NANDKUMAR M KAMAT
ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found that humans began fishing 40 thousand years ago. We had no definite evidence of antiquity of fishing in Goa but two new findings now indicate that freshwater fishing tradition of our state is at least 15 thousand years old. A mysterious group of prehistoric hunters has left behind a pictorial, pictographic proto language on the banks of Kushavati river in South Goa. It is a stunning four-dimensional graphical narrative of their material and spiritual culture frozen in time for at least fifteen thousand years.
Since 1993, I have been attempting to piece together this prehistoric jigsaw puzzle. Two more pieces of the puzzle were found on June 14 and were fitted perfectly yielding a peep into the lives of Kushavati fishermen. Who were the people leaving behind such a rich petroglyph gallery- more than 150 carvings, 500 cupules or cup marks and proto Indus civilisation, pre-Harappan symbols on banks of river Kushavati? What do we know of their material and spiritual world? The new evidence which I found on June 14 shows that it was a large, secure, productive prehistoric hunting and fishing camp, where the shamans held complete control of spiritual and material culture of the whole group- the band of semi nomadic Homo sapiens of Kushavati which might have spent centuries on the same location.
By avoiding petroglyphs familiar to me over past 25 years, I ventured in areas where not much attention was paid and it yielded two new petroglyphs- an anthropomorph or an abstract human figure – a prehistoric fisherman and an Icthyomorph or an abstract carving of a freshwater river fish possibly a typical Indian carp. Box headed human figures are common in global rock art- cave paintings and carvings. So, I was curious to notice a human like abstract figure reclining at an odd angle on a gently sloping rock on the Kushavati river bank at the notified, protected site of the rock art at Kevan Dhandode in village panchayat of Kolamb-Rivona. I had undertaken a field trip to minutely analyse the Kushavati petroglyphs using on-site recording tools, digital microscope, digital colour analyser and powerful image analysis software. The world has come a long way technologically and global rock art research has scaled new dimensions since 1993. After our team discovered the Kushavati petroglyphs in May 1993 this was my sixth visit to the location. The box headed figure of fisherman was minutely examined, photographed from all possible angles and then was subjected to image analysis tools. It was not found earlier because it is out of sight, at the very edge of water and its odd reclining angle doesn’t make it possible to identify it as petroglyph of a fisherman in action. The image analysis produced an impressive figure thus proving contextually that it represented the lifestyle of the people engaged in catching and trapping the fish with simple techniques.
After wondering about the petroglyph of Kushavati fisherman I didn’t expect to find any further evidence as I began to minutely survey the area which I had earlier left out in previous surveys. It needs considerable amount of experience and practice and keen eye to discern anthropogenic cultural artefacts from multi-textured uneven rock surfaces. But the moment I landed at the Kushavati rock art gallery I had begun to think like the shamans of Kushavati by forgetting everything else. It has been my experience during 40 years of field research that nature rewards you unexpectedly if you become part of it by shedding the layers which cloud your mind and consciousness. It is that sort of pure spiritual communion I had managed to establish with the Kushavati rock art site so it automatically led my feet to a beautiful and intricate Icthyomorph petroglyph, a stylised carving of a fish, possibly an Indian freshwater river carp almost a meter in length. Both these petroglyphs are new additions to existing gallery of the petroglyphs and a report of the new discoveries would be submitted to the concerned minister Vijay Sardessai whom I had contacted telephonically from the site while he was away in Bengaluru.
These petroglyphs now prove that the material culture of the Kushavati shamanistic society included fishing and they had developed certain expertise in it. They had carved out certain deep cupules to observe the movement of trapped baby fish. Sporting universally known child-like innocence and curiosity the Kushavati fishermen had watched the small fish trapped in cupules, the tiny waterholes in the solid rock as the water receded. I was doing the same thing in 21st century by watching the baby fish trapped in 15 thousand years old cupules. The prehistoric hunters could learn a lot about the behaviour of the fish through these simple observations. They had also created artificial ponds at the site to capture fish. Some of these have manmade draining channels carved in the rock. Why they carved a figure of fisherman at the edge of water at a dangerous and slippery location? It could be the practice of sympathetic magic or it could be a permanent marker for anyone desiring to catch fish at the same location. Or it could be their idea of a “protective spirit or deity of fish” preceding later gods like Neptune or Varuna. Another possibility is that it could be a figure devoted to someone drowned accidentally while fishing.
The box head of human figures in global rock art is a common adaptation dealing with shamanistic practices. Two other anthropomorphic feminine petroglyphs at the site have been linked to fertility rituals. But the narrative is not that simple. The Kushavati fisherman petroglyph indicates that there was a distinct division of labour in that society with males engaged in hunting and fishing. The most interesting finding from analysis of the Icthyomorph petroglyph was a piercing hole made with a sharp projectile like a spear. The whole area surrounding the Kushavati rock art gallery is strewn with paleolithic and microlithic tools. The Kushavati fishing technique might have employed wooden sticks fitted with sharp quartz points at the end. Such points were fastened tightly with plant fibres which are found in abundance even today near the site. Such composite weapons and tools were common during prehistoric period. So if the Kushavati fishermen had learnt the technique of spearing or harpooning the fish in the river then it is proof of their perfect understanding of local ecological settings.