North-East India: A Neolithic Enigma (4000 - 1000 BCE)

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    Once a corridor for cultures, sadly Assam and the North East of India are still largely, what archaeologist Prof M K Dhavalikar famously called, ‘terra incognita’ – a region that has not been mapped or documented. Thick, wild forests that make exploration difficult and excavation almost impossible, and communities that still have strong tribal roots with no written history, make the work of archaeologists even more difficult. No wonder the region has traditionally been more a laboratory for anthropologists than archaeologists.

    But things have changed a little, thanks to the pioneering efforts of archaeologist T C Sharma and the teams who followed him. In fact, as recently as 2017, a study using the latest technology helped date one of the early Neolithic sites there.

    Now we know that Neolithic life in the region goes back at least 6,000 years, if not more.

    What’s more, after decades of excavations, experts even believe that the earliest domestication of rice could have taken place in a region that stretched from South China to North East India.

    The Neolithic Age is defined by a new way of life, as humans started domesticating animals and plants, and also developed pottery. In the Indian subcontinent, the oldest Neolithic culture was excavated at the site of Mehrgarh in Balochistan (present-day Pakistan), dateable to 8000 BCE. Over the next few millennia, Neolithic cultures began to sprout all over – from Kashmir to Karnataka and Rajasthan to Assam. The dates, however, vary considerably.

    Modern archaeological research has in the last decade reported Neolithic sites from all the eight states of North East India.

    Early Discoveries

    The first discovery of a Neolithic artifact in Assam took place way back in the 1860s, when a British tea planter, W Haly, found a blue jadeite celt (a long, thin, polished stone axe) with a tribal man, Namsang Naga. This find was reported by Sir John Lubbock of London University in 1867. Following this, hoards of such Neolithic implements were reported from across the North-Eastern region.

    However, the first systematic archaeological excavation in the region was conducted only in 1961, at the site of Daojali Hading in Dima Hasao District, in the south-eastern part of Assam, by archaeologists M C Goswami and T C Sharma. Their work revealed a site with a single cultural layer around 45 cm thick.

    It had axes, hoes, chisels, querns, mullers, pestles, all made of indurated shale, sandstone and fossil wood. Goswami and Sharma later reported that the presence of 22 grinding slabs (querns) suggested that the area was a factory site. It also indicated a very solid development of food-processing techniques.

    Also unearthed from this single cultural layer was pottery. It was simple, handmade (not made using a wheel as traditional pottery is made) and ranged in color from grey to dull red. The decorations on it were mainly cord-marked (impressions made with rope). In addition, a minor type of dull-red, stamped ware was found.

    After further research, Sharma noted a four-fold cultural sequence at the site: 1) Hoabinhian 2) Early Neolithic 3) Late Neolithic and 4) Aneolithic.

    The ‘Hoabinhian tradition’ is named after the site of Hoa Binh in Vietnam. The term is used to describe stone artifact assemblages found in South East Asia (dated c. 10,000–2000 BCE). Sharma strongly believed that the Neolithic personality of the North East emerged under a strong influence of Chinese and South East Asian Neolithic cultures.

    This cultural similarity shouldn’t be surprising as the geographical location of North East India has ensured that it has been a cultural bridge connecting South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia. In fact, D K Medhi, Professor at Guwahati University, quite rightly terms this territory as the ‘Great Indian Corridor’ for the prehistoric and proto-historic movements of people from and to its neighbouring regions.

    Despite all this information dug up through excavations, archaeologists still weren’t able to date the artifacts for the longest time. Until very recently.

    Sukanya Sharma, Professor of Archaeology at IIT-Guwahati and daughter of T C Sharma, tells us how there was a breakthrough in 2017, “For the first time, with the use of the technique of infrared-stimulated luminescence dating, it was confirmed that the corded pottery and polished stone tools recovered during excavations in Daojali Hading site are 2,700 years-old. Those recovered from the Gawak Abri site in Garo Hills of Meghalaya are 2,300 years old.” She and her colleague, Pankaj Singh, had jointly conducted the study.

    Archaeological Hotspots

    In the context of North East Indian archaeology, the Garo Hills are the most important as the largest number of Neolithic sites are located here. Systematic excavations here began in 1963 in sites such as Selbalgiri, Rangigir and Thusekgiri, and more than 1,000 stone implements of various categories were collected including shouldered celts, which were particularly known in the Eastern Asian Neolithic tradition.

    Also, the raw material for making tools in the Garo Hills is rather unique. Over 90 percent of the tools found were made of igneous rock called ‘dolerite’ (a variant of basalt), a locally available, compact, fine-grained rock of dark grey colour. Besides the Garo Hills, it is only in the Deccan region of Central India, especially in Maharashtra, that Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) men used dolerite to make Acheulian tools. While the Deccan men later used better quality silicious stones to make flake and blade tools, it seems like the prehistoric men in the Garo Hills preferred dolerite during all cultural periods, from the earliest to the latest.

    In Manipur, another site, Napachik, located on a small hillock in Wangu village (70 km from Imphal), is a significant one. Excavated by O K Singh in 1981, it yielded a number of tripod (three-legged) wares. This once again iterated the region’s strong links with South East Asia, where such ceramic shapes are common.

    Mostly reddish-brown in colour, this type of three-legged pottery has also been found from a mound at Ban Kao, a small inland settlement in Thailand, dated to 2000 BCE. Among the tripod legs discovered at Napachik, there is a solid, flat leg that resembles the ring tripod type of the late Neolithic of South China.

