In this article we will discuss about the anthropological archaeology of prehistoric India.
An older period turning into a new one is a process we cannot control. But this can serve as a useful marker of time to estimate the direction as also magnitude of change through time. One can compare the path of such change with the usual normal distribution curve. For any kind of metric analysis we divide this inverted bell shaped curve into three segments.
The first 17.5 percent area is taken to represent people with low metric values, the hump of the curve constituting 65% as medium and the last 17½ percent as representing people with high metric values. In order to appreciate the manner of progression and process of change in anthropology, I would like to designate these three segments of the curve as Formative, Descriptive and Analytical stages.
In epistemological terms the formative period can be compared with what Kuhn (1970) would term Pre-Paradigmatic, and in the same light the descriptive period can be termed as paradigmatic and the analytical as post-Paradigmatic. It is further argued that the post paradigmatic phase, in turn, can lead to new paradigms and the process go on.
Studies in Prehistory took a discrete shape in the middle of the eighteenth century and continued in a formative stage all throughout the century and also during the first half of the next century. During the middle of the Nineteenth century one can see typical features of descriptive stage appearing in the publications from Western Europe.
Nineteenth century ended with the beginning of a search for possible explanations of discovered facts in many parts of Europe. The development curve of Indian Prehistory, seen in this light will appear to be highly skewed because we seem to be still continuing with the descriptive stage.
The all-round influence of Darwin which seeped into European Prehistory during the end of Eighteen Hundreds continued to occur as the most important explanative model all through the Twentieth Century in Indian archaeology. We seem to be constantly forming vertical classes and subclasses within this unilinear evolutionary scheme of human progression. When we found that the actuality did not fit into our ‘progression model’ we swept it under the carpet with a stock excuse that the data are insufficient to prove the contrary.
It is important to realize that the social milieu within which science was growing during the entire period of Industrial Revolution was basically a ranked structure constituting Rulers, auxiliaries and craftsmen. In fact, this has been the primary divisions working from as far back as the time of Socrates. It is interesting to see how the justification for ranking had been sought during the various phases of European history.
Dogmas and ideologies had to be improvised to avoid or minimize conflict. It is only during the last two centuries that we find science being used to validate these artificial rankings within a society. This had an overwhelming success because science had by then gathered the aura and prestige of being the only source of objective knowledge.
Archaeology came very handy to these scholars who could now provide concrete proof of what was slowly getting wide acceptance viz., evolution. That is, man, no matter where he was living must have gone through the identical process of evolving from one pre-defined stage to another.
A look at the status of the subject in India will show that we have hardly been able to achieve anything beyond this. The origin of man in India still remains unresolved, notwithstanding the mitochondrial DNA analysis indicating the sapiens originating in south Saharan Africa.
The problem is further complicated by the absence of adequate series of absolute dates for most of our earlier evidences. That is, for all practical purposes our researches in the field of prehistory still compares with works of France and England of 1920s. Almost 10 years back in a lecture delivered at Asiatic Society, Calcutta. I had expressed my frustrations in the following words … …. ….. …. … permit me to quote myself.
“Since we hardly can diagnose a take-off in any of our research publications, which can qualify as post paradigmatic, we will have no other alternative but to accept that Prehistory in India is dead, although archaeology continues to survive by reporting fresh discoveries and excavations and these are as a rule explained within the age-old- theoretical frame of evolution or diffusion”. In order to understand the future the subject projects for India one needs to briefly survey the present state of our knowledge of it.
Palaeolithic researches can provide a rich possibility of understanding how the earliest colonizations took place and what kind of ecological factors influenced what kind of settlement patterns. Instead Palaeolithic studies in India are still preoccupied with the question of inner evolution, as if to seek parallel with the classical African evidences from Olduvai Gorge and the European evidence of Somme Valley.
We are so over powered by the biological model that we forget that even in biology one cannot order a specific pattern observed several thousand years ago to repeat itself identically at a later date in a different area. So why seek a chopper chopping stage preceding the bifaces in India, where the earliest Lower Paleolithic occurrence does not stretch beyond 1.5 million years.
