Neolithic Period

views updated Jun 11 2018


NEOLITHIC PERIOD A general term used by archaeologists, "Neolithic" (or New Stone Age) identifies cultural adaptations that involve the transition from mobile hunting-gathering strategies to sedentism and the domestication of plants and animals. Numerous different Neolithic transitions were taking place in South Asia, but there are only a few regions that have evidence for the initial processes that led to the domestication of animals and plants. In the northwestern subcontinent, the regions of Afghanistan and Baluchistan provide the earliest evidence for the use of domesticated sheep or goats, cattle (humped zebu), and wheat and barley between 9000 and 7000 b.c. In other regions, mobile hunter-gatherers continued to live by hunting and gathering a broad spectrum of animals and plants, but they began to settle down in large communities near these abundant resources. These Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) communities continued quite late in some parts of the world, and in South Asia the evidence for long-term Mesolithic adaptations is seen in the Gangetic region. In the subsequent Gangetic Neolithic period, there is evidence for domesticated rice and possibly a separate episode of cattle domestication. The Southern Neolithic of peninsular India may represent the initial domestication of local millets and also of cattle, though there may be a connection between the cattle of the middle Ganga and those of South India. In Kashmir, the Neolithic sites of Burzahom and Gufkral may represent connections to a separate Neolithic transition linked to Tibet and China. Other regions that have yet to be fully explored are the Chotanagpur Plateau and the southern Gangetic Plain in Bihar and Bengal, as well as northeastern India in Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur.

Northwestern Neolithic

In the northwestern subcontinent, between 20,000 and 15,000 b.c., Upper Paleolithic communities in the Aq Kupruk area had begun to focus their hunting on wild sheep and goats as well as cattle, and they may have begun gathering wild grains such as wheat and barley. Between 9000 and 8000 b.c., the first evidence of domestic sheep or goats and possibly cattle has been found at the cave sites of Gar-i-Mar and Gar-i-Asp, Aq Kupruk, Afghanistan. These communities did not produce pottery and were still involved in hunting and probably gathered wild grains, but they provide important evidence that the processes leading to domestication were occurring in this region at about the same time as in the Near East.

The preceramic Neolithic sites of Afghanistan provide a clue to the importance of this region, but the site of Mehrgarh, in Pakistan, gives a much clearer picture of the complex processes leading to a sedentary lifestyle based on domestic plants and animals. The transition at Mehrgarh was part of a larger process occurring throughout Baluchistan and Afghanistan, and extending all the way to the Zagros Mountains and the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East. In Baluchistan the earliest agricultural settlements have not been located, but excavations at the site of Kili Gul Mohammad (4600–3900 b.c.), near Quetta, suggest that the earliest communities in the highlands may have harvested wild or cultivated cereal grains and possibly managed sheep, goat, and cattle herds. With the approach of winter, many communities would have moved through the passes with their herds and bags filled with grain to spend the winter next to the rivers or springs along the piedmont. Today, winters in the Kachi Plain are quite pleasant, with only occasional frost, but the summers are unbearably hot and dry. In the past, from 16,000 to 7000 b.c., there may have been a slightly stronger summer monsoon and more seasonal variation in temperature. Over time, communities began to cultivate grain crops on the plains. These crops were probably planted in October, at the end of the summer monsoon, and were watered by the winter rains in December and January. The annual migration back to the highlands would have taken place after the spring harvest in much the same pattern as we see today among agro-pastoral communities living in the Kachi Plain.

