Sivatherium, a giraffe-like creature with two pairs of horns and extinct for 8,000 years, once roamed central and western India. So did the aardvark, an ant-eating creature now found only in Africa. The stunning finds have emerged from ancient rock paintings found along the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border.
They have been hidden away for centuries in 18 rock shelter paintings near Amravati in Maharashtra and have been discovered by a group of amateur explorers in the past three years - the latest find was in June. And research into them is now proving eye-opening.
A six-member group headed by V.T. Ingole, who is otherwise the principal of an engineering college in Amravati, chanced upon the paintings after seven years of digging in the Morshi tehsil of Amravati district.
'This is only the second of its kind in the country and dates back to 15,000 years or the Upper Palaeolithic era,' an excited Ingole told IANS here.
The discoveries were submitted to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Rock Art Society of India, Agra, which conducted research and confirmed the unique findings.
The explorers, all barring one in their late 50s and early 60s, hit upon the first cave Jan 26, 2006. The location is the border area of Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh that makes up the Tapti Valley.
'The find was as amazing as it was significant. It sparked new life into our efforts and spurred us to keep going. Till June this year, we have managed to discover a total of 65 caves in that area, including 18 rock shelter paintings,' said Ingole.
Prior to this, the only similar rock shelter paintings were found at Bhimbetka near Bhopal in 1957.
But the condition of the find near Amravati is breathtaking, said team members Pradeep S. Hirurkar, a state government employee who turns explorer over the weekend.
Hirurkar said they got the first tip-off from the Gond tribals in the region, but since they were in the deep forests and high hills - between 350 and 900 metres, the area was very difficult to access.
While a majority of the paintings are of animals like sivatherium, aardvark and rhinoceros, there are also images of elephants, giraffes, tigers, lions, leopards, bears, wild boars, wild dogs, swamp deer, spotted deer, sambhar, horses and camels.
Only one bird is visible in the paintings - the vulture. There is also one painting of a large tortoise. Below most walls, there are small holes in the floor with the paint remnants indicating these were the 'dishes' in which colours were made.
Hirurkar said it is amazing that people in those days who were barely known to travel a few kilometres from their dwellings had seen camels or rhinos.
At a height of around five feet from the ground, most of the animals are painted in different shades of red derived from iron ore, juices of fruits, leaves and roots from the jungles around.
The paintings are mostly in dimensions of 10-20 cm, though there is one figure of a 1.5-metre tall nude man with prominent genitals.
'A majority of the figures are facing the right, indicating that the painters were left-handed. It is possible that in those prehistoric days, the left hand was used as equally as the right hand,' Ingole explained.
At one large rock shelter, there are as many as 35 paintings of different creatures while the rest have between two to five figures.
In one rock shelter painting believed to be around 5,000 years old, there are additional colours used to depict different pictures.
'The colours include green, yellow, white, grey - all of which are made with locally available raw materials. One cave shows figures of humans astride an elephant, a camel and horses, in war gear, holding spears.
'This indicates they had succeeded in taming these large wild creatures as far back as 3,000 years BC. The camel also proves some kind of contact with the people in Rajasthan or beyond since these animals are not found in this region,' Ingole explained.
Though Ingole's team has found these rock shelter paintings in an excellent condition, they are apprehensive whether these will be preserved for posterity.
'We are only a group of amateurs with limited influence or resources. So far none of the authorities concerned have come forth to take the caves under their charge. Anybody today can go there freely and do damage,' said a worried Ingole.
'We have somehow succeeded in bringing this treasure of humanity before the world. It is up to the authorities concerned to take steps to preserve it for future generations,' he said.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)