1. Shared Beginnings

1,700,000 years ago to 2000 BC

Our human story begins in Africa. It was from there that our distant ancestors travelled into Asia and Europe, bringing with them the same common technology – the handaxe. Their makers arrived in India perhaps as early as 1.7 million years ago. The same tools were made for tens of thousands of years wherever these distant ancestors travelled.

Much later, around 200,000 years ago, modern humans like ourselves evolved in Africa and spread in a second great wave of migration approximately 70–80,000 years ago. Our recent ancestors lived a nomadic life until the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago when new ways of living began to emerge. Some people began tending crops and animals, and gradually became farmers. Simultaneously in different parts of the world, our ancestors started to make and use pottery. The same idea was used in different, changing ways to express our shared humanity.

Objects in conversation: A story set in stone

These two ancient stone tools look similar yet one was made in Africa and the other in India. Both tools were made to be held in the hands of our distant ancestors to cut meat and skin, and split wood and bone. They were crafted in the same way wherever these ancient humans travelled. Carefully hitting a large piece of stone with another stone many times created the handaxes’ distinctive teardrop shape. They speak to us of a shared way of life and remind us of our common past.

object_01_olduvai.jpg

Olduvai handaxe

Quartz
800,000–400,000 years old
Found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
British Museum

 

This handaxe is a masterpiece of the toolmaker’s art. Made of quartz, a difficult material from which to make tools, it was thinned and refined to create a symmetrical, teardrop shape which added little to its usefulness. This suggests that the skill invested in producing beautiful handaxes may have had other purposes – they may have been status symbols or used in rituals. By surpassing functional demands, handaxes may be said to represent the earliest indication of artistic endeavour.

Indian handaxe

Quartzite
1,700,000–1,070,000 years old
Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu, India
Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, Chennai

This handaxe comes from the site of Attirampakkam, situated near a meandering tributary stream of the river Kortallaiyar, northwest of Chennai. This was one of the first Stone Age sites to be discovered in the world by the geologist Robert Bruce Foote in 1863. In 1999 excavations at Attirampakkam revealed startling new data indicating such stone tools could have been produced between 1.7 and 1.07 million years ago.

 

Handaxes

Handaxes were made the same way for hundreds of thousands of years in different parts of the world. Our early human ancestors had made stone tools before, but handaxes were the first to be chipped away from a single block of stone to make the same consistent shape time and time again.

Indian Handaxe

Stone
About 50,000 BC
Chittor, Rajasthan, India
Central Antiquity Collection, Purana Qila
Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi

 

European Handaxe

Flint
500,000 years old
Boxgrove, United Kingdom
British Museum

 

Middle Eastern Handaxe

Chert
1,600,000 to 250,000 years old
Azraq, Jordan
British Museum

handaxe (1931,0103.1)_1613317706 _HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Southeast Asian Handaxe

Stone
1,600,000 to 250,000 years old
Indonesia
British Museum

Pots

Just as the stone tool is an indicator of a major shift in human history, so too is the ceramic vessel. They reveal that people could control fire, build kilns, and find and prepare clay. Pottery was developed simultaneously in different parts of the world by both sedentary and nomadic people. This invention was revolutionary and it transformed lives, enabling people to cook and store food, boil water and expand their diets. Beyond its merely functional use, pottery also provided a means by which our ancestors could express themselves creatively, through experimentation with form and decoration. 

 

Balochistan Pot

Terracotta with polychromy
3500–2800 BC
Balochistan, Pakistan
TAPI Collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah, Surat

New discoveries from the Indo-Iranian borderlands have significantly changed our knowledge of the early history of South Asia. Sites such as Mehrgarh in Balochistan reveal the transition from the beginning of agriculture to urban settlements. The angular shapes and painting of vessels from Balochistan are unique, ranging from figurative images of bulls and fish to bold geometric designs. These pots were used for cooking and storage but were also found in graves, suggesting they may have had a ceremonial function.

Carinated beaker_001_ National Museum, New Delhi.jpg

Balochistan beaker

Terracotta with iron-oxide pigment
3500–2800 BC
Nal, Balochistan, Pakistan
National Museum, New Delhi

 

This beaker comes from Nal in Balochistan, a site renowned for its technological accomplishments in the production of metal. This is reflected in the control exhibited in the use of a variety of metal oxides to create the subtle shades of pigments seen in this beaker’s geometrical painted decoration.  

beaker_32183001 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Jomon Pot

Earthenware
2600–1300 BC
Japan
British Museum

 

The pots created by the Jomon people are among the oldest in the world. Jomon is the Japanese name for the cord pattern found on these vessels. The Jomon made intensive use of the natural resources around them and cooking food in pots like this allowed them to eat a very varied diet.

funerary urn_1613317707 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Majiayao pot

Earthenware
2500–2300 BC
Gansu, China
British Museum

 

Painted pottery with geometrical or animal patterns was made in China from around 5000 BC. The Majiyao culture (3300–2000 BC) first flourished in a series of farming villages in the Yellow River valley. Besides being daily utensils used by the Majiyao to store food or drink, pottery was also a major burial offering in ancient China.

 
 

Egyptian Pot

Pottery
3650–3360 BC
Naqada, Egypt
British Museum

This pot is decorated with lines, circles and other motifs, including two boats. Although the actual significance of the boat representations remains unclear, they reflect the importance of the River Nile and its extensive use for transport. Pots were frequently included in graves and were probably used as containers.

marl vase_36325001 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Hacilar bowl

Pottery
5000 BC
Turkey
British Museum

 

This bowl comes from Hacilar in southwest Turkey. Some of the earliest pots in the Middle East come from this region. The bowl is decorated with symmetrical zigzag patterns and suns, which may represent the weather. The open shape suggests it was made to eat or drink from.

Phung Nguyen pot

Earthenware
3000–1500 BC
Vietnam
British Museum, Given by Sir A.W. Franks

This pottery beaker with stippled decoration comes from northern Vietnam in the area of the Red River Delta. It belonged to the Phung Nguyen culture. The beaker shows sand and shell inclusions, which were added to the clay paste to strengthen the vessel during the firing process.

pottery bowl_1613318067 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

Samarran pot

Clay
About 6500–6000 BC
Iraq             
British Museum

 

Samarran pottery vessels were made and used by people living in northern Syria and Iraq around 6000 BC. Pots were typically thin-walled and decorated with geometric patterns in dark paint. They were almost certainly used for storing, preparing and serving food and drink.

pottery urn_1613320794 HIGH RES TIFF.jpg

British pot

Pottery
3100–2800 BC
From the Thames river near Mortlake, United Kingdom
British Museum

 

In around 4000 BC, a new farming lifestyle was brought to Britain from continental Europe. Domesticated animals and crops, and new ways to prepare and serve food were introduced. This bowl is one of the oldest pots found in Britain. Its maker personalised the vessel by decorating it with their finger nail in rows around the body, and with cord pressed around the rim.