Robert Bruce Foote: The father of India’s prehistory
Photo courtesy Shanti Pappu
In the mid-19th century, Foote almost single-handedly tried to reconstruct India's unwritten past
First Published: Sat, Oct 15 2016. 11 30 PM IST
In 1859, Charles Darwin published the theory of natural selection in his book, “Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, suggesting that, among other things, humans evolved from apes, flying in the face of conventional thinking at the time.
The age of the earth had earlier been pegged at 6,000 years by European religious scholars, based on readings of the Bible, with estimates ranging to 100,000 years (based on other religions) at the high end. Darwin’s theory implied it was much, much older, transforming not only the field of biology, but geology too, along with archaeology and anthropology.
The theory, of course, faced widespread resistance. Evolution from apes? Did god not create humans in his own image? Wasn’t it blasphemy to suggest otherwise? “No,” said one bold geologist from British India whose discoveries supported Darwin’s theory. His name was Robert Bruce Foote.
The British East India Company had conquered almost the entire Indian subcontinent by the early 19th century, an area of around 4.4 million sq. km. They divided it into four administrative regions—the Madras Presidency, the Bombay Presidency, the Bengal Presidency and the North-West Presidency.
While building their empire, they did two things. One, the company convinced the British crown to enforce the law of primogeniture—the firstborn son would inherit all property of the parents. British estates were never divided. If a couple didn’t have a son, the closest living male relative would inherit all the wealth.
It was an unfair law but it served the company and the crown well. The majority of sons were trained as soldiers mostly to serve the company abroad, so they could earn a living. The law essentially ensured a steady supply of soldiers who were also trained in another profession such as engineering and medicine.
The next was to set up teams of geologists in its colonies, like the Geological Survey of India (GSI) established in 1851, so they could locate precious minerals and metals across the empire to fill up the coffers of the crown and the company. They also mapped and studied the territories ruled by the British.
In 1858, a 24-year-old Foote arrived in India and changed it all.
Robert Bruce Foote, the youngest son of Sophia Wells Foote and William Henry Foote, was born on 22 September 1834 at Cheltenham, England. He studied in Britain and was recruited to work in the GSI.
In 1857, Thomas Oldham, the Geological Surveyor of India, had deputed four people—Henry Blanford, William King Jr, Charles Oldham and Henry Geoghegan—to map Madras Presidency. While studying the rocky landscape of Trichy in 1958, Geoghegan died of sunstroke and Foote was appointed as an assistant geologist to replace him. It was here that he and King Jr became good friends.
After the work in Trichy, Foote returned to Madras often to deliver a series of lectures on geology at the College of Engineering, Guindy, from 1861 on. It was here that he met Peter Percival, an ordained priest and former missionary who had severed ties with the missionary society. He was registrar of the Madras University and professor of linguistics, especially Sanskrit and vernacular literature, at Presidency College, Madras.
Percival’s progressive views on women’s education, culture and his fluency in Tamil and Telugu astonished Foote, who admired him a great deal. Percival published the first English-Tamil and English-Telugu dictionaries, as well as several books on Indian culture and religion, which included translations of the literary works of Tamil poet Avvaiyar.
In June 1862, Foote married Percival’s daughter Elizabeth Anne in Madras.
The big finds
The next year proved to be an eventful one. Their first child, Henry Bruce Foote, was born in April 1863. And in May, Foote Sr found an interesting-looking stone in Pallavaram that turned out to be an axe or cleaver dating back to the Palaeolithic Age, also known as the Old Stone Age.
The discovery would have caused a sensation in Europe but Foote, though delighted, was cautious and showed it only to his family, apart from his best friend, William King Jr.
Then in September that year Foote, along with King Jt, discovered a number of implements and artefacts in Atirampakkam, about 64km north-west of Madras city (now Chennai), near Poondi in Tiruvallur district today. This spurred him to revisit the site of the first find, where he discovered two more Palaeolithic implements in January 1864.
These discoveries squarely established the antiquity of man in the Indian subcontinent, lending credence to Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the process. Secondly, the stone implements showed that humans were living in Pallavaram and Atirampakkam in the rude Stone Age. And lastly, Foote’s findings inspired a more scientific approach to geology in the subcontinent, rather than just a search for precious metals and minerals.
But why had Foote not announced his discovery to the world immediately?
He was only working for the GSI as an assistant geologist at the time and was busy mapping the entire Madras Presidency. He did, however, submit his findings to the GSI, but Thomas Oldham, the head of the institution, did not make any public announcement, a fact that seems to have annoyed Foote.
In his book published in 1865, titled “On the Occurrence of Stone Implements in Lateritic Formations in Various Parts of Madras and North Arcot Districts”, Foote begins with “The discovery that certain of the more recent formations in Southern India contain stone implements of undoubtedly human manufacture and the same type precisely as flint weapons now creating so much interest in various parts of Europe cannot fail to excite Students of Geology, Ethnology and Archaeology. With the exception of a brief verbal notice to the members of the Bengal Asiatic Society at their general meeting in December last by Dr. Oldham, the Superintendent of the Geological Survey of India, no account of them has yet been made public.”
