Bhimbetka Rock Shelters: What are they?

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The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters in India are a UNESCO World Heritage Site with artwork dating back 9,000 to 12,000 years. The shelters were used as homes by early peoples and contain the oldest built stone floors in the world. The paintings depict hunting scenes, childbirth, religious and funeral rituals, and more. The paintings are divided into five time periods, with the earliest being simple linear paintings of animals.

The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are a collection of shelters adorned with historic artwork located in India. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have been since 2003. The paintings in the Bhimbetka rock shelters range in age from 9,000 years to the medieval era, although it is possible that some are up to 12,000 years old.

The name of Bhimbetka comes from a character in the Mahabharata, one of the Pandava brothers, Bhima. At some point Bhima was exiled and he is said to have spent his exile in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka, sitting on the stones and surviving on the bounties of the forest.

There are hundreds of rock shelters in the area, used by early peoples as homes to protect them from the elements. There are more than two hundred distinct shelters within the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters group, and there are hundreds more nearby. The area where the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are located is quite lush with easily accessible water and plenty of animals and plants for early humans to eat. For this reason many groups appear to have settled in the area as early as 12,000 years ago.

The shelters themselves are among the oldest man-made dwellings on Earth and contain what is thought to be the oldest built stone floors in the world. The paintings themselves date back to the Mesolithic era, putting them on par with other famous petroglyph sites such as the Lascaux Caves in France and the paintings in Australia’s Kakadu National Park.

The paintings themselves cover a huge amount of subjects and span a wide swath of time, offering a fascinating insight into life in the region over thousands of years. Many of the paintings deal with hunting scenes, showing animals such as tigers, rhinos, deer, crocodiles, wild boars, lions, dogs, elephants and bears. Other scenes show what childbirth was like in various prehistoric and historical eras, various religious and funeral rituals and celebration scenes. Still others depict body decorations, battle scenes, dance and music, and the gathering of plants and honey.

The paintings found in the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are usually divided into five distinct time periods. The first ones, from the Upper Paleolithic like the Lascaux paintings, are very simple linear paintings showing animals. The earliest true paintings are from the Mesolithic, and while these are smaller paintings, they still show a fair amount of detail, mainly focusing on hunting and day-to-day activities. Later paintings are from the late Chalcolithic age and show a more advanced commercial culture. Still later come images of an early historical era, in which brighter reds and yellows are introduced and more complex scenes appear incorporating heavy religious imagery. Finally, scenes from the Middle Ages, less complex and detailed than those of the first historical period.

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