The Bhimbetka rock shelters compose an archaeological site and World Heritage Site located in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The Bhimbetka shelters exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India; its Stone Age rock paintings are approximately 9,000 years old, making them among the world's oldest.
Bhopal at the southern edge of the Vindhyachal hills. South of these rock shelters are successive ranges of the Satpura hills. The entire area is covered by thick vegetation, has abundant natural resources in its perennial water supplies, natural shelters, rich forest flora and fauna, and bears a significant resemblance to similar rock art sites such as Kakadu National Park in Australia, the cave paintings of the Bushmen in Kalahari Desert, and the Upper Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France.
As reported in the UNESCO citation declaring the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka as a World Heritage Site, Bhimbetka was first mentioned in Indian archeological records in 1888 as a Buddhist site, based on information gathered from local adivasis. Later, as V. S. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal he saw some rock formations similar to those he had seen in Spain and France. He visited the area along with a team of archaeologists and discovered several prehistoric rock shelters in 1957.
Since then more than 700 such shelters have been identified, of which 243 are in the Bhimbetka group and 178 in the Lakha Juar group. Archeological studies revealed a continuous sequence of Stone Age cultures (from the late Acheulian to the late Mesolithic), as well as the world’s oldest stone walls and floors. The earliest paintings on the cave walls are believed to be of the Mesolithic period. A broad chronology of the finds has been done, but a detailed chronology is yet to be created.
The caves have evolved over time into excellent rock-shelters, ideal sites for aboriginal settlements. The smooth shape of the rocks has led some scientists to believe that the area was once under water. The rocks have taken on incredible shapes in several stunning hues and textures. Apart from the central place the aboriginal drawings have in human history, the caves themselves offer interesting material for a study of the earth's history.The rock shelters and caves of Bhimbetka have a number of interesting paintings which depict the lives and times of the people who lived in the caves, including scenes of childbirth, communal dancing and drinking, and religious rites and burials, as well as the natural environment around them.
One rock, popularly referred to as “Zoo Rock”, depicts elephants, sambar, bison and deer. Paintings on another rock show a peacock, a snake, a deer and the sun. On another rock, two elephants with tusks are painted. Hunting scenes with hunters carrying bows, arrows, swords and shields also find their place in the community of these pre-historic paintings. In one of the caves, a bison is shown in pursuit of a hunter while his two companions appear to stand helplessly nearby; in another, some horsemen are seen, along with archers.
It is a marvel that the paintings have not faded even after thousands of years. It is believed[vague] that these paints were made of colored earth, vegetable dyes,[dubious ] roots and animal fat. Brushes were made of pieces of fibrous plants. Because of the natural red and white pigments the artists used, the colors have been remarkably well preserved. The oldest paintings are believed[vague] to be 12,000 years old, but some of the geometric figures date to as recently as the medieval period.The colours used are vegetable colours which have endured through time because the drawings are generally made deep inside a niche or on inner walls. The presence of the figure of a horse, which is supposed to have come into India in relatively recent times, indicates that some of the drawings date back a few thousand years but there are other drawings which have been established as of the paleolithic age by archaeologists, using carbon dating techniques.