Project 1406

INQUA Project 1406: Palaeoanthropological Perspectives on Past Vegetation Using Phytoliths at Prehistoric Sites in South India and Sri Lanka


Dr. Kumar Akhilesh: Director, Research, Sharma Centre For Heritage Education, 28, I Main Road, C.I.T.Colony, Mylapore, Chennai 600004, Tamil Nadu, India. Email:

Dr. K.Anupama: Research Scientist, Laboratory of Palynology & Paleoecology, Department of Ecology, French Institute, Pondicherry, India. Email:

Dr. Shanti Pappu: Professor of Prehistory, Department of Archaeology, Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune, India & Founder/Secretary, Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, Chennai 600004, Tamil Nadu, India. Email:

Dr. T. Rathnasiri Premathilake: Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, 407, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7, University of Kelaniya Sri Lanka. Email:


Primary aim of project: To conduct workshops to discuss the results of recent research into the study of phytoliths from Palaeolithic sites in South Asia (Attirampakkam), for reconstructing past vegetation and dimensions of wild plant usage. This would aim at introducing young researchers in the fields of prehistory and palaeobotany to the use of opal phytoliths to understand the prehistoric use of wild plant resources and adaptation to changing palaeoenvironments in South Asia, and to establish research networks of scientists working in South Asia. This will allow the development of integrated approaches towards the study of past vegetation and plant use at prehistoric sites, ranging from the Early Pleistocene to mid-Holocene.

Description:Investigation of past vegetation cover at prehistoric sites, and studies of the use of wild plant resources, are challenging research issues in South Asian palaeoanthropology. These issues have been sparsely investigated at Pleistocene prehistoric sites in India, primarily owing to the poor preservation of fossil pollen and other proxies. Such issues are relevant not only in terms of investigating the transition from hunter-gatherers to an agro-pastoral way of life, but also in terms of understanding changing ways in which prehistoric populations adapted to climate change over the Pleistocene and Early Holocene. This project seeks to develop appropriate methods in understanding palaeovegetation including the early appearance of wild plants, using phytolith analysis and drawing on research at specific well-dated archaeological sites. We seek to integrate this research with ethnoarchaeological studies, investigations of site formation processes and phytolith taphonomy and recovery of phytoliths from surfaces/working edges of sampled artefacts from excavated sites. We draw primarily on recent studies resulting in the recovery of phytoliths from excavated horizons at the site of Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu, which has a sequence dating back to the Early Acheulian at around 1.5 Ma and older, evidence of the earliest occupation of South Asia; and continuing till the late Middle Palaeolithic (Pappu et al.2011). We also draw on evidence from other sites in India and Sri Lanka (40,000 BP to the end of the middle Holocene). We seek to establish models of past vegetation along the Southeast India based on these studies.

In particular, we will focus on conducting two workshops aimed at :-a) training students/young researchers from South Asia, on new developments in prehistory and phytolith studies; b) to enable discussion meetings among a range of experts from various specializations (palaeobotany, prehistory, geology), to facilitate establishment of research networks, to formulate planning for future development of such interdisciplinary research, and to situate existing results in a global context.

The antiquity of wild plants, their ecologies and their utilization under changing environments are expected to be of great interest to intellectuals and the general public especially in Asia. Benefit from this project can be used to highlight INQUA HAB COMM’s research focus with cross-cultural understanding and new insights into the environments to which Palaeolithic populations adapted. The program outcomes will be in the form of research publications in peer-reviewed journals and training of young researchers in this field.

Colleagues interested in this initiative should contact the project leaders directly.