Hunter-Gatherer Adaptations in Madurai Region, Tamil Nadu, India: From C. 10,000 B.P. to C. A.D. 500

Article excerpt

THE PLEISTOCENE-HOLOCENE TRANSITION witnessed several significant modifications in human adaptation patterns, including a shift to microlithic implements, small-game hunting and gathering, and a highly mobile lifestyle in several parts of the world. The term Mesolithic is widely used to denote this cultural period, which succeeded the Palaeolithic and preceded the emergence of an agropastoral way of life (the Neolithic). The transformation from hunting-gathering (the Mesolithic) to agropastoralism (the Neolithic) that took place in certain territories during the early Holocene was not a universal phenomenon, but a localized one. It is a gradual process that has been going on for several millennia worldwide.

Evidence for Mesolithic and post-Mesolithic hunter-gatherers occurs extensively in different parts of world including South Asia. In India, from the 1880s when A.C.L. Carlleyle discovered the first microliths in the Vindhyan hills (Misra 1965:58), several microlithic sites of the Mesolithic period have been brought to light (Allchin and Allchin 1983:62-96; Misra 1965, 1989). The survival of microlith-using groups, primarily subsisting on hunting and gathering and their interactions with agropastoral communities of the protohistoric and historical periods have been recognized in archaeological context in several areas like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Central India, and Andhra Pradesh (Allchin 1977; Allchin and Allchin 1974; Hooja 1988; Jacobson 1970, 1975; Misra 1973, 1976; Murty 1989; Stiles 1993).

Recent investigations in the hitherto archaeologically unexplored region of southern Tamil Nadu have exposed a wide spectrum of evidence for human occupation during the Mesolithic and the Iron Age-Early Historic periods (Selvakumar 1996, 1997, 2000). Based on these findings, this paper discusses the adaptation patterns of the hunter-gatherer groups, which occupied the Gundar Basin (Madurai district of Tamil Nadu) from the early Holocene to the end of the Early Historic period, i.e., up to c. A.D. 500.

The term Iron Age here refers to the period that falls between the introduction of iron and the beginning of the Early Historic period. In South India, the Iron Age is placed within a tentative time bracket of c. 1000 to 300 B.C., and the Early Historic period, between c. 300 B.C. and c. A.D. 500 (Allchin and Allchin 1983).


This study focuses on an area of about 400 [km.sup.2] (between 77[degrees] 35' to 77[degrees] 55' E and 9[degrees] 40' to 9[degrees] 55' N), in the upper Gundar Basin, which occupies the western part of the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu (Figs. 1-2). The Varushanad-Andipatti hills, an offshoot of the Western Ghats, and its branches, the Chaturagiri and the Kudiraimalai (or the Vasimalai), enclose the area respectively, on the western, southern, and northern sides. The basin has a gneissic base intruded by Charnockite and Khondalite groups of rocks (HBG 1976) and is drained by the seasonal river Gundar and its tributaries, the Varattar and the Uppar. It can be divided into two physiographic zones, the plains with a varying altitude of 150 to 250 m above mean sea level (hereafter, AMSL) scattered with a few isolated hillocks, and the hilly tracts, which cover the area above 250 m AMSL. The climate of the area falls between semi-arid and sub-humid types with an annual average precipitation of around 900 mm. Most of the rainfall occurs during the northeast monsoon season (October to December) and a small amount in summer (April to May). The ombrothermic diagram for the meteorological station at Madurai, situated 50 km northeast of the basin, shows two dry seasons separated by wet seasons (Gaussen et al. 1964).


The plain area of the basin is inhabited by agropastoral communities and is largely under cultivation. It has no forest cover and hence today there are very few wild animals except hare, jackal, and fox. …