Skeletal Variation among Mesolithic People of the Ganga Plains: New Evidence of Habitual Activity and Adaptation to Climate

Article excerpt

THE PREHISTORIC CULTURAL PERIOD KNOWN AS MESOLITHIC initially referred to a hiatus in the record of human technological achievement, separating Paleolithic from Neolithic cultures in Europe. By the 1880s, as this cultural discontinuity was slowly filling with evidence of miniature stone tools, the term microlithic was proposed for this period of cultural decline following the Upper Paleolithic florescence in technology, painting, and sculpture (Kennedy 2000). Today, while some scholars question the utility of broad, culture-phase nomenclature, the label Mesolithic typically refers to cultures characterized by several key technological and adaptive characteristics, including: (1) miniature stone tools (microliths), (2) increased reliance on composite tools (sickles, bow and arrow), (3) increased subsistence diversity, including reliance on plants, fish, and birds, (4) larger and more sedentary settlements, and (5) enhanced regional variation and cultural diversification.

In India, Mesolithic cultures exhibit high regional diversity as one aspect of successful adaptations to such ecologically distinctive habitats as the arid zone of the Thar Desert, the humid tropics of Sri Lanka, and the high rainfall, wooded regions of eastern India. V. N. Misra (1996) notes that Mesolithic sites in India are larger, better preserved, and more numerous than their Paleolithic antecedents, in part because they are more recent in time, but also because Holocene geomorphic disturbances have been minimal. Knowledge of Mesolithic cultural adaptations in India is dramatically enhanced over preceding cultural phases by the presence--for the first time in Indian prehistory--of an abundant and informative series of human skeletal remains.

The functional analysis of artifacts (Petraglia et al. 1999), spatial interpretation of bone and stone scatters (Potts 1988), and taphonomic assessment of faunal remains (Erlandson and Moss 2001) provide valuable insights into the activities and life-ways of prehistoric people. However, when a site also yields the skeletal remains of its human occupants, an additional highly informative and unique source of data becomes available for reconstructing past life-ways. For example, demographic data on the age and sex structure of mortuary samples may be associated with population density, disease load, and level of hygiene (Storey 1992), physical attributes of individual specimens, such as stature and skeletal robusticity, may provide anatomical clues regarding growth rates, mobility, and adaptation to climatic extremes (Pearson 2000), and skeletal and dental evidence of disease provides insight into the prevalence of growth disruption, infectious disease, and oral health conditions (Hillson 2000, 2001; Roberts and Manchester 1995).

In keeping with the theme of this volume--rethinking South Asian archaeology--this contribution adopts an analytic paradigm known as bioarchaeology, and uses it to better understand the activities and adaptations of the Mesolithic inhabitants of North India. Bioarchaeology is the analysis of human skeletons from past populations within an interpretive framework that includes attention to both the cultural and the geophysical context of those remains. An abridged summary of bioarchaeological method and theory by Larsen includes a synthesis of primary research accomplishments of this dynamic approach to human osteology (Larsen 1997). Typically the focus of bioarchaeological research is wide ranging and may include analysis of mortuary sites (Gamble et al. 2001; Robb et al. 2001), gender differences in dietary patterns (Lukacs 1996), variation in health status across social groups (Walker and Hewlett 1990; Walker et al. 1998) or subsistence transitions (Lukacs and Walimbe 1998; Lukacs et al. 2001). This study examines variation in the marks that muscular attachments leave on bone (musculoskeletal stress markers), arthritic degeneration of articular surfaces of bone (osteoarthritis), the length of limb bones and their relative proportions to one another, and variation in stature reconstructed from long bone lengths. …