Toward a Political Ecology in Early South India: Preliminary Considerations of the Sociopolitics of Land and Animal Use in the Southern Deccan, Neolithic through Early Historic Periods

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The archaeology of southern India has long been dominated by cultural-historical paradigms, which have more recently become reliant on environmental stimuli to explain 'culture change. This interpretive framework has created a relatively fixed set of relationships between the environment and past human societies that oversimplifies issues of agency and causation in largely deterministic terms. At issue here is a lack of adequate treatment for the sociopolitical complexity of human-environment relationships. In this essay we examine the relationships between emerging social differences and both stable and dynamic aspects of land use throughout the South Indian Neolithic (3000-1200 B.C.), Iron Age (1200-500 B.C.), and Early Historic (500 B.C.-A.D. 500) periods in the southern Deccan region of South India. In an effort to contextualize land use in wider sociopolitical realms, we focus on the empirical components of three aspects of the archaeological record--animal use, agricultural regimes, and monument production and maintenance--through a lens of political ecology. Accepting that land use is socially and culturally mediated, we suggest how sociopolitical distinctions emergent during these periods could be viewed in relation to the production of a landscape that differentially included wild and domesticated animals, cultivars, water reservoirs, irrigation agriculture, and monumental architecture. In this sense, we argue that the landscape itself could be seen as a social product through which sociopolitical differences were experienced and perceived, and that the historical development of the landscape is both the artifact and medium of sociopolitics in early South India. As such, the determinants of social history remain in social and cultural fields of action, though not removed from the ecological-material world of which people are a part. Keywords: agriculture, landscapes, monumentality, political ecology, zooarchaeology.


The archaeology of southern India has long been dominated by research programs that have had as their concern the production of archaeological cultures seated within culture-historic narratives of the past (Johansen 2003; Morrison 1994). While this is not aberrant from global historical norms in the practice of archaeological systematics, it does obfuscate analyses of detailed sociohistorical processes by generalizing social, political, and economic behavior as proxies for a culture type. One of the most pervasive problems of cultural historical interpretations of the archaeological record is the tendency among researchers to focus on short, interstitial periods of change caused by punctuated and cataclysmic factors. As the prehistory of South India is marked by categories of material culture that are lengthy and perduring, the nature of this patterning has served to reinforce notions of long periods of cultural "homeostasis" punctuated by events of dramatic change. Explanations for these episodes of change were once almost exclusively characterized by diffusionary causation (e.g., Allchin and Allchin 1982; Leshnik 1974; Wheeler 1948). More recently, however, environmental stimuli have become a frequently deployed explanatory frame for "culture change" (e.g., Dhavalikar 1984; Korisettar and Rajaguru 2002; Shinde 1998). Yet in either case, the structure of the interpretive framework has created a relatively fixed set of relationships between the environment and past human societies in South Indian prehistory, generally manifested either as dependency or adaptation.

While the insertion of the environment was a much-needed contribution to earlier diffusionary models of South Indian culture history, human-environmental relationships are often portrayed with little attention to the complexities of sociocultural practices. Instead, a "culture" is thought to display adaptive "reactions" to environmental change or stasis that in turn structure society. …


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