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archaeology palaeoanthropology

Conversations with: Professor Shanti Pappu

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest, Professor Shanti Pappu, the founder and director of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting research in archaeology and developing educational programmes for children and teachers of Indian heritage. She is a former Professor or Prehistory at the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, where she also completed both her MA and PhD degrees and was awarded the Prof H.D. Sankalia Gold Medal. She also has a law degree, with a dissertation based on cultural heritage laws of India, and is a registered advocate! Her research interests span a wide range of topics within human evolution studies, such as palaeoenvironments, ethnoarchaeology, the history of archaeology and public archaeology.

Professor Shanti Pappu, founder and director of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

Looking back in time; travelling down the complex trails in the story of human evolution, and examining ways in which our bodies and minds have evolved, is something that fascinates me. Indian prehistoric sites primarily have stone artefacts, with sparse fossil remains, and the real crux of interpreting past behaviour lies in decoding these silent stones. This forms the basis of our studies at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education.

It is also really exciting to collaborate with scientists from different disciplines, each contributing a little piece to the puzzle of hominin behaviour in India, always realizing that the truth may be one step ahead of us. I am also fascinated by ethnoarchaeology and aspects of the history of archaeology in South Asia.

The research team at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in action!

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

The past has always held a great fascination. My parents, grandparents, and aunts plied me with books, not only on archaeology but also on evolution. The overall atmosphere in Kolkata, where I grew up, was one permeated with an appreciation of the past, and with a wonderful culture of reading. However, we never had a chance to actually visit excavations, or learn about prehistory, and that is one of the main reasons why we now focus on a lot of hands-on activities in workshops in our children’s museum.

My parents were very supportive, something very unusual for India, and later my husband and his family (with his father and sister also being archaeologists) were equally enthusiastic, especially with my long absences in the field. The primary interest in prehistory however, came from the Deccan College post-graduate and research Institute, Pune, where I did my Masters and PhD degrees.

The spirit of the ‘father of Indian archaeology’, Prof. H.D. Sankalia, was all around us, even though he had just passed away, and one could not escape the flavour of prehistory that permeated the old buildings and wonderful library. It was a time marked by intense intellectual fermentation in Indian prehistory, when debates on processual and post-processual theories, landscape archaeology, site-formation and ecological concepts brought the subject alive, moving away from the traditional listing of tool types and Quaternary sections. New dates were coming in and being vigorously debated. Doctoral theses and research on important sites like those of Bhimbetka, Samnapur, the Didwana complex, the Hunsgi-Baichbal complex, Mehtakhedi, among others were being actively discussed. Lectures by Professors V.N. Misra, K. Paddayya, S.N. Rajaguru, Sheila Mishra, Malti Nagar, P.K. Thomas, M.D. Kajale, G.L. Badam, amongst others, were deeply inspiring, more so at a time when the beauty of the subject was conveyed without any visual aids: just a blackboard, lab specimens, the museum, and the passion of the teacher. Attending excavations at Samnapur, Mehtakhedi, Budihal, and surveys in Western and Central India and the Hunsgi-Baichbal basin brought alive the questions of global importance that excavators were tackling. Visiting scholars from India and abroad added a global touch. Above all, the Deccan College library was marvellous, with all the latest books and journals keeping us updated before the age of the internet.

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? 

This had a rather prosaic title, and was later updated and brought out as a book entitled A Re-examination of the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record of Northern Tamil Nadu, South India (Oxford: BAR-International Series 1003, (2001), and I was enrolled at the Deccan College under Professor K. Paddayya. One of my examiners was Professor Derek Roe, whom I had the pleasure to meet years later, and his constructive comments were very useful in bringing out the book. Historically, the study area is a very important region in Indian archaeology. The first Palaeolithic artefacts in India were discovered here, in 1863, by Robert Bruce Foote, who also discovered the site of Attirampakkam (ATM), that our team is currently researching.

After Foote, the famous Yale–Cambridge Expedition of the 1930s proposed models of river terrace sequences and associated cultural phases in this region, as they did elsewhere in the subcontinent. Terms such as ‘Madras Handaxe Tradition’, or variants of this, as opposed to the non-biface ‘Soanian’ assemblages of South Asia, arose from discoveries in this region. Later, excavations were conducted here by the Archaeological Survey of India, with different insights. Despite all this, actually very little was published at the time, and I thought it would be interesting to re-examine issues related to the stratigraphic context of sites, landscape scales of understanding prehistoric mobility, lithic reduction sequences, and site formation processes, amongst other questions. With the help of Prof. S.N. Rajaguru, we could revise the old terrace models and propose new ideas for Quaternary landscape formation. Observations on local hunter-gatherers was very insightful, although how far these analogies may be applied to the Palaeolithic may be debated. This work set the stage for our later research in this region, now bringing in large collaborating teams of scientists.

After your PhD, what sort of positions have you held?

Well, I never got an academic job after my Ph.D! I worked for a software company for a while, a super experience in learning skills that have served me well today, and they helped me in developing a portal called Dig: Discover India Gallery, primarily on India’s ancient heritage. In 1999, with my family’s help, we began a non-profit educational Institute (Sharma Centre for Heritage Education) with the aims of promoting research in archaeology and developing educational programs for children and teachers of Indian heritage. We also established a tiny children’s museum. From this modest beginning, with the enormous support of my family, my colleague Akhilesh and I are focused on building our Institute for both research and outreach. For a short while, I joined as Professor of Prehistory at the Deccan College, but left owing to commitments in building up our own Centre.