Mehrgarh is located at the foot of the Bolan Pass that connects the highland plateaus of Baluchistan to the Kachi Plain at the edge of the Indus Valley. From around 7000 b.c., the initial settlers used wild as well as cultivated barley and grew domestic wheat, but they relied primarily on hunted wild game, with only a few examples of domestic goat. Wild game included gazelle, deer, pigs, sheep, and goats, as well as larger animals such as wild cattle, water buffalo, and onagers. Even elephants may have been hunted; a large tusk was found in one of the early houses. An important wild fruit that was collected is the jujube, a plumlike fruit that ripens in the spring. This fruit can be dried or preserved as sweet chutney. Date seeds found at the site indicate the collection of summer crops, but it is not possible to determine if they are from wild or domestic plants. At first the site was inhabited seasonally, and through repeated flooding from the nearby Bolan River and subsequent rebuilding, the mound grew to a height of over 33 feet (10 m). By 5500 b.c. agriculture and animal husbandry became more important. The use of sheep, goats, and cattle increased, with the humped variety of cattle, Bos indicus being the most important. Although it is not clear if sheep and goats were domesticated indigenously or brought in from the Zagros to the west, the humped zebu was locally domesticated, and recent genetic studies show that it is distinct from the nonhumped cattle (Bos taurus) of the Near East.

The first inhabitants of Mehrgarh used stone blades, polished stone adzes, and bone tools, but no pottery was produced. Numerous ash layers filled with fire-cracked rock indicate that some foods, such as grain and stews, were cooked in skins or baskets with hot rocks. The earliest inhabitants were, however, familiar with the plastic properties of clay; they made small clay figurines and small unfired clay containers, as well as hand-formed mud bricks. Most of the evidence for early grains comes from impressions of wheat and barley preserved in the mud bricks. Mud-brick houses separated by refuse dumps and passageways were oriented in different directions and not as a planned settlement. The earliest houses were square or rectangular and were subdivided into four or more internal rooms. Later structures had larger rooms with numerous internal subdivisions set below the floor level for storage of grain and other valuable commodities.

Although the early inhabitants may have left the site for short periods, they buried their dead in open spaces between the houses and over time built new houses on top of earlier burials. The graves were made by digging a vertical shaft, then excavating a side chamber in which the corpse was placed, lying on its side in a flexed position. Funerary offerings were placed around the head or at the feet of the individual, and they often included a variety of ornaments. In many of the earliest burials, dating to about 6500 b.c., young goats were slaughtered and buried with the dead, a practice that has also been noted at other Neolithic sites in Baluchistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Utilitarian objects were included with the dead, presumably for use in the afterlife. Men were often buried with polished stone adzes, blades, and blade cores, while some of the female burials had bone and antler tools, baskets coated with bitumen, lumps of red ochre, and grinding stones. Ornaments were included in the burials of men and women as well as children. The most common ornaments were necklaces, bracelets, and anklets made of various types of beads, using locally available yellow-brown limestone as well as exotic materials: azure blue lapis lazuli, blue-green turquoise, black unfired steatite, white fired steatite, red-orange carnelian, banded agate, and various colors of marine shell. A single copper or malachite bead was found in one of the burials, but no other precious metals were used at this time.

Wide shell bangles made from a single large conch shell (Turbinella pyrum) and worn by women on the forearm have also been found in the earliest burials. This species of shell was probably traded up the Indus Valley from the Makran coast near modern Karachi, some 310 miles (500 km) to the south. Many of the marine shells and pendants made from mother-of-pearl (Pinctada) may have come from areas farther to the west along the Makran coast, and possibly even from across the Persian Gulf in Oman. Copper and malachite, as well as banded agates, probably came from central and northern Afghanistan; lapis lazuli was brought from the far northern mountains of Afghanistan, and turquoise from northeastern Iran. These different varieties of ornaments indicate that long-distance trade networks had been established as early as 7000 b.c., linking the coastal regions of the Indus Valley with the interior plains and on into the highlands of Baluchistan and Afghanistan. Numerous sites like Mehrgarh were scattered along the edges of the Indus Valley, and by 5500 b.c. they had established the basic subsistence economy, the trade networks, and patterns of craft specialization that set the foundation for later Chalcolithic cultures.

