Megalithic Pochampad: The Skeletal Biology and Archaeological Context of an Iron Age Site in Andhra Pradesh, India

Article excerpt

IRON TECHNOLOGY EMERGED IN SOUTH ASIA from regional Copper Age (Chalcolithic) and Bronze Age (Harappan) traditions by 1000 B.C., replacing the dominance of these earlier metallurgical industries at different times prior to the dawn of the Early Historic period (Nagaraja Rao 1971, 1981). Marking the final "Age" of Indian prehistory, iron is uncovered in the archaeological assemblages of the Gandharan Grave Culture of northern Pakistan (1000-300 B.C.), at Pirak and other sites on the Kachi Plain of Pakistan's Indus Valley (by 900 B.C.), with the Painted Grey Ware cultural tradition extending from Baluchistan in western Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh in northern India (900-300 B.C.), and with the "megalithic complex" that spread from the Himalaya foothills southward to peninsular India and Sri Lanka from the early second millennium B.C. in Kashmir to C. A.D. 50 in south India (Agrawal 2000; Chakrabarti 1992; Deo 1985; Kennedy 2000a:326-357, 2000c; Leshnik 1974; Possehl and Rissman 1992; Possehl and Gullapalli 1999) (Fig. 1).


Megaliths are stone monuments visible on the landscape as alignments of standing stones, single stone slabs supported by several boulders to form an enclosed space (dolmens, dolmenoid cists), single or grouped uptight standing stones (menhirs), arrangements of large boulders in a circle, and cairns of heaped rubble (Fig. 2). Some above-ground or shallowly buried dolmenoid cists had "port holes" or passages allowing for access of grave goods, food, or additional skeletal remains into the burial chamber. These hallmarks of the megalithic complex of the Indian Iron Age are frequently associated with burials in subterranean stone cists within which human skeletal remains are recovered with iron implements and horse trappings, distinctive red and black wheel-turned and fired ceramic wares, and faunal and floral remains indicative of village farming and pastoral socioeconomic traditions, preserving in certain cultural aspects the lifeways of pre--Iron Age food-producing populations. These megalith builders later became culturally amalgamated with urban-based populations of the Early Historic period who introduced the classical elements of Hindu and Buddhist civilization, although some geographically marginal tribal peoples have continued erecting megalithic structures in association with their funerary rites to the present day.


Of the over 1400 megalithic sites recorded from the subcontinent in 1985, 1116 are from peninsular India (Deo 1985). Since 1820, when their archaeological value was first recognized (Babington 1823), over 239 had been excavated, often by treasure hunters rather than by trained archaeologists. Many of these sites contained preserved human skeletons, but the number of published scientific studies of these remains is less than 30 (Kennedy 2000a:343; Kennedy and Caldwell 1984; Rao 1988) (Table 1). Anatomical data obtained from laboratory analyses by trained biological anthropologists of human skeletal remains from archaeological localities provide information about earlier lifeways and palaeo-demographic aspects of extinct populations unobtainable from the records of artifacts, stratigraphy, and texts. Not only is the biological anthropologist able to discern evolutionary trends and movements of populations, but laboratory analysis of osseous and dental structures shed light on the profiles of earlier peoples with respect to their rates of mortality, morbidity, fertility and fecundity, patterns of ontogenetic growth and development, nutritional status, health, and disease. Evidence of accidental or inflicted trauma, population density, and habitat preference also emerge from rigorous scientific analysis. And determination of degrees of genetic affinities of one ancient population with another and geographically and temporally more distant enclaves remains a critical feature of modern scientific approaches to the study of the ancient dead. …