Sunday, November 18, 2018

Prehistoric cultural landscapes of Karnataka, India: Western Raichur Doab

The Indian subcontinent is formed of diverse ecological regions that have helped shape distinct regional cultural adaptations over the last several millennia, including settlement patterns and local human ecology. I understood this fundamental fact during my M.A. in Archaeology in 2012 and when I started my PhD in 2014 (Arjun 2018), I was faced with the dilemma of narrowing down on a specific regional context for my research. Eventually, I began my dissertation archaeological fieldwork in 2013 by focusing on three different regions of Karnataka: 1) Raichur Doab 2) Brahmagiri and 3) Koppa (Figure 1). The first two regions are in the semi-arid Deccan plateau and the third in the Western Ghats. These two climatic regions are characterized by very low rainfall and high rainfall respectively and thus have very different ecologies, types of rocks and minerals, formation of hills and valleys, rivers and even the kinds of archaeological sites found within. Over five years of fieldwork in these areas, I was able to make numerous observations on the emergence of regional landscapes and cultural patterns, as societies adapted to these varied ecological conditions. In this post, I will focus on the western part of the Raichur Doab. 

Figure 1: Map of Karnataka and regional studies by the author. 1) Western part of Raichur Doab; 2) Brahmagiri landscape and settlement survey project; 3) Koppa Archaeological research project. Map after source NBSS& LUP, Nagpur, India.

I will be talking about the prehistoric period, a time-period that predates the existence of historical texts and other records. Typically, during this period, people lived in small hunting-gathering or early agricultural communities and used a range of stone tools. To give you a brief overview of this span of human history, I have included a table that summarizes widely accepted periodization below:
Time period
Stone Tools used
Social organization
Early Palaeolithic
1.5 million – 2 lakh years ago
Choppers, cleavers and hand axes (mainly core and bifacial tools)
Mobile hunter gatherers
Middle Palaeolithic
2 lakh – 40,000 years ago
Scrapers, points, and borer (Flake based tools)
Mobile hunter gatherers
Late Palaeolithic
40,000 – 10,000 years ago
Blades (range up to 10 cm in length), points, borers with microliths (at exceptional sites; Jwalapuram and Mehtakheri)
Mobile hunter gatherers
10,000 – 3,000 BCE
Mobile hunter gatherers, perhaps seasonally settled
3000 – 1200 BCE
Dolerite celts (axes and chisels), ring stone and pestles and blades/ microliths 
Sedentary, agricultural and pastoral societies 
Iron Age
1200 – 300 BCE
Dolerite celts and microliths during its early centuries and full-fledged iron tools such as daggers, javelins, axes, arrows/ spear heads etc.
Agricultural, pastoral and hierarchical societies with megalithism (honouring the dead with stone tombs)
Early Historic
300 BCE – 500 CE
A range of stone and metal tools and crafts.
Fully settled, agricultural societies. The establishment of cities and a ruling class (kings etc.)

Figure 3: Microliths in chert and chalcedony (site of Nilavanji on the right bank of Krishna). A) blades less than 50 mm B) exceeding 50 mm C) notched blade. Photo by author (Arjun 2018). Microlithic technology/ industry consists mainly of micro-tools such as microblades and bladelets (with a cutting edge on one or both sides), Which were prepared on rocks such as quartz, quartzite, chert, jasper, agate and chalcedony. They usually ranged in size between less than 30 mm to 50 mm.
My explorations began at the granitic lowland denudations of Devadurga, a small town in Raichur District located 10 km south of the river Krishna and on its right bank (Figure 4). It is a landscape of field boulders of pink granitic rocks with pea-size sand covered desert. Topographic sheets call this kind of landscape stony waste (Figure 5). After five days of explorations in 40 - 45° celsius heat and dry wind, I did not find even a single site. Finding granules of various coloured stones amidst sand of granite origin on the surface gave me some relief in the heat! They were of light green, dark green, white and red colour with patination on their surface, suggesting that they were water worn gravels of chert, chalcedony and quartz material. Finding such rocks is not a surprise since they are frequently found in Indian peninsular rivers. Finding such materials in the granitic denudation indicates that someone must have carried them from the rivers Krishna, Tungabhadra or Bhima. The closest is the river Krishna 10 km away and they have a load of gravels on its bed and banks, which are known as high-level gravels [1].

Figure 4: Plotted with green dots are the sites studied across the study area during 2016. They range in age from Middle Palaeolithic to Iron Age. Map generated by author through Garmin maps. 

Figure 5: Lowland denudational landscapes in the granitic regions of Devadurga. Photo by author.

Over seven days of survey, I covered five square kilometres of this stony waste landscape around Devadurga. On the last two days, I identified numerous microliths (datable between 8000 BCE and 3000 BCE) and cores, flakes and blades [2] (Figures 6 and 7) from five primary sites. With timely help from my students, I was able to divide the site into a grid and collect a sample of the entire microlithic assemblage from one of the clusters (Figure 8). This took five of us about four hours of work. After my short research period, I thus concluded that the study of the communities that carried the materials from the riverbanks and adapted to such semi-arid conditions was a subject that needed a serious long-term research project followed by metrical analysis of the microlithic assemblages.

