The origins of agriculture in South India and the contribution of charcoal analysis 

(a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, UK)



Earlier stages of this project had focused on the systematic collection and analysis of archaeobotanical remains of seed crops. Results from these analyses have been previously presented in conferences and research paper publications by Dorian Fuller, Ravi Korisettar and collaborators. Their research has shown the widespread importance of indigenous crops such as small millets and pulses in the agricultural systems of the Southern Neolithic. Definitive evidence for these crops dates from at least 2200 BC (phase II in the chronology of the Southern Neolithic). Verified crop species include browntop millet (Brachiaria ramosa), bristley foxtail (Setaria verticillata), mung bean (Vigna radiata) and horsegram (Macrotyloma uniflorum). Alongside these crops there was evidence for the use, at a smaller scale and perhaps by selected communities, of introduced non-monsoonal crops such as wheat and barley, and the adoption of hyacinth bean. The evidence for African millets, including pearl millet and finger millet has been, however, very limited, and their precise dating remains problematic.


On the basis of published information about vegetation zones in the region and palaeoclimatic change, it is suggested that the dry deciduous forest and woodland and their transition into the wet deciduous vegetation to the west were probably some of the areas where the wild progenitors of the native crops flourished in prehistoric times. With regard to species ecology, it is woodland openings (natural and anthropogenic) and forest edges within these vegetation environments where pulses would have found suitable habitats. For the millets, streamside habitats, open grasslands, savannas and the lower hillslopes are in turn very likely growing areas.


Of particular importance is the postulated mid-Holocene (fifth to fourth mill. BC) phase of increased humidity, which could have favoured forest expansion and thus the spread of wet deciduous woodland outside its present geographic limits on and around the Western Ghats. With the end of this wet phase and as forests gradually retreated (in the period from the mid-fourth millennium BC through the later third millennium), it is likely that the availability of the wild progenitors of crop plants was severely reduced. This reduction of wild plant food sources, together with other pressures on the subsistence base (such as changes in preferred animal habitats and species distributions) could have encouraged some hunting/gathering groups to take up cultivation, in a process comparable (at least in an ecological sense) to that proposed by a number of current interpretations on the beginnings of cultivation in Southwest Asia during the Younger Dryas cold episode at the very end of the Pleistocene (based on the work of Gordon Hillman in the Syrian site of Abu Hureyra).


Any attempt towards understanding the environmental and socioeconomic context of the onset of agriculture in South India relies on the elucidation of the relationship of human societies with the environment. What were the environmental conditions faced by human populations of that time? Ho were they affected by local geography and climate change? How the environment came to be increasingly affected by human action through fuel collection, pastoralism, burning, vegetation clearance and cultivation? To this end, our research into the early agriculture of South India has at its heart the investigation of vegetation change and the exploitation of woodland resources by prehistoric communities. Our principal source of data is provided by the systematic retrieval and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal macro-remains.


Previous analyses of charcoals from Southern Neolithic sites are very limited. A compilation of their results by Vishnu-Mittre and Savitri Ravi, particularly in relation to the sites of Tekkalakota, Sanganakallu and Hallur, shows that in most cases examined specimens were hand-picked from the charred remains that were visible during excavation, without systematic collection of material from floated sediment samples. Such results have, however, little quantitative value and can serve at best as indicators for the presence or absence of plant taxa in the site environs, without providing any information on the relative proportions of the fuel types used in the past. Charcoals have been reported to derive from a number of taxa including Soymida febrifuga, Acacia, Albizia, Anogeissus, Holarrhena and Polyalthia. There is no way to verify these identifications since neither the precise anatomical criteria used for the identifications nor photographs or detailed descriptions of the taxa in question have been included in the relevant publications.


A pilot assessment of samples from three sites that are located in contrasting environmental zones (Hiregudda and Sanganakallu in the Albizia-Acacia thorn scrubland zone, and Hallur in the wet deciduous forest) has revealed that the following taxa were present in these sites.


















Euphorbiaceae (cf. Securinega)






Grewia type



According to these very preliminary results, our model for the ancient distribution of the vegetation zones would seem to be verifiable. The sites associated with ashmounds in the drier Bellary District have all given evidence for the thorn vegetation characteristic of this area. The contrast with Hallur, located in the deciduous forest zone, could not be more obvious. Of course, much more analysis is necessary to obtain reliable results from more sites, and also to get a coherent picture of woodland composition and its temporal and spatial variations.


Our model recognises the Bellary area as part of the dry savanna of the Southern Neolithic. Yet, the exclusive presence so far in the charcoal record only of the two major thorn species strongly suggests that the natural vegetation had already been for many generations under the pressure of human activities, especially grazing and browsing by domestic animal (particularly cattle) herds. The analysis of charcoal remains from earlier phases will hopefully demonstrate the validity of this assumption, with evidence for the progressive impoverishment of woodland vegetation and its domination by thorn species that were unpalatable to domestic animals.


Click here for SEM pictures of ancient charcoals from South Indian archaeological sites.



  Eleni Asouti, 2006


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