In the late 1980s, while exploring around the villages of Maharashtra’s coastal Konkan region, Sudhir Risbud came across a big square pattern engraved near the road to the beach town of Ganpatipule.
The electrical engineer and bird-watcher had no idea at the time that it was a petroglyph, a form of rock carving associated with prehistoric people, that was one of the earliest depictions of art created by humans in the Konkan region. Nor did he know that it dated from a time that archaeologists have dubbed the area’s “dark age,” for which no historical information was previously available.
Risbud and fellow explorers Dhananjay Marathe and Surendra Thakurdesai spotted a few more examples over the years, but it wasn’t until a historian accompanied them on one of their trips that they learned about the potential significance of these engravings. So, in 2012, they began to search for more in earnest.
“For the earlier period of about two years, we were just groping (in) the dark. The villagers themselves, too, were not aware that such rock arts do exist in their villages,” Risbud, 45, told Quartz in an email. “But then, one day, an octogenarian from the Dhangar (shepherd) community told us about one site, and then on we trudged ahead using the thread provided by him, and hence started our mission of exploring the petroglyphs.”
In April 2015, they stumbled upon a cluster of 42 petroglyphs, depicting birds, animals, and human figures. In the years since then, the trio has uncovered over 1,200 engravings at 90 different sites across Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri districts, the latter best-known for its sweet Alphonso mangoes.
“All these sites are located in remote places on (the) laterite plateau quite far away from the villages,” Risbud explained. Exposed to the elements and out of sight for most villagers, no one had yet investigated the importance of the petroglyphs nor given any thought to their preservation.
“As we started exploring these sites, it dawned upon us that they were under the threat of destruction from various activities such as mining, road construction, and plantation,” he added.
So, they appealed to the Maharashtra state government’s department of archaeology and museums for help.
Tejas Garge, director of the department, says some of the figures had come into official records as far back as the 1990s, when a bystander had spotted a few while a road was being constructed towards the village of Nivali. But it took over two decades before the state department officially got involved in exploring and recording the sites, which it began last year.
“We are documenting them scientifically, and we are trying to gather data from stone tools and other evidence which would be helpful to date them,” Garge told Quartz.
The stone tools they’ve found so far are from the mesolithic era, otherwise known as the Middle Stone Age, dating back to about 10,000 BCE. Based on this, Garge and his team estimate that the petroglyphs could date from between 10,000 BCE to 2,000 BCE.
“They were not done in one shot, there’s successive generations of people who were doing this,” Garge explained. “This activity may have prolonged for centuries.”
So far his team has explored 45 sites in Ratnagiri, where they’ve broadly categorised the figures into fauna, human figures (often seen with their legs spread, believed to have some relation to fertility), and abstract geometric patterns that they haven’t been able to interpret yet. But what’s most interesting is that the animal, bird, and amphibian figurines include a number of creatures that aren’t found in the region today, such as the one-horned rhino, suggesting that they may have once been present in the area.
While the process of documenting and analysing the figures is still in the early stages, archaeologists believe they could solve the mystery of how the Konkan region transitioned from a stone-age society to a settled one.
“If you look at the cultural record of Konkan, you have the Middle Stone Age (upper Paleolithic period) and you have evidence of the early historical era,” Garge said. “In between, there is a gap of 25-30,000 years; there’s no evidence for human habituation. It was sort of the dark age of the Konkan.”
Now, this dark age is starting to become a little clearer.
It will take a few more years before archaeologists can accurately interpret the petroglyphs. So far, 15 of the sites have been protected, and the archaeology department wants to eventually draw tourists to the area. In the meantime, Risbud and his fellow explorers are raising awareness among the people living in the vicinity, so that the public knows they’re in the presence of the rare remnants of India’s ancient history.