An on-site workshop with a local school held by the team at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education

What current projects are you working? Have you got any interesting results so far?

For several decades now, Akhilesh and I have been directing a long-term research project on ‘Prehistory and Palaeoenvironments in Southeast India’ with a number of sub-projects and a wonderful team of Indian and foreign collaborating scientists (see below). This rather simple title contains fascinating projects packed with exciting research into early hominin occupation in India, with surveys of Palaeolithic landscapes, excavations, experimental studies, geochronology, and studies of Quaternary environments.

Our team began with a project of excavating Attirampakkam (hereafter ATM) in 1999, and we are still researching this fantastic site. With numerous trenches, a huge sample size, geomorphological studies, and multiple dating methods, we could establish that these were early Pleistocene, pushing back the antiquity of occupation of South Asia by Acheulian cultures. Dr. Maurice Taieb was at that time in India, and greatly encouraged us in this project. We also found a wonderful stratified sequence of assemblages, with horizons displaying processes transitional to and of the early Middle Palaeolithic (MP), and were able to date these as well, generating new debates in South Asian archaeology. Studies of lithic assemblages and experimental knapping programs by Akhilesh, to replicate these technologies are ongoing, and already resulting in exciting thoughts on hominin behaviour at the site, cognitive abilities, skills at mastering technologies, for e.g. the Kombewa, and aspects of group sizes. With our colleagues, we are also slowly building up a picture of local environments at the site through geomorphology, mineral magnetics, clay mineralogy, and phytoliths. Now we are expanding our work with excavations at the neighbouring site of Sendrayanpalayam, which we hope will provide a better picture of regional scales of adaptation and varying facies of Indian Lower Palaeolithic cultures and technologies. Another forthcoming project involves exploring more recent prehistoric cultures at the southernmost tip of India, exploring how modern humans migrated and adapted to differing environments and sea-level changes. None of these projects would have come through without the help of our Centre and more so my family. My parents, husband and aunts are involved at every stage, with my father now reading extensively on human evolution, and aiding us in statistical analysis of the data. We have been very fortunate with obtaining funding from many organisations (Homi Bhabha Fellowships, The Leakey Foundation, Earthwatch Institute, National Geographic Society, CNRS, Institut Universitaire de France, Fundación Palarq), and the Archaeological Survey of India and Department of Archaeology, State Government of Tamil Nadu have always given us licenses to work.

Shanti leading a training programme for students in the field

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

There are so many memories and more to come, I hope: both from the long-dead and from the living. From a research perspective: the fascinating discovery of the Acheulian in a totally new and unsuspected stratigraphic context at ATM was exciting, as is everything else associated with this site. Our recent excavations at the neighbouring Palaeolithic site of Sendrayanpalayam is bringing out new results that we are currently examining. The excitement of finding conjoinable tools even as we excavate, and recent surveys of the landscapes with new discoveries of very rich sites are some of the many memories. On another level, it is the villagers we have worked with closely for over 20 years, the colleagues from India and abroad with whom we have moved from professional to personal friendships, and my family, who has spent many hours in the heat and dust at our excavations, trying to understand our research, and aiding in every possible way. On a further level, it is our outreach, with schools bringing children and teachers, to visit us and neighbouring villagers dropping in to see the excavations and our little on-site exhibition in Tamil and English. Not to mention the visiting cobras, whose peaceful life we often disturbed.

During excavations, Shanti and her team invite local schools and organise activities, such as hands-on sessions with fossil casts, art, story writing and explanations about excavations, the Palaeolithic and stone tools.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Well, I guess we are happy with our publications, some of which have been praised, others generating debates, but all written based on careful and cautious interpretations. Some of our hypotheses are gradually being supported by new research in India and elsewhere. The project at ATM is close to our heart, and we are very excited about the new project at Sendrayanpalayam. In the end, I think, we are grateful that a team led by us, with amazing colleagues from India and abroad, are placing place South Asian prehistory on the global map.

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

I am fascinated by the discoveries of fossil hominins, and stone tools from Africa and parts of Asia, and the global genetic studies that are resulting in our traditional time scales and textbooks evolving every minute! It would be unfair to pin down any one discovery. I rather see all our contributions, whether big-impact or small observations, as pieces of an intricate puzzle that only team work and joint efforts can aid in solving.

What would you be if you were not a paleoanthropologist?

I always wanted to be an archaeologist, not much doubt there, perhaps any field of archaeology. I still wish to explore rock art and early agro-pastoral communities. Outside this field: well, perhaps a struggling artist.

Shanti would like to thank Dr. Kumar Akhilesh and Professor Yanni Gunnell and her parents, for critically slashing through her early drafts of this piece!

The Sharma Centre for Heritage Education are currently running an online archaeology forum called Down Ancient Trails, involving regular discussion meetings, short online courses and a lecture series. This is aims to connect archaeologists during the COVID19 pandemic – be sure to check it out!

By lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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