Dating the Neolithic of South India: New Radiometric Evidence for Key Economic, Social and Ritual Transformations

Article excerpt

The Neolithic period in South India is known for its ashmounds, superseded (in its Iron Age) by megalith builders with craft specialisation. Thanks to a major radiocarbon dating programme and Bayesian analysis of the dates, the authors have placed this sequence in a new chronological framework: the ashmounds, formed by burning cattle dung, are created by a few generations of people. In many cases the mounds are then succeeded by villages, for which they may have acted as founding rituals. The new tightly dated sequence also chronicles the cultivation of particular crops, some indigenous and some introduced from Africa.

Keywords: Neolithic, South Asia, South India, ashmounds, megaliths


The Deccan plateau of South India is a large, arid region featuring rich Neolithic period remains (see Figure 1). Focused in particular on the often spectacular granite hills that dot an otherwise largely featureless landscape, South Indian Neolithic sites reveal a unique manifestation of the transition to sedentism together with early pastoral mobility. The region's ashmound sites (Figure 2), consisting of large accumulations of vitrified and non-vitrified cattle dung ash are argued to have been created during the course of ritual activities (Allchin 1963; Paddayya 1991-92; 2000-2001; Korisettar et al. 2001a; Boivin 2004a; Johansen 2004). South India is also of interest for its subsequent Megalithic phase, which is marked by the creation of a large number and diverse variety of stone built burial monuments (Figure 3) and stone alignments (Allchin 1956; Leshnik 1974; Sundara 1975). These are generally thought to testify to a more complex and hierarchical society (Moorti 1994; Brubaker 2001; Mohanty & Selvakumar 2001), and are attributed by some to the arrival of immigrants into the area (e.g. Leshnik 1974). However, the relationship between the period of Megalithic burials, focused on the first millennium BC, and the Neolithic period, which appears to fall within the third and second millennia BC, remains unclear. In addition, phasing within these periods, especially the two millennia of the Neolithic period, and its implications for changing social and economic systems, is still poorly resolved.


After a lull in Southern Neolithic studies from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, the last decade has seen a re-emergence of interest in the Neolithic developments of South India. Recent investigations have focused, for example, on elucidating agricultural developments and origins (Fuller et al. 2001; 2004; Fuller 2003a; Fuller & Korisettar 2004), lithic production techniques (Paddayya 1993a; 1993b; DuFresne et al. 1998; Brumm et al. 2006), the relationship between sites and landscapes (Boivin 2004a), the role of rock art and ringing rocks (Boivin 2004b), and the early distribution of Dravidian languages (Fuller 2003b; Southworth 2005). Interestingly, recent years have also seen the emergence of a number of debates, focused on the nature of Neolithic site occupations, the evidence for different site types, and potential models of how these sites fit together into a settlement system. In particular, the ashmound debate has polarised those who argue that ashmound sites are always seasonal encampments of mobile herders, or transhumant segments of agricultural villages (e.g. Allchin 1963; Fuller et al. 2001; Korisettar et al. 2001 a), and those who regard ashmounds as a component of typical sedentary village sites (e.g. Paddayya 1991-92; 2000-2001; 2002; Devaraj et al. 1995; Johansen 2004).



Much of the recent debate in Southern Neolithic archaeology relies on evidence collected during excavations and research conducted from the late 1950s to the early 1970s (see Korisettar et al. 2001 a for a review). It was during this period that radiocarbon dating techniques were first applied in Indian archaeology. …