Figure 6: Chert core found in the middle of the stony waste landscapes of Devadurga. Photo by the author.

Figure 7: Cortex backed blade on chert with striation marks from Bairappamaradi site complex, Devadurga. Photo by author (Arjun 2018). 

Figure 8: Microlithic assemblage at a cluster was collected through a systematic grid sampling method. The sampling grid measured 10 x 5 m, which was further divided into 25 blocks, each measuring 1 x 2 m. Photo by author (Arjun 2018). 

I examined many vertical sections of exposed soil that were exposed by sand or rock miners, and not much of archaeological significance was found from those sections except one, indicating at a possible settlement (Figure 9). A layer of rammed stone blocks and potsherds and an intact saucer probably dating to the medieval period (800 CE-1800 CE) was found. This section represented recent geological formations, where there was exfoliation and decomposition of the granitic rocks into pea size gravel spread across the landscape. The subsurface soil is compact due to aridity and hard to loosen, such that I had to employ a hammer to remove the artifact.
Figure 9: Author working on exposing ceramic from the hard and compact section of the granitic hilltop.

The most interesting thing was that all these microlithic sites were associated with axe grinding grooves (Figure 10). Although the blade technology itself is not related to the grooves, the types of blades found at these sites helps us to identify different chronological periods (see table above). These grooves are shallow depressions on the bedrock and stone boulders which were created when stone tools were sharpened or ground. I observed that no artifacts were found associated with the grooves, not even the stone tools that caused the grooves. Axes made on dolerite stones (Figure 11) are characteristic of early agricultural communities (Neolithic; 3000-1200 BCE) and they continued to be used during the Iron Age (1200-300 BCE), although perhaps for shorter time. On the other hand, microlithic blades are found in Mesolithic and Neolithic contexts. In this case, pre-Neolithic microlithic producers were able to adapt to this arid landscape, and by the time of Neolithic period, the site was limited to axe grinding. Now the next question running in my mind was what led people to select such a landscape and limited their activities to the making and processing of stone tools?

Figure 10: Axe grinding grooves on the granitic boulders, datable to the Neolithic and later. Photo by author.

Figure 11: Archaeologist at work, posing with a large dolerite axe from Bilamrayanagudda.

To understand this sequence of cultures future micro level studies are required, and the area needs to be explored systematically. My focus then shifted from the area around Devadurga to the riverbank plains of the Krishna 8-10 kms north and I aimed to cover a distance of 65 kms along the river. It is widely accepted that great civilizations are found on major riverbanks, but this is subject to the vagaries of regional cultural phases and ecological adaptations. For example, Iron Age and Early Historic sites are found on the lower reaches of the Kaveri in Tamil Nadu and not on its upper or middle reaches. Early Historic (300 BCE - 500 CE) towns, forts and religious complexes are found on the middle reaches of the river Krishna in Andhra Pradesh and not its lower reaches. Hundreds of Neolithic and Iron Age sites in the central and southern Deccan plateau are not located close to its rivers but depended on smaller springs and streams. 

Explorations on the right riverbank of the Krishna conducted by Prof. Ravi Korisettar during 1970’s identified Middle Palaeolithic tools (Korisettar 1979) made on some of the materials mentioned above (recent date revisions due to work at Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu indicate that the Middle Palaeolithic could date as far back as 3.85 lakh years ago). I had wondered for a long time why no sites from other periods were found on the right bank when Prof. Paddayya found them on the left bank during the 1960’s (Paddayya 1968). Since the geological formations on either bank are different, the banks of the same river have sheltered different cultural configurations at different periods and at different catchment ranges. For example, what is emerging from my explorations here is that there is an absence of Early/ Lower Palaeolithic/ Acheulian cultures, as well as Neolithic and Iron Age sites on the right bank. Whereas, all these cultural sites are found on the left bank and in the lime stone valleys located close by. Therefore, the widely accepted idea of the existence of ‘major cultures on the banks of major rivers’ requires reassessment.  

The riverbank landscape at middle reaches of Krishna is of rolling plains of alluvial black cotton soil, often with minor granitic knobs on riverbanks. The width of the river often reached a maximum of 1 km (Figure 12), and it used to give me a great feeling standing amidst the dry, sandy, silty, gravel channel bed and looking towards incoming water from the Narayanapura dam located 70 kms upstream. My exploration was designed such that I walked along a zigzag route to cover both of its stream banks and an area along the riverbank. After twenty days of explorations covering 80% of the 65 km river discharge, a good number of sites were recorded on my GPS and maps. These sites included Middle Palaeolithic and microlithic sites, as well as two localities with potential Neolithic and Iron Age evidence in a secondary context [3].

Figure 12: General view of the river Krishna at Devadurga, captured just a few minutes after the water flowed into its course. The channel width is about 900 - 1000 meters here. Photo by author.

