Robert Bruce Foote

Robert Bruce Foote – The Father of Indian Prehistory and South Indian Geology

He lit up India’s past


I became a confirmed collector of prehistoric  remains,  thoroughly bitten with the desire to find more of these interesting artifacts, and my love for them has only gone on increasing during the last 43 years that have elapsed since I discovered the first Palaeolithic known in India.

Archaeology in India is a British foundation. British inquiry into India’s past goes back to the early days of the East India Company. However, a systematic inquiry began in the second half of the 19th century. This was the time when inquiry preoccupied many a European antiquarian and the seed of scientific archaeology was beginning to sprout. Geology by then had grown into a complete discipline probing the pages of the earth, and prehistory was an integral part of geological research.

Robert Bruce Foote was one among many geologists in British India whose unflagging enthusiasm, inexhaustible energy and relentless explorations reigned supreme. His integrated geological and prehistoric expeditions over a period of 40 years (between 1858 and 1906) in various parts of southern and western India brought forth considerable evidence of prehistoric cultures. His investigations in south India represent a watershed, from where many branched of the twin-fields of prehistory and geology emanated. In the 1930s, while the Anglo-American team of De Terra and Paterson launched its interdisciplinary Stone Age research in northern (Kashmir valley) and central India (Narmada valley), Miles C. Burkitt, L. A. Cammiade and F.J. Richards closely followed Foote’s work along the east coast and brought forth a series of stone tools comparable to the European subdivision of the pre-Neolithic cultures into lower, middle and upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. In addition they attempted to provide a climatic background to the evolution of these cultures.

Altogether there was a happy coincidence of Foote’s early discoveries with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India (in 1861) it took nearly 80 years for the Survey to initiate  organized expeditions into the prehistory of India. In 1942 at the instance of the Archaeological Survey, the late Professor H.D. Sankalia of the Deccan College, Pune, organized a joint expedition to the Sabarmati valley in Gujarat. Here again Foote had beaten the track way back in the 1890s. Retracing Foote’s trails has had been a rewarding experience  to many a modern archaeologist. The late Professor H.D. Sankalia began from where Foote had left Indian prehistory. With equal intensity he endeavored to fill the gaps noticed by Foote and largely succeeded in placing Indian prehistory on a scientific footing.

Through his own excavations and through the doctoral theses of his student, Sankalia had expanded the geographic scope of his research to almost the whole of India. Sankalia’s collaboration with the late Professor F.E. Zeuner, an eminent environmental archaeologist, carried forward Burkitt’s east coast model to western India. Since 1950 many Indian universities and the prehistory branch of the Archaeological Survey have contributed immensely in generating a large body of data. As a result the inventory of Stone Age sites lists as many as 6000 of them.

Foote was born in 1834, came to India when he was 24. He joined the Geological Survey of India on September 28, 1858, as an Assistant under Dr. Charles Oldham. He was elected Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1867. He moved up to the position of Superintendent in 1885 and later became a Director. Upon his retirement in 1892 he served as Director of the Geological Survey of the Baroda State and later in October 1894 he was invited to head the newly founded Mysore Geological Department in Bangalore.  He breathed his last on 29 December 1912, while still working on the catalog of his collections housed in the Madras Government Museum at the age of 78. During his lifetime he had championed the cause of stratigraphic and economic geology, and prehistory of India.  Mounted on a horseback he carried the torch of Indian prehistory and trekked through the hilly tracts of what is considered to be the hottest zone (the Rayalaseema) in the south.  In the end he had accomplished an inimitable task and had lit many dark areas of India’s past.

Foote had many firsts to his credit: Exactly 150 years ago he was the first to  discover  of a Palaeolith at Pallavaram near Madras; he was the first to adopt the Three Ages System to organized his prehistoric finds into a culture=-09 Historic sequence; he was the first to tie up ashmounds with the  Neolithic culture and assert that these  were heaps of burnt cow dung; he was the first serious student of Neolithic culture of south India; he was the first to view Neoltihic culture in an economic perspective; he was the first to recognize the archaeological potential of the Teri mounds (coastal red sand dunes) in the Tinnevelly district Tamil Nadu; he was the first to map the gold-bearing  rocks of south India; the  first  structural geologist to describe the peninsular geological formations in a stratigraphic framework; above all he pioneered mapping of geological formations in western and southern India. His interests in geology and prehistory covered all ages. The documents he produced in the form of records and memoirs betray not only his extraordinary acumen of details, but also his capacity to withstand physical pressure in the most inaccessible areas of south India.

