Harappan Seeds and Agriculture: Some Considerations

By Fuller, Dorian Q. | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Harappan Seeds and Agriculture: Some Considerations


Fuller, Dorian Q., Antiquity


The systematic collection of archaeobotanical evidence through flotation at Harappa has the potential to make important contributions to our understanding of the subsistence base of the Indus civilization (Miller & Reddy 1990; Miller 1991). In the December 1999 issue of ANTIQUITY, Weber (1999: 813-26) presents a synthetic and interpretative article on agricultural change during the Harappan civilization drawing on his archaeobotanical work from Harappa, as well as his earlier work at the site of Rojdi (Weber 1991; 1993). Weber suggests that these sites showed parallel trends in agricultural change in the form of diversification in the number of crops cultivated, change in the dominant cultivar and general agricultural `intensification'. Weber's article brings out some of the problematic issues surrounding the growing archaeobotanical database in South Asia that deserve critical discussion. These issues include confusing plant taxonomy, difficulties with identification, the role of crop-processing in forming assemblages and, finally, the definition and implications of `intensification' and `diversification' in Late Harappan agriculture. In opposition to Weber's suggestion of an increase in foddering and intensive land use around the sites of Harappa and Rojdi, I will suggest that in the case of Rojdi the Late Harappan transition is marked by a change in the social organization of crop-processing, whereas at Harappa the change in agriculture is less clearly demonstrated in the reported evidence.

Taxonomy and identification

While Weber's article focuses on cereals, a number of other taxa were found, including legumes. These taxa are listed only by scientific genus names, a format that leaves some doubts as to the actual crop taxa that are indicated. The nomenclature of pulses has undergone much revision, in particular Dolichos, Vigna and Phaseolus (Verdcourt 1970; Marechal et al. 1978; Smartt 1990), and their use in Weber's table 1 is ambiguous.

With regard to the cereals, Weber implies a potentially very interesting but still poorly documented regional trend in wheat and barley evolution. He refers to the presence of `shot' wheat (Triticum sphaerococcum Perc.) and `shot' barley (`Hordeum sphaerococcum'). Despite the frequent reports in the past of T. sphaerococcum in South Asian archaeobotany, the basis of such identifications is problematic, as it is not possible reliably to distinguish free-threshing tetraploid wheats (Triticum durum Desf.) from free-threshing hexaploid wheats (T. aestivum L. sensu lato, including T. sphaerococcum) on the basis of grains alone (see Miller 1992; Zohary & Hopf 1993; Hillman et al. 1996; Fuller 2000). Also one must keep in mind that the charring process tends to distort grains towards plumper, more spheroid forms (Renfrew 1973; Zohary & Hopf 1993). Although `Hordeum sphaerococcum' had been used by a few archaeobotanists to describe short, plump charred barley grains (e.g. Costantini 1983; Janushevich 1978), it remains an undefined taxon. Although the evolution of sphaerococcoid cereals in the Indus region would indeed be an interesting local process, it remains to be rigorously documented by published measurements and illustrations.

Additional reservations are necessary regarding the millets, as millet mis-identifications plague published archaeobotany from South Asia (for full details, see Fuller 2000). It appears from some published photographs that the cleaned grain of hulled millets (including Setaria spp, Echinochloa colona, Brachiaria ramosa) have been mis-attributed to the free-threshing finger millet (Eleusine coracana). As a result the presence of E. coracana in prehistoric South Asia has been greatly exaggerated. This problem is significant as E. coracana originated in Africa, whereas the other taxa are Asian and include nati species. There is thus a need for agreement amongst archaeobotanists on reliable criteria and publication of illustrations.

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