The Topographic and Environmental Context of the Earliest Village Sites in Western South Asia

By Petrie, C. A.; Thomas, K. D. | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Topographic and Environmental Context of the Earliest Village Sites in Western South Asia


Petrie, C. A., Thomas, K. D., Antiquity


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Introduction

The topographical and environmental contexts of the earliest settlement sites in South Asia are critical factors for understanding the origins and spread of village-based farming. The specific locations of sites and their neighbouring landscape can potentially provide insights into both the subsistence practices and cognitive choices of the inhabitants of those sites. The dispersal of early farming in South Asia is typically characterised in terms of large-scale patterns (e.g. Fuller 2006); here we address the specific environmental situations that early villagers chose for the focus of their activities when they began to farm. Ideally, such an investigation should be carried out on the ground, but when circumstances render this impossible (as at present along the western borderlands of South Asia) an idea of the settlement geography can be gained through remote sensing (e.g. Petrie 2007; Thomas et al. 2008). In this paper we map dated settlements located in the hills west of the upper Indus, showing how agriculture developed there before descending onto the plain where it was to provide the motor for the Indus civilisation (Figure 1; Table 1).

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Modelling the relationship between environment and settlement

Pioneering studies from the 1960s have highlighted the role of geology, palaeogeography, hydrology and ecology in constraining and enabling human settlement. Vita-Finzi (1969a) outlined the importance of fluvial geology and alluvial successions for understanding changes in environmental conditions, particularly the formation and subsequent down-cutting of alluvial fans. In another paper (Vita-Finzi 1969b) he suggested that early farmers may have taken advantage of 'geological opportunism', citing examples in which early farmers in New Mexico and the Jordan Valley appear to have exploited broad, un-dissected valley floors, subject to periodic silt deposition by floods. The relevance of these ideas was subsequently emphasised in several papers by Andrew Sherratt (1980, 1997, 2007) that focused on the context of early farming settlements in the Levant. In the most recent of these, Sherratt (2007: 7) wrote of "spatially limited but highly productive environments where wadis or springs began to accumulate small alluvial fans". Sherratt also noted (2007: 8-10) that similar landscapes were recurrent around early village sites located in the hilly flanks around the entire arc of the Fertile Crescent and suggested that, as cereals would not grow naturally in such places and would have to be re-sown each season, this would create circumstances in which morphologically-domesticated cereal varieties would rapidly predominate. These types of environments could therefore be critical locations for the development of formal cultivation and farming. Water management could be improved by the building of small-scale brushwood and earth dams, as has been seen in Jordan for example (Kuijt et al. 2007; see also below). The environmental contexts within which this type of water management could be practiced were usually restricted, and this would also have constrained the size of populations that might be supported.

The earliest village sites in the Shah-Maran and Daulatabad regions of south-east Iran are similarly located on alluvial fans (Prickett 1986) and analogous environmental conditions appear to have been exploited in the early phases of millet cultivation in North China, where the break of slope between uplands and the soft sediments of the foothills and plains were points at which rainwater could be captured in free-draining fertile plots (Liu et al. 2009).

Early villages in the western borderlands of South Asia, by satellite

In South Asia, Fairservis (1961, 1967), Raikes and Dyson (1961), Dales (1966) and Raikes (1967) all highlighted the role ofgobarbands, or dams, in maximising the containment and exploitation of rainwater in the intermontane valleys of southern Baluchistan (Figure 1).

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