Though Foote had several predecessors in Indian prehistoric research, his intuitive search for Stone Age remains opened up an entirely new area of research. Within five years of joining the Geological Survey he had reached a milestone that ushered in an era of discoveries. In 1864 Foote wrote: … the first implement discovered was found by me on May 30 last year, among the debris thrown out of a small gravel pit… at Pallavaram. My acquaintance with the flint implements which have excited so much interest in Europe was at that time limited to figures of them in  The Geologist … I felt a little doubtful therefore in unhesitatingly regarding my find  as genuine stone implement, so contented  myself with mentioning it to my friend .. and showing it to different members of my family.” This reticent caution in him soon vanished as he began to find more of them around Madras, especially at Attrambakkam (now dated to 1.5 million years old) and other places. Simultaneously his friend and colleague William King found similar stone tools elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. Thus Foote was the first to pick up a Palaeolithic and his modesty prevented him making a sensation. Instead he brought this significant discovery to knowledge of his senior geologist, Dr. Oldham who made brief announcements at a couple of meetings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1864 and 1865.

Foote’s account of Palaeolithic finds was first published in 1866, in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science. This heralded the beginning of systematic documentation of prehistoric evidence in India. Here he not only described the  geological contexts of stone tools but also attempted to fix their probable age as well as contemporary climatic conditions. Handaxes and cleavers, the typical Palaeolithic tools, later came to be called ‘Madrasian industry’ as against choppers of the ‘Soan industry’ of northwest subcontinent.

Foote presented his prehistoric findings to the learned audience at the Geological Society in London in 1867 and later at an international conference in Norwich in 1868.  He agreed with others that the chipped stone implements were made by the ancestors of the modern tribes in India and  not by Aryans.  He had also exhibited his finds from India at several places abroad.

Prior to joining the Geological Survey and during subsequent visits to Engalnd  Foote experienced the intensity of the intellectual mood, especially the ongoing debate between evolutions and creationists.  The former searched for evidence to establish the antiquity of man and fix him in an evolutionary-historical perspective.  Between 1863 and 1912 Foote discovered as many as 459 prehistoric sites in various parts of southern India.  Among them 42 were Old Stone Age sites and 252 were Neolithic sites (including ashmounds).   The major part of his collection is housed in the Madras Government Museum, Chennai, while others he either exchanged or presented them to British prehistoric archaeologists.  He proved that prehistoric survey of Asia was of paramount importance, for at that time Africa was still a terra incognita.  In spite of the best efforts of Indian archaeologists, during the last five decades, the Indian Palaeolithic has remained peripheral in the context of Old World prehistory.

Foote published comprehensive geological reports of several parts of the erstwhile Madras Presidency (at least 21) and three volumes especially devoted to his prehistoric finds.  The two volumes, published by the Government of Madras, contain Foote’s understanding of India’s prehistory.  Undoubtedly these works represent a prime example of European commitment to unraveling India’s past in its entirety.

In 1876 Foote produced a benchmark paper on the Geological Features of the Southern Mahratta Country and Adjacent Districts.  This remained a major source of information for archaeologists and geologists of the 20th century.  Only recently have there been attempts to update this work.  Foote’s mention of prehistoric sites in this area has now helped in several dissertations.

Between 1879 and 1880 he mapped the geological features along the east coast of India. In a north-south transect between the mouths of the Palar River in the south and Krishna River in the north he noticed numerous prehistoric sites associated with lateritic deposits. Equipped with modern techniques and new concepts on laterite formation, these sites are being revisited by present-day geo-archaeologists in order to reconstruct the processes involved in the formation and preservation of stone tools in these deposits, especially around Madras.

In 1884, while excavating caves at Billasurgam in Kurnool District of Andhra Pradesh, Foote found many more caves in the region around Betamcherla. Foote’s work though not productive in terms of excavation, resulted in the discovery of a few Palaeoliths in the vicinity of the cave. Later, his son Henry Foote collected a large number of animal bones from these caves bearing cut marks, indicating definite human workmanship. Though at that time, Foote did not suspect them to be very old, later workers investigating these caves have used electron spin resonance technique and assigned an age of about 16,000 years age. The bone remains have also been studied in terms of man-land relationships in the past. The discovery of volcanic ash glass crypto tephra from the Billasurgam cave floor deposits has helped in dating the age of the faunal remains from the cave to at least 74,000 years ago. Hundreds of rock shelters with prehistoric paintings have been discovered while retracing the footsteps of Foote in the Billasurgam region.

