South Deccan Prehistory Project

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Origins of Agriculture in South India
Bellary District Archaeological Project
Sanganakallu-Kupgal Project

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winnowing Cajanus cajan.
Photo by J.A. Soldevilla

The Archaeobotany of South India and Agricultural Origins

The origins of agriculture represents a fundamental change in human economies that impacts social organization, demography and perception of the landscape. In South India this is traced toi the Southern Neolithic, which has long provided evidencefor the earliest pastoralism in Peninsular India. The wellknownsite category of the Southern Neolithic is the ashmound,which has been shown to be an accumulation of animal dung at ancient penning sites.

In Northern and Eastern Karnataka, there are two important categories of Neolithic sites. Permanent habitation sites, where agriculture was practised, were often located on the peaks of granite hills that punctuate the plains of Karnataka (see photo below). In addition there are enigmatic 'ashmound' sies which consist of large, heaped accumulations of burnt cattledung, the largest some 8 meters in height and some 40 meters in diameter. Archaeological evidence from a couple of the ashmounds indicates that they are sites of ancient cattle penning where dung was Acacia Albizia savannahallowed to accumulate and periodically burnt, perhaps in seasonal rituals. The ashmound sites were encampemnts for the movement of pastoral groups tied to the agricultural production at the more permanent sites.

An important part of the research in this project has been archaeobotany (or paleoethnobotany). Archaeobotanical sampling and analysis has been carried out by Dorian Fuller since 1997, and continues, including research by students and post-doctoral colleagues. Work on the plant remains from the hilltop village sites, or non-ashmound layers within sites, has established that subsistence focused on the cultivation of small millet-grasses (including browntop millet, Brachiaria ramosa, and bristley foxtail grass, Setaria verticillata) and pulses (mung bean, Vigna radiata, and horsegram, Macrotyloma uniflorum). These crop species are native to Southern India and were probably domesticated in the wider region, although within the actual granitic landscape of the Ashmounds.While horsegram and the millets can be found in the savannah environments like that of the ashmounds, with wild mungbean is restricted to moister forests such as in the Western Ghats and parts of the Eastern Ghats. This evidence raises the likelihood that South India was an independent centre of plant domestication in the middle Holocene, perhaps ca. 5000 years ago (which has been discussed in several papers by Fuller and others). In addition there is evidence for the use of as yet unideintified tuber foods.

During the course of the Neolithic a number of other crops deriving from other regions were introducted. The chronology of these introductions is now supported by direct radiocarbon dating of grains. Introductions include Wheat (Triticum diococcum and free-threshing wheat) and Barley (Hordeum vulgare), derving from the northwest, were adopted 2000-1900 BC. Somewhat later crops of African origins, the Hyacinth Bean (Lablab purpureus) and Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum), by ca. 1500 BC.

Bucket flotation being carried out at Hallur
in 1998. Professor Ravi Korisettar supervises.

From 2003-2006, with the support of the Leverhulme Trust, research has been carried out on the wood charcoal from Southern Neolithic sites, principally by Dr. Eleni Asouti. This research has required detailed background research in wood anatomy and vegetation ecology, as well as ethnobotany will will soon be available in a the book Trees and Woodlands of South India: An Archaeological Perspective by Eleni Asouti and Dorian Q Fuller, published by Left Coast Press, and in India by Munshiram Manoharlal.

neolithic seeds millet mung horsegramArchaeological examples of the most common seeds on Southern Neolithic sites, clockwise from top left: Brachiaria ramosa, Vigna radiata, Macrotyloma uniflorum, Setaria verticillata.

Other important evidence includes wood charcoal that suggests the beginnings of tree cultivation towards the end of the Neolithic, 1400-1300 BC, including Citrus (probably the citron), and mangos. Charcoal from sandalwood testifies to the beginnings of trade in this important aromatic timber, which has long been important in South India, although it may have been introduced originally from Indonesia. In addition seed findes of the bengal madder (Rubia cordifolia) suggest exploitation of plants for dyes, which may be linked the the emergence of textile production after 1700 BC, but esepcially in the later Second Millennium BC. This is indicated by finds of spindle whorls, while charred seeds of cotton and flax have been found at the site of Hallur from 1000-900 BC.

(For further information, see thre publications by Fuller or Asouti: goto references). also: earlier webpages on this research.




Updated: 16 May 2010