That is, only if we are able to accept once and for all that Lower Paleolithic in India has chopper/chopping as an integral part within the biface element, then only we might be able to come closer to a meaningful regional analysis and hypothesise about adaptional imperatives of early colonizers in India.
Further, we must once for all, give up the archaic approach which considers the tools as representing the community which produced them almost in the manner of a fossilized ethnic trait, because this will entail our considering all activity as ethnicity, a grand logical fallacy we freely use without batting an eyelid.
Specific styles of fashioning these artifacts may attain a cognitive placement within a culture and thus get perpetuated over both time and space. This will mean that a purely functional argument to explain variability between traditions of tool types suffers from a logical fallacy once over again.
If contemporary hunter-gatherers are examined we see three levels of organization. A small local group forages over a known territory and is aware of numerous such local groups in adjoining areas. All these local groups (acting as exogamous bands) form a breeding group. Several such breeding groups form a regional group.
The regional group, however, remains more as an ideological group and hence the social boundary of a community is always several times more than the spatial boundary of the community. Exchange of mates between the local groups is a survival strategy. Although they are economically competing groups, they have to maintain atleast minimum levels of cooperation.
Such cooperation can be achieved by periodically throwing feasts and or exchanging gifts. It is difficult to imagine that gifts were always of hunted meat alone, artifacts may have also been used as gifts and in such a case tools are capable of traveling long distances across diverse eco-zones. Adaptation model, consequently, may not be entirely correct when one does a site analysis without taking into account various anthropological factors.
The principles of topology of higher mathematics can possibly be borrowed to explain cultural changes during prehistory in a more convincing way. Further, the demographic pressure within a local group also plays a cardinal role in pushing the social boundary farther and farther from the spatial boundary.
Consequently, what appears as a modest change within an industry, say at Bhimbetka, soon spreads at a rapid speed over an inordinately large and composite eco-zone? Thus, if we are to paraphrase Habermas the cultural cognition or tuning to these changed types (which we have hitherto been taking as Chrono-cultural entities such as Middle and Upper Paleolithic) cannot be site-specific but more correctly is region-specific.
In this regard we might view Indian Late Pleistocene as having maintained basically three regional centres, viz., Orissa, Narmada and the southern tributaries of Godavari. The area extending from Punjab, through western Rajasthan into Gujarat might be a fourth possible region but this area is also overlapping with several other borderline regions and cannot be easily untangled with the present level of our knowledge of Paleolithic across the border.
Singhi Talav in Didwana is certainly rich evidence and might have been the centre of the Western region. The Upper Paleolithic blades from Damin area of Santhal parganas and their occurrence till almost as late as early Christian era should no longer bother us because they defy our chrono-cultural model.
If we have continued with Solutrean eyed needles and Azilian fishing hooks even today, stone artifacts of Upper Paleolithic kind have equal possibility to occur at Damin Industry. The only point that needs to bother us as archaeologists is to examine and elucidate the possible stresses operating or its absence on the cultural topology of the region.
We shall continue to examine the nature of studies done in India in the light of what has been said earlier. Evidences for the Neolithic period would appear to have a better track record than the earlier period. It is not because we have broken the paradigmatic barrier for this period, but probably because we could not escape from interpreting the additional cultural material available at some sites.
Even then it will appear that we have all along failed to address the questions of origin of agriculture and examine the sites to understand issues like demographic change, or the amount of life stock dependency or similar other anthropological issues which are cardinal to the understanding of this momentous change. The nature of the evidence in the middle Ganga region certainly shows a continuity of occupation spread over a large expanse. Such a situation also qualifies for the need of examining the possibility of an indigenous change in the economy.
Carl O Sauer (1952) proposed that agriculture developed in south-east Asia first as a result of incorporating root crops or asexually reproducing plants as primary carbohydrate source. Fishing provided the protein source to these communities. It was only after almost 2 decades that the evidences from spirit cave in Thailand could indeed substantiate Sauer’s prophecy.