I also asked archaeologist Shanti Pappu, founder/secretary at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, who is also writing a biography on Foote, whether there anything in his journals or comments to suggest he had a different view on the topic of creation and race.
Pappu replied, “His writings make clear his scientific attitude towards the subject, his wide multidisciplinary approach towards resolving questions, and his deep love for the land and the people, both past and present. As far as his early prehistoric discoveries are concerned, there is no question of religion, creationism or race arising here. Owing to contemporary and earlier discoveries of Palaeolithic artefacts in Europe, Foote was confident of his finds, and clearly attributed the stone tools found here to be the work of prehistoric Palaeolithic populations. He followed paradigms being discussed at the time drawing on Darwin, John Evans and geologists like Charles Lyell. Our ongoing research at these very Palaeolithic sites discovered by him, prove many of his observations to be deeply insightful.”
In 2011, the Atirampakkam site was revisited by archaeologists (including Pappu) and they found antiquities that are over 1.5 million years old further cementing the antiquity of humans in India.
Family and personal life
Foote’s wife, Elizabeth, was a source of support in his geological quests, patiently documenting and preserving the artefacts he found. For his presentation in 1866—the first time Foote’s findings were being showcased abroad—it was his wife who drew most of the illustrations. In 1867, Foote was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London.
Elizabeth Anne Foote passed away in 1870, leaving behind four young children, and Foote was heartbroken, as was her father Percival.
In 1874, during a visit to England, Foote married Eliza Melissa Wells, his first cousin, who returned with him to Madras. They had another four children. Eliza Foote was equally supportive of Foote’s explorations of Indian prehistoric culture and stayed at home raising all eight children while he continued to work uninterrupted.
The Percival family remained an important part of Foote’s life; Peter Percival moved from Madras to Yercaud and the Footes accompanied him, making it their permanent home as well (they had a summer home there earlier). Percival died in 1882 and was buried at Trinity Church in Yercaud.
Of his children, Foote’s favourite remained his eldest son, Henry Bruce, a lieutenant of the Royal Artillery who shared his father’s passion for geology. Robert would even take his son along on digs, and Henry eventually became a famous geologist and archaeologist in his own right, discovering stone artefacts in the Billasurgam cave complex, in modern-day Andhra Pradesh, in 1884. Locals dub these caves as the “Grand Canyon of India”, as they span almost 3.5km—it’s one of the largest and longest cave complexes in the world.
According to Pappu, “The earliest record of investigations at the Billasurgam cave complex was in the early 1840s by Captain Thomas Newbold, although he did not identify any stone artefacts at that point in time. Subsequently, R.B. Foote was instructed by Grant Duff, then governor of Madras, to investigate these caves. The work was delegated to his son, Henry, when Foote was called away for his other duties, owing to the experience that the young Henry had while working with his father.”
Henry became senior superintendent of GSI in 1885, and rose to the position of director in 1887 before eventually retiring in 1891. A year later, he served as state geologist of Baroda, and in 1894 as director of the Mysore geological department.
Notably, he also surveyed the Mysore gold mines, now known as the Kolar gold fields, and discovered new mines, and in the process came to acquire shares in the gold fields.
Foote Sr was primarily a geologist, but he enjoyed landscape sketching and his pictures of Kanyakumari are truly beautiful (see The Beach at Cape Comorin here). He also contributed significantly to the birth and development of Indian archaeology and anthropology.
When Foote gave presentations in Europe at geological, prehistoric or archaeological conferences, people often offered him vast sums for his collection of prehistoric artefacts and antiquities but Foote refused.
His collection grew steadily as he traversed the Indian subcontinent, from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, from Peshawar in the west to Bengal in the east. Over the course of his 40-year career, he discovered a total of 459 prehistoric sites.
In the end, he sold his entire collection to the Madras Government Museum in 1904 for Rs33,000 as he believed the history of India should be preserved in the country itself.
Foote died on 29 December 1912 in Calcutta at the age of 78 while working on another project. Though cremated in Calcutta, his ashes are buried in Trinity Church, Yercaud, next to his father figure, Percival. The epitaph reads, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”.
Robert Bruce Foote was a scientist with an open, logical, inquisitive mind with knowledge in a variety of subjects. One can easily realize this if one reads his writings, especially a book published by the Madras Government Museum titled The Foote Collection of Indian Prehistoric and Protohistoric Antiquities, Notes on their Ages and Distribution.
He didn’t just rest on his initial glories but continued to search for, preserve and document prehistoric sites all over the Indian subcontinent. He worked tirelessly in India cataloguing its prehistory, which meant much more than collecting and preserving Stone Age artefacts found along riverbeds. Foote almost single-handedly tried to reconstruct the unwritten past of India, meticulously classifying them. His findings on ancient life and environments can perhaps give us an idea of how it might change in the future.
Calling him the “Father of Indian Prehistory” is not a stretch—he not only found the first prehistoric artefact in the subcontinent, but also worked hard to ensure his discoveries remained in India.
Deepa Kandaswamy is an award-winning freelance writer and author based in India.
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