Mid-way through his career, Foote shifted his area of activity to the Rayalaseema. He  was based in Bellary for a long time. Memories of his prolonged stay and his work cherishes with the people of Bellary as the house he stayed is known as the Foote Bungalow. This was the most productive phase: he located a large number of Neolithic sites as well as ashmounds (the largest being at Kudatini 16 km west of Bellary city) in various districts of the Rayalaseema.

Foote’s stay in Bellary culminated in his report of the Geology of Bellary District in 1885. This memoir included a section on prehistoric economic geology. He tried to relate the occurrence of suitable rocks for the manufacture of stone tools with the location of Neolithic settlements. Modern archaeological excavations in these areas have substantiated Foote’s earlier observations on ashmounds and have added a great deal of new information in our understanding of the life-ways of Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Iron Age communities. The Bellary-Raichur-Kurnool area has come to be recognized as the focus of Neolithic culture in south India.

Among Foote’s purely geological works mention must be made of The Dharwar System, the Chief Auriferous Rocks of South India. This was a major landmark in the economic geology of South India. This study of extensive schistose rocks in the Dharwad district led him to conclude that the schistose rocks are different from the gneissic rocks and are invariably gold-bearing, and that they deserved a separate stratigraphic status. Foote’s detailed mapping of geological features used to be preceded by reconnaissance surveys. For instance, anterior to this publication Foote had published brief notes on the geology of the Bellary and Ananthapur District in 1886, and also on his traverses across the goldfields of Mysore in 1882.

Since becoming the first geologist of the Mysore Geological Department, Foote (1894-97) traversed through the former Mysore State and published his field notes in the first memoir of this Department. He had set a framework for his successors who carried on the good work initiated by Foote a hundred year ago. The Mysore Geological Department witnessed consistent growth under the tutelage of W.F. Smeeth, Sampat Iyengar, B. Rama Rao and B.P. Radhakrishna. The tenure of B.P. Radhakrishna was most productive in our knowledge of the geology and structure of the peninsular shield in general and the Karnataka craton in particular.

Foote had found several gaps in his ordering of the prehistoric culture-sequence. Foote was not to be discredited for showing the gaps for he was primarily an explorer. He expressed this in 1906. I … became a confirmed collector of prehistoric  remains,  thoroughly bitten with the desire to find more of these interesting artifacts, and my love for them has only gone on increasing during the last 43 years that have elapsed since I discovered the first Palaeolith known in India. His desire to explore was infectious and remained unrivalled among his contemporaries. Many a contemporary British geologist came under the hypnotic spell of his discoveries and explored in the Krishna. Gutnur, Kurnool, Cuddappah and Nellore districts in Andhra Pradesh; in Chingleput, Arcot, Thanjavur, Madurai, Tiruchirappalli districts of Tamil Nadu; Belgaum, Dharwad, Bijapur, Raichur and Bellary in Karnataka and; several parts of northern India. Many of these districts in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been subdivided into new districts in the last couple of decades.

He laid a firm foundation of Indian prehistoric studies over which present-day archaeologists have to a large extent succeeded in constructing the superstructure  and have kept pace with the developments in method and theory taking place elsewhere in the Anglo-American world. Unlike the days of Foote, modern archaeologists have been well supported by an array of radiocarbon and other dates to be able to reconstruct the cultural history of prehistoric India in a secure time-frame.

In five decades of relentless endeavor Foote had left no stone unturned, both geological and prehistoric. During his 58 years of stay in India, Foote lived his relentless geological tours with a missionary zeal, considerable intensity and passion for collecting prehistoric tools. He was a pioneer in the real sense of the term, truly he is both the father of Indian prehistory and father of South Indian geology.

Hand Axes in situ(1)(1) Picture1(1)(1) Tools


Ravi Korisettar, Professor,

Karnataka University, Dr DC Pavate Chair for Art and Archaeology,

Dharwad, Dārwha.  E-Mail:

Based on His article published in The Hindu of December 1994


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