Here it is important to understand that domestication of root crops is a horizontal manipulation of the ecology and does not require any of the following:
(i) Clearing of a plot by burning and / or axing for homogenous seed cultivation.
(ii) Does not require labour power and hence an infrastructure for labour management without social conflict.
(iii) Does not require seed storage and hence ceramic need is reduced to the minimum and finally,
(iv) Other forest produces can also be simultaneously exploited without disturbing the ecological balance.
If one accepts that the late Mesolithic communities which flourished in Allahabad, Pratapgarh and the other adjoining districts developed a root crop economy in early Neolithic phase, one can at once explain their choice of the horseshoe lakes as habitat. Further, these Neolithic sites do not show the kind of intensive occupation with regular village like features that one finds in Catal Hüyük in Turkey or Jarmo and Jericho in Jordan.
Wheat and barley adaptation required sturdy axes to clear bushes and strong and heavy ring stones to process the seeds. The activity schedule or for that matter the work load logistics in such communities has to be entirely different from these much smaller human colonies clustering along the gangetic lakes.
One can at once see why the celts in this zone or the zones further east in the Chotanagpur region are so peculiarly small for their function. In fact even the ring-stones here are also almost like toys. Chirand is another site of 1800 B.C. which generally reflect one of this part cultivation, part hunting and fishing culture in this zone.
Once we understand the nature and process of these changes it is not difficult to explain why rice was domesticated first in this region. Varieties of wild rice still grow in various reedy lakes and marshy flood plains all along in Birbhum, Bankura, Burdwan and Midnapur districts in West Bengal.
It is not difficult to imagine that wild rice was equally abundant and spread further west in the middle Ganga region as well. The discovery of Lahuradewa in the recent years further confirms the point that rice may have been cultivated in this region at a date as far as 6000 B.C. It is not surprising if any specific group because of their adequately developed social organization could domesticate this cereal in Belan region, and developed an intensive occupational cluster around the lakes.
Consequently that the earliest radiocarbon date for rice domestication should come from here should not be surprising. It is equally important that none of these sites could show a long time storage possibility. Hence a social system based on power derived from surplus ownership cannot be entertained for the entire region.
Distribution of celts in the Bihar-Bengal region, in this regard, is extremely intriguing. Barudi in Singhbhum district or the numerous sites along Bhairab-Banki, Silavati, Dwarekeswar and Susunia hills in West Bengal would certainly indicate a reasonable concentration of Neolithic in this region.
Yet such evidences as the cluster of bar celts in Banashuria and Kalimpong would indicate a probable trade or barter of these tools continuing till a much younger period. Significantly, these celts occur till very late period in this region. For instance Bangarh in West Dinajpur has yielded celts even in early historic period.
Any scanning of our past and present will show that we have not yet been able to shake off our Eurocentric approach of doing Prehistory. Robert Brue Foote who was a pioneer of prehistory in this country was unaware of a copper age in India and had assumed that Neolithic in India was followed by Iron Age, in fact he even argued for some amount of overlap between Neolithic and Iron using Megalithic culture in some parts of India.
Valentine Ball propounded a thesis that Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures are the products of two distinctly different human types. Clearly this was a hangover of the earlier thinkers in human evolution who could never accept a savage ancestry for themselves. Consequently for Pleistocene period they propounded the Palaeoanthropines as the author of Lower Palaeolithic tools and a separate race called Neoanthropines were taken as the author of Middle and Upper Paleolithic tools.
Scant attention has so far been paid by archaeologists to understand the actual nature of subsistence economy practiced by any community at any given time. For instance, evidence of small Neolithic settlements in the far eastern part of India in Garo Hills and also probably extending up to north Cachar hilly tracks would indicate a variety of specialized adaptations to beans and lentils.
Mixed farming under slash-and-burn method required both sturdier celts and grinding stones (root cultivation, incidentally require no grinding stones). These Neolitic settlements were not at all intensively occupied nor did they maintain large populations. Consequently hunting and gathering must have also been practised as a dominant and important subsidiary economy.
