Digging up Manipur’s archaeological past : An interaction with Dr. O.K. Singh


Wahengbam Pathou
A questionnaire format interview of Dr. Okram Kumar Singh, former Superintendent, State Archaeology (until 1989), was conducted in June-July, 2019 at his residence. Dr. O.K. Singh, the man needs no introduction. It is courtesy his painstaking efforts and strenuous hard work as well as dedication, Manipur appears on the archaeological map of the world. It goes without saying that Dr. O.K. Singh made invaluable contributions he made in the discipline of archaeology in Manipur from 1969-89, a span of twenty years during his stint as Superintendent, State Archaeology, Government of Manipur. Given the sheer volume of seminal contributions and tremendous services rendered by Dr. O.K. Singh, in the field of Manipur archaeology, excavating so many cave sites as well as open air sites; encouragement among the common people, collection and interpretation of stray finds or archaeological artifacts, tis no exaggeration to lay claim that a lifetime is enough for a reviewer of Manipur archaeological history to sing paeans to O.K. Singh.  In order to arrive at a better understanding for a layman who are not well familiarized with respect to disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, it was felt necessary that an interview of Dr. O.K. Singh was conducted posing certain specific questions from a layman’s perspective. The following is the full excerpts of questionnaire format interview of Dr. O.K. Singh:
1. Just to put in layman’s perspective, is it safe to assume that the cave dwellers inhabiting the Paleolithic sites of Songbu and Khangkhui were homo sapiens that is anatomically modern man not archaic humans like homo erectus, for instance? Given that the soil chemistry of Khangkhui is limey soil unlike acidic in the Manipur valley, is there hope for coming across skeletal human remains after re- digging?
Since no fossil remains are found so far from these cave sites, it will be difficult to say exactly about the human type. However, from the artifact types unearthed from these sites we may suggest for a more evolved human form than the homo erectus. And again the well preserved faunal remains from the Khangkhui cave are also positive indications of the possibility of preserving the human skeleton remain if at all there was during the prehistoric period in this cave.
2. The cave dwellers of Khangkhui were hunter gatherers who knew how to use fire as evident from the discovery of charred faunal remains and ate roasted meat.
The tool assemblage consisting of lance points and arrow points and the faunal remains of the Khangkhui cave definitely suggested a hunting economy. The charred faunal remainis  also another indication of the knowledge of using fire probably in roasting the hunted meat by the people.
3. Can we assume that the Khangkhui’s cave dwellers were dressed and their clothes were made of animal hides and skins. They used stone scrapper for processing the skin and blade for cutting, borer for piercing hole with the intention to trim animal hides and skins.
It will be a problem to say definitely whether the Khangkhui people used dress of animal skin or not, however the presence of scraper, perforator, borer types of tool in the artifact assemblage may suggest the probability. (Emphasis added with underlining by the interviewer)
4. In the opinion of Dr. Badam of Deccan College, the faunal remains of Khangkhui cave could not be older than late Pleistocene. Did the early human’s habitation of Khangkhui came to an abrupt end owing to steep drop in temperature during the terminal end of Pleistocene and Holocene epochs of Quaternary period?
Late Pleistocene was a period of extreme cold climate and since Dr. Badam of Deccan College identified the faunal remains to be of this period, there was the probability of abandoning the site following the migration route of the animals towards the hills at lower altitude in and around the periphery of the valley.
5. On account of existential threats posed by drop in temperature creating hostile climatic conditions for animals to migrate towards lowland valleys, did the early humans followed the same migratory pattern of the animals?
As stated above it was probable.
6. Is it safe to assume that the vast swathes of the present day Imphal valley was submerged when early humans inhabited the caves in Songbu and Khangkhui?
You see some C-14 peaty-clay samples from the valley areas being dated to 23 - 25 thousands years B.P. indicates the submergence of the Valley under water during the Late Pleistocene.
7. Did the migratory pattern of the early humans follow a south to north direction given that habitation in Songbu probably predates Khangkhui cave?
Culturally the Songbu cave findings are earlier than that of Khangkhui cave. The geographical location of the cave sites show like that.
8. Is there scope for re-digging of Khangkhui cave since trench digging of the cave no. 3 up to 5 feet yielded a vast array of stone tools and faunal remains which were also used as tool implements?   
The present status of the Khangkhui cave excavation shows that the digging does not reach the bed-rock; hence further digging will help us in finding the full cultural stratigraphy of the cave. (Emphasis added with underlining by the interviewer)
9. What are the possible premises to arrive at the understanding that Australoids inhabited Tharon cave? What are the broad contours of the Australoids in contrast to Mongoloid stock which inhabits the valley of Manipur?      
As no fossil man is so far found in Manipur the population projection may be made on the basis of the comparative study of the artifact types made by man. Similarity of artifact types may be either due to the direct movement of the population or diffusion of ideas through contact between the people. As Hoabinhian artifacts found from the Tharon cave site are also found in mainland Southeast Asia; in Malaysia the Hoabinhian culture was found in association with the Australo-Melanesoid population. Therefore here in Manipur, also we may assume similar population during the Hoabinhian culture of the Tharon cave site. The contrast physical feature of the Australoid and Mongoloid population are: the Australoid population has facial and alveolar prognathous (as nakhang tekpa and chintongba in Meiteilon), curly head hair and dark skin complexion, while the Mongoloid population has epicanthic fold in the eyes, coarse or thick straight head hair, pale yellow or fairer skin complexion, etc. One will find these physical features in a mixed form among the present population of Manipur.
10. With respect to discovery of stone grinder at Tharon cave, can we assume that its cave dwellers used the tool to grind wild cereals plucked from stray plants for consumption before discovery of agriculture?     
Tharon cave site tool assemblage include pebble quern and grinder, besides cutting, digging and slicing tools, suggesting a gathering economy; and the quern and grinder might be used in crushing or grinding some collected vegetables or grain.
(P.S. -  The questions incorporated in the questionnaire were also framed and drafted after many hours long consultation with Dr. O.K. Singh at his residence in which he immense guided the interviewer to put up presentable questions, which goes on to establish that O.K. Singh is not only an archaeologist of tremendous repute but a calm, compost thorough gentleman who is always ever willing to help someone who is totally unfamiliar with the terrain of anthropology and archaeology arrive at a better understanding of the aforementioned disciplines. Suffice to say, as down to earth a human as O.K. unlike many others who are abrasive, arrogant, short tempered, unhelpful and discouraging lot despite knowing, let alone the unknowing.)
To be contd