Thousands of ancient rock carvings believed to be 12,000 years old are currently being excavated in India. These petroglyphs, found in the hills of the Konkan region of western Maharashtra, represent a wide variety of artistic styles and depict the forms of animals, birds, fish, humans and geometrical forms. The archaeologists that are documenting them believe that they may be the oldest known examples of their kind — and that the civilization that created them is one that was lost to the sands of time.

After discovering a number of previously-uncovered carvings in the region, an exploration team headed by Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe began investigating the area for more of the carvings, interviewing villagers that had information on where to find more examples of these works. Although many of the carvings needed to be excavated from under layers of soil, a number of these petroglyphs were found in village temples, playing a part in local folklore.

"We walked thousands of kilometres. People started sending photographs to us and we even enlisted schools in our efforts to find them," Risbood explained in an interview with the BBC. "We made students ask their grandparents and other village elders if they knew about any other engravings. This provided us with a lot of valuable information."

The images depict both humans and a wide variety of animals, but there are no images of agricultural activities, leading researchers to believe that the creators of the carvings were from a hunter-gatherer culture.

"We have not found any pictures of farming activities," according to Tejas Garge, the director of the Maharashtra state archaeology department. "But the images depict hunted animals and there’s detailing of animal forms. So this man knew about animals and sea creatures. That indicates he was dependent on hunting for food."

The rock carvings also seem to represent a wide variety of artistic styles, similar to those found in different parts of the world. Some appear to be depict traditional Upper Paleolithic cave art; others, the dreamlike flow of Australian Aboriginal petroglyphs; yet others are similar to the geometric patterns of Mesoamerica. Animals that aren’t found in India are also depicted, such as the hippopotamus and rhinoceros, prompting the researchers to speculate whether the carvings’ creators had traveled between India and Africa, or if these animals had once existed in India for the artists to experience.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the estimated age of the petroglyphs, having been carved around 12,000 years ago. "Our first deduction from examining these petroglyphs is that they were created around 10,000BC," according to Garge. The researchers have also lobbied the state government to aid in the study and preservation of the ancient rock art; so far, the government has allocated 240 million rupees ($3.3 million USD) to study 400 of the uncovered petroglyphs.