Make History Fun Again: Ostriches, giraffes and hippos in ancient India

There was quite a lot of interaction between these birds and our early ancestors. Large quantities of ostrich eggshells were found in the village of Patne in Maharashtra, dating to about 25,000 years ago. Some had handmade designs on them, while many were used to make beads.

By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia

(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)

So many animals that we think of as oh-so-African used to flourish in ancient India. Some even evolved here!

Genetic analysis shows that ostriches evolved in the Indian landmass over the millions of years that it was drifting towards the Eurasian landmass after separating from the giant continent, Pangaea, 100 million years ago. Ostriches evolved from a now extinct species of large flightless birds which also gave rise to the ‘elephant bird’ and the ‘moa’. After India joined Asia, the ostriches spread from here to the rest of the world, arriving in Africa about 20 million years ago.

There was quite a lot of interaction between these birds and our early ancestors. Large quantities of ostrich eggshells were found in the village of Patne in Maharashtra, dating to about 25,000 years ago. Some had handmade designs on them, while many were used to make beads. Ostrich shell beads have been found in more than 40 sites in India. In Bhimbetka, these beads were discovered in an ancient rock burial shelter, on the neck of the skull of a buried man.

The ancient cave art of Bhimbetka has paintings of not only ostriches, but also of giraffe-like animals, etched by our ancient ancestors many thousand years ago.

Remains have been found in various parts of India of different varieties of an early Giraffid, Sivatherium, (Shiva’s beast!). Sivatherium Giganteum used to roam the Himalayan foothills – with a height of about 10 feet, and a weight of 1.2 tonnes. Iit was the largest Giraffid ever, and possibly the largest ruminant that ever lived. The giraffe depiction in the Bhimbetka caves is probably of Sivatherium Maurusium, which has also been depicted in rock art in the Sahara.

Hippopotamus remains have also been found in Madhya Pradesh near the Narmada. Scientists are of the opinion that hippos lived in India from about 6 million years ago till about 9000 years ago. India would have looked quite unfamiliar with all these iconic African animals dotting the countryside!

Why did all these animals go extinct, in a tropical paradise like India? The usual suspects are, of course, climate change and human activity. Scientists speculate that there could have been a particularly dry period, due to a reduction in the monsoon.

However, it is a well-known phenomenon that in any area, as the human population increased and their tools improved, the largest mammals and birds would be hunted to extinction first. In many locations around the world, large animals like the mammoth and the Aurochs became extinct about 10,000 years ago. As humans spread across various islands in the Pacific, giant birds like the Moa would become extinct. We are now facing the sixth great extinction of plant and animal life due to human activity which is causing habitat destruction and climate change.

(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the recently released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India. Follow on twitter @shrutigarodia_)

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