A Cradle of Human Civilisation — Part III


Ikram Sehgal and Dr Bettina Robotika

Northeast India is known to have played a great role in the domestication of several food-producing plants essential for man, including rice

There are other places of the stone age human activities in South Asia so far no place has been found that matches the splendour of Mehrgarh. This could be due to the missing archaeological research in those areas. Northeast India, being one of the most diverse regions of Asia in terms of human civilisation through the ages, its strategic location at the junction of South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asian countries and its natural and cultural interconnectivity may explain the cultural diversity of the population inhabiting the area. Its unique climactic conditions with regions having maximum rainfall or being the wettest place in the world, with the associated flora and fauna influencing the life and culture of the people of Northeast India. The area has been referred to as a corridor because it is one of the points where the otherwise segregated subcontinent has been connected to the surrounding areas of Asia over time. From time immemorable people have come here from Tibet, South China and Southeast Asia, this explains its richness of culture and social organisation. Prehistoric studies were of major interest in the pre-independent era. However, archaeologists ignored the northeast region. In independent India, the region has been ignored by archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and the common people as well. The local population is ignorant about their inherent past and the Neolithic culture of Assam has been identified with few tools and pottery collected from different parts of the region. Though some very small-scale excavations were carried out, there is scant evidence about the so-called Neolithic Revolution of this region.
One reason for this may be the unfavourable conditions in Assam, such as its torrents of rain and exuberance of wild vegetation, which makes it almost impossible to penetrate the Jungles of Assam and explore. Thus, there is no dependable chronology of a Neolithic culture and other prehistoric cultures of Northeast India even though, according to expert opinion, this region is known to have played a great role in the domestication of several food-producing plants essential for man, including rice. Archaeologists dealing with global archaeological problems are very interested in the archaeological potential of Northeast India. It is believed that rice is one of India’s oldest crops and grains of both wild and cultivated species occurring in this context help in marking out the stages of evolution from wild to domesticated forms. Botanists base their evidence of the origin of rice largely on the habitats of the wild species as it is presumed that the cultivated species have developed from certain types of wild rice. But as of today, the Neolithic stage of human history was the new way of life for our ancestors that is characterised by the domestication of animals and plants. So far, we have to rely only on some stone tools and a few pieces of pottery found in the Assam region for the Neolithic stage. The three characteristic features of the Neolithic culture in Northeast India viz making of stone axes, producing cord-impressed pottery, and rice agriculture, are more or less similar to the Neolithic cultures of East Asia and Southeast Asia. A.H. Dani (1960) has demonstrated the similarity of stone tools from the various regions of Northeast India with various parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia.
In the Eastern and Central Indian Neolithic scenario, domesticated rice and handmade pottery occurred at Koldihawa and Mahagara are within the Neolithic levels. Other places of Neolithic findings are Burzahom in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK), the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, the Ayad Valley site in Rajasthan, Brahmagiri in Karnataka and Chirand in Bihar.
The Neolithic site of Burzahom on an elevated plot between the Dal Lake and the Zabarvan Hills was the first Neolithic site to be discovered; subsequently, Gufkral, Brah, Begagund, Waztal, Thajiwor and other sites were discovered in Kashmir. Burzahom translates to “home of the birch tree;” mud-brick structures, as well as mud pits, found here point to the existence of a Neolithic settlement. Apart from several metal and terracotta remains, recovered artefacts include a female skull with 11 attempts at trepanation (surgical operation) that point to medicinal or conversely magical practices of the people. Also, a stone slab with an engraving depicting hunting scenes and two suns has led to a theory of this slab being the oldest sky chart to record an existing supernova, according to some astronomers.
The Bhimbetka caves mark the beginning of the South Asian Stone Age and are among the earliest proof of the existence of life on the Indian subcontinent. These shelters were inhabited by a Homo Erectus species around 300,000 years ago and are filled with paintings and murals that chronicle, among other things, the existence of dance amongst humans, instruments used by the tribe, and etchings of wild animals such as bison, tigers and rhinoceroses. The excavations so far do not suggest a civilisation at par with the findings in Mehrgarh, Balochistan.
The most recently discovered prehistoric site is the Ahar or Ayad valley civilisation, it was inhabited by humans around 2000 BC. Like the Harappan civilisation, the Ahar civilisation produced ceramics items like toys, utensils, as well as copper and bronze items. An ancient copper mine has been excavated which proves the technique of extracting zinc is very similar to contemporary techniques.
A Microlithic, Neolithic and Iron Age site of a later civilisation that flourished from 1000 BC-200 BC in Brahmagiri. It is situated in the current Chitradurga district of Karnataka, in itself a city attached to the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Brahmagiri was the southernmost tip of the Mauryan Empire, and a rock edict with Ashok’s message for peace still provides validation of its place in Mauryan history. Artefacts from all three ages of civilisations have been found here, which include 300 rectangular granite tombs with etchings in ochre, stone beads, rare crescents and gravers made from jasper, agate carnelian and opal from the Megalithic era; and jewellery in glass, shell, clay and gold from 100 BC. The fertile area of Chirand in Saran district of modern-day Bihar (at the confluence of the rivers Sarayu and Ganga) reveals the prevalence of food cultivation, crops such as wheat, barley, lentils, as well as a large number of bone-made tools and ornaments. Artefacts excavated here include blades, arrow-heads and hammers, made with basalt, quartzite and granite.
A total of 84 Neolithic sites have been identified in West Bengal. The nature and distribution of Neolithic records in West Bengal suggest two focal areas of Neolithic culture with opposite patterns of development. They are the Himalayan foothills (comprising Kalimpong and adjacent Sikkim State) and the plateau fringe area (comprising the districts of Midnapur, Bankura, Purulia, Burdwan and Birbhum). In the plateau fringe area, Neolithic sites are found all along on the riverbanks or near rivers. But in the Himalayan foothill region, sites are found along the hill terraces. Neolithic tools with a distinct ceramic industry (grey and pale redware, sometimes with cord impression) characterise the Neolithic culture of the Plateau fringe area, whereas Himalayan foothill Neolithic culture is characterised by Neolithic tools without ceramics.
Findings from Bangladesh have yielded stone age artefacts as well. Sites are the Lalmai hills near Comilla, Chaklapunji Tea Garden of Chunarughat in the Habiganj district of Sylhet, Sitakunda and Rangamati of the Chittagong region, and the Wari-Bateshwar of Narshingdi district.
None of the here mentioned sites matches Mehrgarh. So far, only Mehrgarh has been excavated and researched with some consistency, but other places in South Asia could bring to light other stone age civilisations. That is why for the time being, it would be important to preserve the remnants of Mehrgarh more consistently. That is a task not only for the provincial govt of Balochistan but for all of Pakistan.