We know for a fact that India, like Africa, has elephants. Each continent also has lions and monkeys that are distant relatives. However, it doesn’t appear that India ever had any hippos or rhinos (expect for a few remote area). So, how are archaeologists going to explain the thousands of rock carvings discovered on hillocks in the Konkan region of western Maharashtra that show images of hippos, rhinos and other never-seen-in-India creatures interacting with humans 12.000 years ago? There are thousands of large petroglyphs that appear to be the oldest ever found, yet were unknown to the people in the villages where they were discovered. Are there hippos still hiding there too?
The mysterious petroglyphs are located in the narrow Konkan Coast region of the far western state of Maharashtra, with the Arabian Sea (northern Indian Ocean) to the west and the Western Ghats mountain to the east. According to a report by the BBC, in that band are 52 villages near the coastal cities of Ratnagiri and Rajapur whose residents had no idea they were living on so many carvings. Just a very few were exposed and the locals considered them sacred. Those few glyphs provided the curiosity and incentive for archaeologists to look for more.
"We walked thousands of kilometres. People started sending photographs to us and we even enlisted schools in our efforts to find them. We made students ask their grandparents and other village elders if they knew about any other engravings. This provided us with a lot of valuable information.”
Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe led a group of explorers through the area looking for more exposed or partially-exposed glyphs, along with indicators that there were some hidden under the soil. Aerial views seem to indicate that the carvings are smaller but more numerous and more densely packed that the Nazca lines of Peru. (Pictures and videos here and here.) However, it’s not the size that makes these petroglyps so exciting – it’s their age and the strange animals depicted in them, says Tejas Garge, director of the Maharashtra state archaeology department.
“Our first deduction from examining these petroglyphs is that they were created around 10,000 BC. "We have not found any pictures of farming activities. But the images depict hunted animals and there's detailing of animal forms. So this man knew about animals and sea creatures. That indicates he was dependent on hunting for food. Most of the petroglyphs show familiar animals. There are images of sharks and whales as well as amphibians like turtles."
And then there’s the hippos and rhinos. It’s possible that the animals lived there prior to 10,000 BCE, although no fossils have been found. It’s also possible that the people who carved the images came to the coast from Africa. Less likely but still a possibility is that they traveled between both continents.
While Garge is excited about determining the answer to their origin, the Indian government has other priorities. The state gave him 240 million rupees ($3.2m; £2.5m) to study 400 of the thousands of petroglyphs. They obviously don’t yet see the tourist potential of the rock carvings.
Did hippos once roam India? Were they sacred like cows or just tasty with curry, leading to their ultimate disappearance?