New questions were added to my set of old questions about the granitic hills of 
Devadurga. I ambitiously anticipated finding a range of prehistoric sites on the riverbank of the Krishna at Devadurga. I continued to find a similar pattern of the absence of Lower and Upper Palaeolithic sites and settlement sites of the Neolithic and Iron Age. The microlithic sites were again associated with axe grinding grooves, and this time I was lucky to find a single dolerite axe. Nevertheless, they were not particularly helpful in identifying original settlement sites since they were found from a poor secondary context. The first seasons exploration at Devadurga during February 2016 was a very successful venture in bringing to light new sites in a specific regional geological and ecological settings, but fell far short supplementing data for my PhD. In the granitic hills, I was finding evidence of foragers, hunting and gathering communities through the evidence of the microliths.

The second season of fieldwork initiated during June 2016 furnished data on ashmounds, rock art, ceramics, stone tools and other artefacts and added impetus to my questions about the landscapes and settlement systems of the region.  For the second season I decided to move 20 km south off the river Krishna to explore a different geography characterised by dolerite swarms, granodiorite tors and gold bearing schist hills near the Hutti gold mines.
British mining engineers and geologists serving under the then Nizams of Hyderabad were very active in the western part of Raichur Doab as there were hundreds of gold and copper mining companies functioning here (Figure 13). The Raichur Doab was a contested area between the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas, and later under the Vijayanagara and Bahmani empires due to the rich gold deposits found in the area. It has been hypothesized that the quartz reefs and quartz schist of the Dharwars were one of the early gold supplying regions for the Indus valley civilization in the northwest frontier of the Indian subcontinent and that the region was exploited for gold later, during the Neolithic-Chalcolithic and Iron Age. However, these early gold mining sites have not been identified and gold artefacts are underrepresented in the limited excavation of sites dating to this early period.  

Figure 13: Wandalli gold mining factory functioned during the 19th and 20th centuries under the Nizams of Hyderabad. Photo by author.

During my survey, I found dozens of Neolithic and Iron Age sites but they brought with it a greater physical challenge. For about a month it was a daily routine for my field companion and I to climb granodioritic hills / inselbergs (Figure 14) and document diverse archaeological evidence. Since it was in June, we were blessed with southwest monsoon showers for a few minutes every day. Neolithic hill sites seen during the monsoon would convince you that they are one of the most suitable landscapes for agriculture. However, in summer and winter, the conditions are best suited for pastoralism as an alternative to the cultivation of crops. This behaviour is still found in the present demography of Raichur.     

Figure 14: General view of the western portion of Maladkal hill site with Neolithic and Iron Age evidence. Photo by author (Arjun 2018).

We found settlements on the foothills and hilltops with evidence of rock art, burials, ashmounds, dolerite tool workshops, microliths of cryptocrystalline tools, springs and water collection localities, ringing rocks and ritualistic localities etc. (Figure 15). Such a range of activities were commonly found in many of the granodioritic hills/ inselbergs of Lingasuguru and Manvi areas and they all appear to be similar in the way people dispersed their activities within the sites.

  Figure 15: Bruised image of water buffalo and other mammals on the hilltop of Maladkal. Photo by author (Arjun 2018).

My fieldwork has exposed me to a range of new sites and landscapes. The geological formations, vegetation density, natural resources changed every 10 -15 km south of the river Krishna in Devadurga, Lingasuguru and Manvi talukas, and so do the kinds of prehistoric cultures that adapted to these varying regions. Through my work, I began to better understand human-environment interaction at micro levels and this formed the core of my PhD dissertation (Arjun 2018).

Detailed literature of this story can be read from the publications under

Arjun Rao
Assistant Professor,
 School of Business Studies and Social Sciences, 
CHRIST (Deemed to be University), 
Bannerghatta Road Campus, Hulimavu, Bangalore, India.

Arjun, R. 2018. Landscapes and Settlement Pattern of Neolithic and Iron Age Cultures in Raichur Doab. PhD Dissertation. Pune: Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. 
Korisettar, R. 1979. Prehistory and Geomorphology of Middle Krishna, Karnataka. PhD Dissertation. University of Poona: Poona.
Paddayya, K. 1968. Pre and Proto- Historic Investigations Shorapur Doab. PhD Dissertation: University of Poona: Poona.

[1] Robert Bruce Foote in 1876 coined the term high-level gravels referring to unconsolidated coarse gravel deposits near and far from the river channel and distinct from the present flood deposits. The gravels are chiefly composed of quartzite, chert, chalcedony, jasper and quartz. They are found in many river valleys of the Indian peninsula including those of the Bhima, Ghataprabha, Malaprabha, Tungabhadra, Tapi etc.
[2] Flakes are small chips or tools with sharp edges removed/ detached from the pebble. In such cases, the pebble is left with scars of different shapes on it and this is called the ‘Core’. Flakes could be further crafted into any desired shape; particularly flakes with a length more than its width and thin with a cutting edge like a shaving blade/ scalpel are called lithic blades. 
[3] A ‘secondary’ context is defined by archaeologists as a location where we find a deposit of archaeological materials that have been removed from their original location of initial use. This could be the result of climatic erosional forces (wind, flood etc) or due to human disturbance.

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