The First People In Kerala: What Do We Know About Our Prehistoric Ancestors?

When did the history of human settlement in Kerala truly start? Who are the prehistoric ancestors of us Keralites?

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Most of Kerala’s prehistoric period and our ancestors are unknown to us, with several historians even claiming that Kerala was uninhabitable in the early ages. The little that we now know comes from cave etchings, burial chambers, and trade relations. It is likely that Kerala had been populated by an ancient group of humans since 4000 BCE. Proto Australoid and Negrito races could have reached the coasts of Kerala through migration and might have culturally developed through the Palaeolithic age to the Neolithic age, possibly by interference with other foreign cultures via trade or conquests.

Muniyaras and more: The megalithic remains of Kerala’s prehistoric people

Muniyaras and more: The megalithic remains of Kerala's prehistoric ancestors
The kudakkallu, shaped like an umbrella, hence the name. Source: megalithic.co.uk

The evidence of an Iron Age civilization can be seen in the many dolmens or burial sites scattered throughout Kerala. When you think megalith, the image that comes to your mind might be the Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, but we have megaliths of our own in Kerala. The monuments in Kerala are younger than their counterparts in Asia and are dated from 1000 BCE to 500 CE. Megaliths are prehistoric burial monuments that consist of giant slabs of rock or laterite. They are found all across the world. In Kerala, these can be seen in certain areas like Marayur, Cherumangad, Kadanad, Ummichipoyil, Porkalam, and so on. Several megaliths have come to have religious significance. Some megalith traditions can even be seen mentioned in the early Sangam literature. Megaliths can be of different shapes and sizes. Some megalith types unique to Kerala include the thoppikkallu, the kudakkallu, and the pathikal. Rock cut dolmens or caves locally called ‘muniyaras’ are also found as part of prehistoric burial sites. Many of such burial sites have several subterranean chambers and steps leading down to them, pointing towards elaborate procedures. The burial practises were quite different from ours; these early ancestors used to practice fragmented burial like the Egyptians with organs in urns and pots along with the corpse. There are also several legends surrounding these Mesolithic monuments. Some believe that it was the Pandavas who erected them. A really interesting legend speaks of how these megaliths are actually homes of old people that had grown smaller with age until they were so small that they had to hide. Another fun myth is that the sand used in the pottery found in such burial sites was actually pure gold that turned to sand because it was seen by human eyes.

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Prehistoric people and their tools

Prehistoric people and their tools I kerala prehistoric ancestors
Source: The Hindu

Several artefacts from the Mesolithic period have been discovered from different places, some of which date up to 4000 BCE. They include findings by N.K. Ramesh, which includes Palaeolithic and Neolithic hand axes and tools. They can currently be found in the Ethnological and Heritage Museum at the Department of Anthropology, Kannur University. Mr Ramesh wasn’t the only one to make such discoveries. During the early 1930s a British archaeologist K.R.V. Todd found out several Mesolithic articles at Chevayur, these are now housed in the British Museum. 

Ancient Cave Etchings

Edakkal Caves, Wayanad. Source: keralaculture.org
Edakkal Caves, Wayanad. Source: keralaculture.org

Cave etchings constitute the next body of information that we have on these ancient people. Ezhuthupura is a place in Marayur that is an excellent example of a prehistoric cave etching. The Edakkal caves in Wayanad also boast of several rock engravings. These rock engravings seem to be related to the Harappan civilization symbols. A symbol common to both is the ‘man with a jar’, a unique Harappan symbol. This shows a connection between the early people of Kerala and the Indus Valley Civilization. Such Harappan remnants have also been found in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. These cave etchings also show how the history of Kerala clears goes beyond the Iron Age. The connection to the Harappans was probably through trade.

Trade flourished since the early historical period

Products from pre-historic Kerala like cardamom, pepper and ivory are believed to have gone to several distant lands like Egypt and even to the halls of the famed Biblical kings Solomon and Nebuchadnezzar. It could have travelled that far possibly via the Harappans who are known to have had trade relations with the ancient Mesopotamians and other Red Sea ports since 3000 BCE. Or maybe the trade was through one of Kerala’s famed ancient ports. The prehistoric people of Kerala also had maritime trades with the Persian Gulf, and later the Phoenicians and the Egyptians. Muziris, South India’s most famous ancient port was on Kerala’s coastline. The archaeological remains of Muziris have been found in an area near Kochi called Pattanam. Several objects, some dating as far back as 1000 BCE have been found in the area. This enormous volume of trade also boosted local culture as ancient Kerala became a place where global cultures intermingled.

According to some controversial accounts, Dravidians migrated to Kerala by the 7th century BCE and Aryans in the 3rd century BCE. By the 3rd century BCE, people had begun to organise into small chieftaincies under the influence of the Mauryan Empire. An example is the ancient Ay and Musika chiefs of Kerala. Kerala is referred to in a 3rd century Asokan edict.

Culture flourished in the Sangam Era. It is from these Sangam Era records that we get a lot of indigenous information on Muziris and other ports like Tyndis. Roman trade increased in the 1st century CE. The Romans found the sea route to the Indian peninsula after they gained control over Egypt in that period. The Romans paid huge amounts of gold for the pepper trade and their elders like Pliny mentions this grudgingly. Roman trade declined in the 3rd century CE. After that, the early Cheras began to rule the land. The period of early history comes to an end when the early Cheras went into decline.

Also Read: Seven Most Important Kingdoms That Ruled Over Kerala

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