The celts found from this zone are quite distinctive with bilateral shoulders prepared at the butt-end. Such celts have so far not been found anywhere else in India. This led some social historian like Heine Geldern in the last century to propound a theory of population movement from south China to this region during Neolithic period purely on the basis of the fact that similar celts are known from south China as well.
All these evidences negate the possibility of a kind of Neolithic village like in the Middle East for this region. Consequently, while dealing with Neolithic India one needs to view more than one entirely different variety of communities. The group discussed above, practised what has been termed as “Vegeculture” by some, albeit with an addition of mixed farming in suitable regions. It needs no overemphasizing the point that the social organization forming the infrastructure for this kind of economy develops its own specific features.
Probably Mother Goddess cult forms one of the most significant features evolving in these societies. Günther Sontheimer borrowed the Tinai concept from Cangam literature to demonstrate that the low land rice cultivators had female Godheads of a variety of Ammas while the upland millet cultivators had such male Godheads as Murrugan and other derivatives.
The Neolithic sites between Betwa and Narmada including Navdatoli are not usually counted as classical Neolithic settlements primarily because of traces of metal found in them and also because of their relatively younger period of occurrence. Except Kayatha where the phase I has yielded a date of 2450-2000 B.C. all other sites spread over the region are younger than 2100 B.C.
The evidence show regional clusters in ceramic features with permanent settlement of mud-houses and also wheat, barley and lentils as predominant cultivated crops. Sorghum and at places seeds of wild plants like jujube have also been found. These clusters definitely qualify as regional groups almost in the manner of some of the African villages of autonomous economy.
It is not difficult to conclude that metal to this community was almost a novelty which could have been obtained by barter. Although evidences towards long term storage are not present still barter of surplus would not be difficult to imagine. The amount of domesticated animal remains would indicate that sheep, goat and cattle have been totally internalized as significant component of their economy.
The habitation structures are more nucleated and hence closer social intercourse would certainly be indicative. By second millennium B.C. almost all of these sites start showing more scattered evidence of such exogenous precious stones as lapis lazuli, carnelian, coral, faience and shell beads.
Copper and bronze implements also start occurring in good numbers. If one scans through the radio-carbon dates of the sites of Malwa region it would appear that these sites had various levels of interaction with the Ahar / Balathal / Gilund on the one end and Inamgaon on the other end, while each of these regional clusters maintained their individual characters as well.
If mixed farming was the basic subsistence economy in the entire Malwa region, animal husbandry was an equally dominant component. Possibly Flannery 1969 propounded his “primitive banking” concept for mainly this kind of clustered mosaic. He felt that any cluster undergoing a lean production phase can barter livestock to acquire food from the rest of the clusters.
In the same way a farming surplus can always be invested in procuring livestock from corporate clusters as a measure of security for possible lean periods in future. Maintenance of livestock consequently forms a significant imperative in these communities. Naturally under such an economy pasture land availability becomes as important as fertile strips for farming.
Clan organization and regulation of social ties by marital relation acted as the basic organizational strategy for these communities. Communal harvesting and livestock raising must have been the underlying strength of these groups and this also prevented any polarization of power.
Adequate ideological frame provided power to the clan heads to decide and negotiate barter. From the Malwa region one can see the gradual transformation and rise of the Jorwe culture as one moves further south. Increasing emphasis on livestock raising becomes evident as one crosses Godavari and enters the Krishna region.
It is significant that after Songaon situated in the northern most extension of Krishna which still maintains Jorwe features, further southern sites along all the branches of Krishna develop a different shade of characters. Thus, one can see a regular wave model changing – from Ahar to Kayatha, Kayatha to Navdatolli; Navdatolli to Inamgaon and finally to the typical Deccan Neolithic cluster.
The concept of wave model was first suggested by Fisher in 1916 for mobility of genetic traits; later in 1960 Cavalli Sforza demonstrated progression of Neolithic in Danubian region of Europe by using this general model albeit with increased bio-metric sophistication.