Gangetic Neolithic

Settled agriculture in the central Gangetic Plain emerges from indigenous Mesolithic communities that appear to have settled in large villages, with a focus on the hunting of wild cattle and the collection of grains such as wild rice. At the site of Koldihwa, early evidence for cattle and domestic rice has been confirmed by the discovery of numerous other sites. At Mahagara, the earliest Neolithic village had circular huts made of reeds and mud plaster, with a large central pen for keeping cattle. The animal bones from the site include sheep or goats and cattle as well as wild animals. Because the remains of animal bones are fragmentary, it is possible that the sheep or goat bones could have come from gazelle or antelope, but there is no question that the cattle remains represent domestic animals because of the presence of a pen filled with cattle hoof prints. Stone blades and ground stone axes were used, along with bone and antler tools. Pottery, made with basket or cord impressions as decoration on the exterior, has impressions of rice grains in the clay. The earliest dates from Koldihwa suggest that rice and cattle were being domesticated around 6700 to 4500 b.c., but the charcoal used for dating may belong to a hearth from the earlier phase of occupation. Additional charcoal samples from both Koldihwa and Mahagara, combined with dates from other sites with similar material culture, place the occupation of Koldihwa and Mahagara between 2400 and 1700 b.c.

Southern Neolithic

Neolithic transitions in South India are the result of similar processes seen in other regions, but the plants and animals are somewhat different. There is also more variation in the material culture because the sites are located in a large area of the central Deccan Plateau (Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu), with some settlements scattered along the Andhra coast. The earliest date comes from the lowest levels of Watgal, Karnataka (2900–2600 b.c.). Two major types of sites have been identified. Ash mound sites such as Utnur and Kodekal are the result of repeated accumulations and burning of cattle dung. Some habitation areas are found alongside the ash mounds, but in other areas like Watgal, the site is not associated with an ash mound. Early scholars argued that the people who established these sites were semi-nomadic herders who migrated to the Deccan from northeastern Iran, but this view is no longer supported. In fact, the pottery and stone tool technology appears to be the result of local processes not at all related to the Indus Valley or Gujarat to the northwest. Urn burials of infants and some adults are also found in association with ash mounds and habitation sites.

While detailed studies have not been conducted on the cattle bones, some scholars suggest that the bones represent two different breeds, which may have been domesticated locally. Sheep and goat bones have been reported, but as mentioned for the Gangetic sites, these bones are easily confused with gazelle and antelope. The most convincing evidence for local domestication comes from the botanical remains of indigenous millets, grams, and pulses (edible seeds of certain bean and lentil crops). Earlier reports of African millets in the early Neolithic have proven to be unfounded. Tubers were also collected and processed at the sites.

In the later Neolithic and early Iron Age sites in South India, there is evidence for the introduction of African millets, wheat, and barley, as well as the horse, that would have come from Gujarat or farther north. This evidence of northern contacts may have begun quite early, based on the presence of copper tools that would also have been traded from the Aravalli region of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Overall, the Southern Neolithic represents a combination of indigenous subsistence strategies that eventually incorporated external subsistence practices and cultural traditions. One of the main questions that scholars need to address is the relationship between these early Neolithic communities and later Dravidian-speaking peoples.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer

See alsoChalcolithic (Bronze) Age ; Goddess Images ; Indus Valley Civilization


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views updated Jun 11 2018

Ne·o·lith·ic / ˌnēəˈli[unvoicedth]ik/ • adj. Archaeol. of, relating to, or denoting the later part of the Stone Age, when ground or polished stone weapons and implements prevailed. ∎  [as n.] (the Neolithic) the Neolithic period. Also called New Stone Age.


views updated May 17 2018

Neolithic of, relating to, or denoting the later part of the Stone Age, when ground or polished stone weapons and implements prevailed. In the Neolithic period farm animals were first domesticated and agriculture was introduced, beginning in the Near East by the 8th millennium bc and spreading to northern Europe by the 4th millennium bc. Neolithic societies in NW Europe left such monuments as causewayed camps, henges, long barrows, and chambered tombs.


views updated May 18 2018

Neolithic (New Stone Age) Period in human cultural development following the Palaeolithic. The Neolithic began c.8000 bc in w Asia and c.4000 bc in Europe. During this period people first lived in settled villages, domesticated animals, cultivated cereal crops, and ground stone and flint.


views updated May 29 2018

Neolithic The New Stone Age, beginning in the Middle East approximately 9000 BC and lasting until 6000 BC, during which humans first developed agriculture. Grinding and polishing of stone tools was also practised.