Early agriculture in South Asia

A superb chapter from Cambridge Histories Online of the very complicated development of agriculture in the subcontinent, which is really the story of four different developments, in the northwest (including the Indus valley), north (the Gangetic plains), south and east, each with different timelines, crops and animal husbandry to account for. There are still gaps in the evidence, and much to be learned in the future, but the authors draw out a comprehensive, summary portrait: ". . . the Neolithic in South Asia, as elsewhere, was an era of change in which food production tended to replace foraging, sedentism [living in one place for a long time] increased over mobility, and population density tended to increase. The Neolithic period, and how it is defined chronologically, varies by region in South Asia, beginning by c. 7000 BCE in some areas, or by 3500–2500 BCE in others. By the end of the Neolithic, sedentism was present in many parts of the subcontinent, pottery production was nearly universal, and some textile production and metallurgy had been established. This period continued in many areas up to c. 1000 BCE, with the direct transition to what was in effect an Iron Age. A distinct Bronze Age is only recognized in the Indus valley region and is associated with the rise and decline of the urban Indus civilization. It has also been suggested that it was during the Neolithic that much of the basic linguistic geography of the subcontinent is likely to have been established, including the regional distributions of Dravidian, Munda, and Indo-Aryan language families" (p. 262-3).

Naturally, there was a great deal of interaction between these areas and the rest of the world: "for example," write the authors, "the evidence from the Gangetic plains suggests that a South Asian agriculture spreading from east to west met a Southwest Asian agriculture spreading broadly west to east. These contrasting patterns have encouraged some efforts at modelling the interaction of multiple currents of agricultural and demographic spread" (p. 267). A point that comes through clearly in this paper is that the role of hunter-gatherers who moved between regions must have been large in transmitting seed and practice.

For the Northwest, they focus on Mehrgarh and connect this Neolithic village with other perhaps halting developments at Neolithic sites throughout Balochistan and near the Afghan frontier. What is interesting is how regional specific developments could be in these early days; in Sindh pre-Indus sites have different lithic assemblages that indicate different crops and foodstuff behaviours, even as "these early village sites were often situated on large alluvial fans, and such fan environments were also favoured by early farmers in various parts of West Asia" (p. 268). Nonetheless, "there are a few taxa that are plausibly local domestications that broadened the agricultural economy. The most impor- tant of these was undoubtedly zebu cattle (Bos indicus), which has long been argued to be a local domestication at or around Mehrgarh between c. 7000 and 4500 B C E.22 This is important because cattle dominate most faunal assemblages throughout the subcontinent, and they may all derive ultimately from this domestication process with the incorporation through hybridization of additional wild genetic lineages. In addition, Mehrgarh provides early evidence for the exploitation and probable cultivation of Indian tree cotton (Gossypium arboreum), which was to become important in Bronze Age and later textile production" (p. 270).

In the Gangetic plains, the authors discuss the importance of the site of Lahuradewa in eastern UP which "push back the antiquity of early rice harvesting to at least c. 6400 B C E" even as "recent synthesis of the genetics and archaeology of rice suggests that the indica subspecies of domesticated rice associated with this region is not a truly independent domesticate. Instead, it shared key domestication mutations with East Asian japonica rice" (p. 274).

Eastern Indian agricultural developments are the least well understood: "while evidence is relatively thin on the ground, it is clear that east India had a unique and complex Neolithic society. It is certainly one that deserves further investigation. The interplay of farmers and mobile groups is particularly interesting, as is the domestication of the native wild pigeon pea [tur or red gram]" (p. 280). Almost no work has been done in the northeast or Bangladesh around Neolithic cultures, even though genetically distinct rice varieties may have flourished here during this period.

Finally, "the case for a truly independent origin of agriculture in South Asia is strongest in the southern peninsula of India. Here we have clear evidence for the domestication of crops from local wild progenitors, including millets and pulses. Although the dates for early agriculture are significantly later than those in the north, c. 2800 B C E compared to c. 6000 B C E in Pakistan, the difference in agricultural systems is sufficient to preclude outside influence. In this area, incorporating Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and northwest Tamil Nadu, over 200 Neolithic sites have been excavated, producing one of the richest collections in South Asia. Of these, around 50 per cent are ashmounds, denominating this the ‘ashmound tradition’. These are mounds of ash and vitrified material, generally burnt cattle dung as well as cultural artefacts and animal bone, the largest of which span up to 5,000 m2 and are 10 m high" (p. 281-2).

The authors conclude this essential, highly-recommended paper with the key insight that "taken on a global scale, South Asia provides two major pathways into agriculture from primary hunter-gatherers, in the Ganges and south India. But current evidence suggests that, more frequently than not, agriculturalists moved into a new area or local foragers adopted elements of the Neolithic from elsewhere. A diverse range of domesticates and food production prac- tices can be seen in the Neolithic Indian subcontinent. Ultimately this diversity came to support one of the largest concentrations of dense human population of any world region, accounting for 15–20 per cent of the global population today on just 2.73 per cent of global landmass" (p. 287).

Image: Map of South Asia showing the areas mentioned in the text, the main sites mentioned in the text, and the South Asian species that most represent the early agriculture of each area (key: Skt = Sheri Khan Tarakai, Hrp = Harappa, Mgr = Mehrgarh, Dmd = Damdama, Tkw = Tokwa, Lhd = Lahuradewa, Mhg = Mahagara, Kch = Kuchai, Slbd = Sulabhdihi, Gpr = Gopalpur, Gbsn = Golbai Sasan, Kdk = Kodekal, Bdl = Budihal, Utr = Utnur, Sgk = Sanganakallu). 1: the northwest including the greater Indus valley; 2: the Gangetic plains; 3: eastern India; 4: savanna India.