Settlements of the southern Neolithic are concentrated around Tungabhadra spread over Karnataka and Southwestern Andhra Pradesh. Almost all these sites show scattered dwelling on rocky hill slopes. Millet and pulses form the main cultivated cereal but cattle raising by this time must have taken a significant role in their economy.
Long range barter-probably through the same wave model, cannot be denied even at these southern-most clusters if one considers the sporadic occurrence of precious metals or faience beads. The enormous deposits of cow dung ash in most of these sites indicate their livestock strength on the one hand and the thin and scattered habitational debris on the other hand would indicate the mobility required for the community to maintain such large cattle strength.
It is important to understand that these groups could never gather a surplus big enough to create a power polarity. They always chose rocky slopes for their habitation within a region which basically is a rain shadow area. This shows why only such drought resistant millets like Ragi and Hulgi formed the main cultivated cereal in this region.
Such a choice in farming always yields inadequate produce in this kind of ecology; consequently, emphasis on livestock had a stronger premium with them. The social system required to organize this form of economy develops its own characteristics. The elastic subsistence base prevents the growth of an elaborate rigorous inheritance system.
Arrival of metal could not change the life style of these communities even marginally. In this regard introduction of metal in the Malwa and northern Maharashtra had relatively a much stronger impact. Social organization in this region was probably much more complex with larger population to manage.
Finally it must be noted that there is absolutely no evidence coming from any Neolithic site of India where a sudden change in prosperity can be demonstrated with the arrival of metal. It might appear paradoxical in the light of chrono-cultural arguments or cultural materialism used in archaeological explanations.
This can again prove that in dealing with human beings one has to always remember that the whole is always larger than the sum total of its parts. There is always an extra factor working in the form of human choice which defies predictable law in man.
The areas which bear relevance to cultural interpretation and have so far not been adequately discussed may be taken up briefly. At the outset we must accept that ceramic typology was erected as method of analysis of Neolithic and subsequent cultural phases because the largest frequency of any kind of cultigen known from this phase happen to be pot-sherds.
So far so good, but the consequence of this has been a regular flow of newer type names in archaeological literature. Multiple ceramic types may in themselves be entirely harmless, but only as long as we do not slip into considering each one of these ceramic types as representing different ethnic groups. Unfortunately we are not immuned to this danger at all.
In fact majority of archaeological publications do indeed imply such ethnic authorship in an implicit way. Today we have enough ethnographic data which shows that the same community chooses entirely different types of ceramics for different occasions like rituals connected with birth, marriage and death. Obviously, therefore, the archaeological interpretations of the past and present studies need to be freshly done again.
The Black-and-Red ware or in short BRW, in this regard is a burning example of a ceramic type, cross cutting not only different cultural and chronological stages but also entirely different social and ecological settings. The BRW of Ahar Chalcolithic (Rajasthan) may not at all be distinguishable from those known from Chirand (Bihar) or even Pandu Rajar Dhipi (West Bengal) on the one hand and with the entire group of Deccan Megaliths of Iron age on the other hand.
I know of no specific attempt in archaeological literature which tries to solve this riddle culturally. At least this experience should have certainly helped us revise our methodology of equating ceramic types as cultural types such as Ochre Coloured Pottery, Savalda Pottery, Saipai ware and the like. It is high time we decide to choose such inscriptive terms for post Neolithic cultures which are based on composite attributes and include the ceramics as only descriptive feature.
The point that emerges as crucial to our understanding of archaeological anthropology in India is the need to develop some working hypothesis about the type of social organizations that were evolved in different eco-zones in the past. This will also help us understand the process of formation of regional cultural features through time. A fairly fluid band structure of a very low population density would appear to be the type of society our early Pleistocene ancestors had.
Possibly by around 60to 80,000 B.P. man started forming a relatively closer organizations with a system of Big Man in the manner of New Guinea acting as the Clan and or Band leader, which is similar to the term Pedda Mansalu used for some north Andhra tribal groups. The Mesolithic might have started with this variety of closely knit bands but over a large duration tribe like organization had to be developed for the management of larger number of clans with ever increasing population size.
