the famous Silk Route since the First century CE. For some reason, Western scholars such as De Terra and Paterson, Hawkes and Francke ignored the prehistoric past of the region despite the discovery of Palaeolithic tools from the region. The views of these scholars was so ingrained in the minds of Indian scholars that a preconceived notion prevailed till a few decades back that this high altitude Trans-Himalayan region with a rugged terrain, natural barriers and inhospitable conditions was terra incognita for humans in prehistoric times. However, recent evidence discovered by archaeologists and geologists changed this notion. It has now been established that humans did venture and settled here even before the advent of Buddhism in the region.

The efforts of Indian geologists, whose independent thinking about the Himalayas in the 1980s, resulted in the discovery of stone tools from a number of sites in Ladakh that were dated back to the stone age period. In a way, these discoveries by geologists proved to be a turning point for further research on Prehistoric settlement of Ladakh and subsequent explorations and excavations by archaeologists opened a new chapter on the prehistory of the region. As a result, the systematic archaeological investigations in Ladakh in recent years have proven beyond doubt that humans may have occupied this landscape around 9,000 BCE (11,000 years) back.

The evidence in the form of Stone Age tools and other artefacts collected from various geological formations, prehistoric camping sites in different parts of the region and a substantial number of C14 dates obtained from this evidence, clearly establish Ladakh's long history starting from the early Holocene (last 10,000 years) onwards till contemporary times. The evidence found during the investigations also help us understand the nature of their cultural material, socio-economic life and confirm their contacts with neighbouring countries like China, Tibet and Central Asia since earlier times.

The prominent prehistoric sites in Ladakh that are known so far include Gyak, Kiari, Liktse, Himya and Upshi. Stone artefacts have been found from Indus terraces near the villages of Nurla, Khaltse, Pashkyum, Alchi, Choskar on the banks of Wakha river. Sasoma-Saserla in Nubra valley is a potential site that may throw more light on the prehistoric past of the region. These sites are mostly camping sites along rivers or streams. Consequently, a large amount of animal remains have also been recovered from these sites indicating that animal food constituted a major part of the diet consumed by these prehistoric people. These camping sites are primarily ascribed to pastoral communities who practiced transhumance in a localised territory. In addition to this, their economy was partially dependent on hunting wild animals. Further investigations in these regions may throw more light on the nature of cultural remains, cultural contact and movement between Ladakh and neighbouring regions such as Tibet, China, Central Asia, Kashmir and the India subcontinental plains.

These terraces and alluvial fans of the region not only attract people in the contemporary times but also did so in the past. It was because these alluvial fans and terraces have been suitable for camping, grazing, easy access to water sources etc. Unfortunately, nowadays road-cutting on these exposed terraces and alluvial fans are destroying significant archaeological sites. Therefore, it is important that the area is systematically investigated before these unique and rare archaeological sites and evidence of early inhabitants in Ladakh are destroyed forever.

Ladakh also has a large number of rock art (petroglyphs) sites that are spread across the length and breadth of the region. The representations and similarity between rock art found in Ladakh and Tibet, China and Central Asia suggest that there was cultural contact between these regions. It is possible that some of these petroglyphs are contemporaneous with early pastoral communities and are a testimony of their artistic creations.

The prehistory of Ladakh is still being discovered and our understanding of it is evolving. We are far from having a definitive and valid understanding, interpretation and conclusion in this matter. Therefore, more research is needed in this area to reveal the real prehistoric story of Ladakh.