    Stone Age assemblages were also found at stray sites across the valleys of the Haora and Khowai rivers near Agartala in Tripura by geologist N R Ramesh in 1981-82. The Neolithic cultural phase has been dated to 3450 BCE by the Carbon 14 method. The celts found here bear a close resemblance to those of the Anyathian prehistoric tradition of Burma.

    Tiatoshi Jamir, Professor at Nagaland University, who has led excavations in Nagaland, has brought out some interesting facts from the region, indicating a ‘pre-Neolithic’ settlement here from about 3800 BCE. At the Ranyak Khen cave, about 780 mt above sea level (near the Indo-Myanmar border), his team uncovered, besides cord-marked pottery, some bone tools, edge-grinding tools from river pebbles and a human burial. A large limestone boulder was seen resting right over the burial, which caused some hindrance to the excavation. However, there was no evidence of animal domestication or agriculture. This site was therefore assigned to the early pre-Neolithic context.

    Excavations were conducted during 2013–2014 at the sites of Lawnongthroh-1 in Ri- Bhoi District of the Khasi Hills and Myrkhan-1 in the East-Khasi Hills in Meghalaya by Marco Mitri and Dhiraj Neog. There are two cultural layers at the site Lawnongthroh and the four samples of charcoal sent for C14 dates produced dates ranging from 960 BCE at the lowest layer to 280 CE at the upper layer.

    Cultural materials of Lawnongthroh were recovered uniformly from all trenches. These cultural materials comprise different types of ground stone tools such as axes of round/ pointed/ splayed cutting edge, adze, blade/knives, shouldered and tanged types. The second excavation is being conducted at the site of Myrkhan-1 in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. A large number of semi-finished tools, a number of tools and other artifacts including ceramics have been recovered. The site has also revealed a date of 1500 BCE.

    Many sites across the North-Eastern region of India yield evidence of slash-and-burn cultivation or shifting cultivation, like charcoal deposits found at Sarutaru site in Assam, Locally known as jhum, this agricultural practice is used even today. This shows the continuance of traditions.

    Many prehistoric practices continue right up to the present-day and many have been discontinued only in the last 50 to 100 years. One such tradition recorded by Chumbeno Ngullie and her team in Nagaland belongs to the Chang tribe. At Tuensang village, there is a natural cave filled with human skulls. Till about 50 years ago, the Changs used to either expose dead bodies on a raised platform or bury them under the kitchen floor until they decomposed completely. After this, the skull was separated from the body and kept in the rock shelter on the outskirts of the village.

    Domestication of Rice

    One significant discovery over the last few decades is the growing evidence to show that rice may have been first domesticated here. Archaeologists consider it to be one of the most widely cultivated crops in the region since early Neolithic times. Furthering this, environmental scientist T T Chang from China recognised the area between North India and the Pacific coast of Vietnam and Southern China to be the origin of rice agriculture.

    Manjil Hazarika, who has researched the prehistory and archaeology of North East India in detail says, “The most recent theories on the origins of rice cultivation based on archaeological data, indicate that it originated in East Asia particularly in the Yangtze basin of China around 10,000 years Before Present (BP). In the Ganga valley of India, the earliest date for rice cultivation has been cited at around 8,000 years B.P. Hence, if we presume that origin of rice cultivation in Ganga valley was due to the cultural influence of Yangtze basin, we can predict a date for the origin of rice in Northeast India as it lies between China and the Ganga valley...We can not ignore the possibility that rice cultivation may have originated in this particular region (i.e. NE India) only because of the lack of evidence of rice in northeast India, as most parts of the river valleys have thick alluvium deposits which thereby prevent archaeological exploration at great depths.”

    Cultural Bridge

    This brings us back to how much North East India has in common with South East Asia. The region’s population is closely connected thanks to continuous migrations of people from Tibet, Indo-Gangetic India, the Himalayas, present Bangladesh and Myanmar, since the earliest times. The first group of migrants to settle in this part of the country was perhaps the Austro-Asiatic language-speaking people who came here from South-East Asia. The second group of migrants came to Assam from the north, north-east and east. They were mostly the Tibeto-Burman language-speaking people. On the basis of archaeological affinity, it can be correlated that the expansion of the culture and migration of the people of China and South East Asia happened during the Neolithic period.

    From about the 5th century BCE, there also started a trickle of migration by people speaking Indo-Aryan languages from the Ganga Valley and other parts of Northern India. After this, we have the emergence of iron-using cultures in the Brahmaputra Valley, which continue into the modern period. These waves of people also continued well into medieval times. For instance, the Ahom rulers of Assam were the descendants of the Tai clan (from present-day Yunan province of China) and are said to have migrated to the Brahmaputra Valley from present-day Myanmar in the 13th century.

    For decades, field archaeology in North East India was considered problematic and challenging. Besides the hilly terrain and wild forests, there was also institutional apathy towards this part of India. But things are looking brighter. In the last few years, a number of scholars from the region who have trained at archaeological institutions like the Deccan College, Pune, have begun to carry out systematic explorations and small scale excavations at numerous sites along the length and breadth of North East India.

    These explorations and excavations stress the importance of learning the origins of human settlement, culture and ecology across the North East. The context within which they are looking at this region is also new. They are looking at this zone as a conduit between the East; China and South East Asia. It was a bridge for the movement of ideas and people along with their cultures and technology.

    Many thanks to Dr. Sukanya Sharma, IIT Guwahati

    This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

    This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

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