Thinly populated areas with low food extraction potentiality may have continued with their band structure. If the settlement size is any indication then we can safely interpret that both at the western border land and Chotanagpur region these bands had been roaming for a long time without attempting to consolidate.
While in the west these groups developed symbiotic relationship with higher and settled cultures, in the east they settled in scattered clusters around ponds and marshes to collect root crops, wild rice and do intensive fishing. The economy chosen by both the eastern and western region did not create adequate surplus to cause power polarization.
Subsequently the western groups were sucked into the centres of higher culture while the eastern group remained in scattered clusters of settlement which was unable to give rise to any form of complex organization. Consequently the nature of social organization in this area including probably even Western Orissa remained basically within the frame of band structure with of course possible regional variation.
The Malwa to Banas region shows a slightly earlier date of emergence of sedentism and it also shows a much more intensive occupation spread over considerably larger area. This area may have also developed a social organization comparable to a kind of peasantry. However, unlike a proper peasant no evidence of consolidation of power is demonstrable.
We do not have any special burials nor do we see larger dwelling structures for the privileged ones. This could be taken to mean that possibly farm produce was kept as a communal property or at best a clan property. The leadership, therefore, was most probably based on age and knowledge like in any other band society.
Down south the clusters around Krishna and Godavari take up a more spread out settlement and qualitatively the society orients its organization to one similar to the pastorals in Kurdistan at the beginning of last century. Tribal chiefs take up the role of coordinating the numerous pastoral groups spread over the rocky terrains. Lack of surplus again plagued these groups and to maintain their cattle strength they had to be periodically on the move.
These two imperatives prevented the growth of a stratified society with power of surplus to back the top individual in the hierarchy. Under the circumstances as above the rise of a state was not possible anywhere else but in the Gangetic plain after the Indus group started getting deserted from Punjab.
Gangetic plain had widely spread clusters of settled fishers several thousand years before the desertion at the Indus plain began. Logically one can argue that if not the Harappans themselves at least their experience travelled to the east to consolidate the scattered settlements into another urban center which has often been referred to as 2nd Urbanization of India.
The entire socio-cultural interpretations delineated above remain essentially possible and hence is entirely disdained by almost all working archaeologist in India. It is only me who has been crying hoarse trying to appeal to anthropologists over and over again to develop a distinct branch of archaeological anthropology in India.
Unfortunately such a branch can never develop unless both Physical and cultural anthropologists feel the need of articulation of the issues of their respective branches within a diachronic frame. Prehistory is like a dead baby we are carrying in our arms for the last 100 years without knowing exactly what we should do about it.
From the days of our colonial past Indian anthropology has been incorporating three distinct branches. Of these the only branch which has never been called upon to address itself to anthropological issues is Prehistoric Archaeology. It is now almost a century that Prehistory has remained as a part of anthropology without any change in form or function like the appendix in the human body.
Looking at its apparent redundancy many departments have even undergone the operation of appendectomy. I am not here to go into the various causes for this state of affairs. However, I do think that Prehistorians can play a significant role in Indian anthropology in future.
The questions that require to be undertaken through archaeological anthropological researches understand the mechanisms through which band societies in various eco-zones may have undergone changes. Settlements as either pre-peasants like instance in Durum Wheat Zone of Punjab; Agro-pastoral groups like the barley and millet zone further north-west or dispersed and loosely interwoven village structures as in the root crop and wild rice collecting areas of the middle Ganga region can give rich information about the magnitude and direction of changes in the socio-cultural features in various regions of India within a time- space scheme.
Our understanding of the millions of megaliths spread all over India is still very inadequate. We do not know where Prehistory ends and history takes them over as hero stones, memorial stones or even sati stones. Tribes making iron is a unique feature of India. Asurs and Agarias are still not adequately incorporated in the understanding of emergence and dispersal of metal age in India.
In the areas of physical anthropology as well archaeological wisdom has never been incorporated for solving outstanding issues. Ever since the DNA analysis has thrown out the multiregional approach to human dispersal over the planet archaeological indicators are being used all over the world to trace migration of both pre-sapiens as well as sapiens.