Stone Axe Technology in Neolithic South India: New Evidence from the Sanganakallu-Kupgal Region, Mideastern Karnataka

Article excerpt

The transition to agriculture--and to settled village life--occurred at different times in various parts of the world. Even within the Indian subcontinent, the Neolithic transition did not occur simultaneously across the entire region; rather, Neolithic "pockets" developed at different moments in certain key areas within the subcontinent. One such area is the South Deccan Plateau in South India, where the third millennium B.C. saw the development of a novel Neolithic way of life that differed in crucial ways from Neolithic lifeways in other parts of the subcontinent (Allchin 1963). This tradition was marked by a particular focus on cattle and by the appearance of specific, perhaps ritual practices that featured the burning of large quantities of cow dung and the resultant creation of ashmounds in the landscape (Allchin 1963; Boivin 2004). This unique Neolithic tradition, while still relatively poorly understood compared to Neolithic cultures in Europe and the Near East, has much to offer prehistorians attempting to understand the changes that led to and accompanied domestication and sedentarization. It also has much to offer South Asian scholars who wish to gain a better appreciation of the changes that led to complexity, political economy, and state-level societies in South India (Boivin et al. 2005; Fuller et al. forthcoming). One key requirement for such studies is a better understanding of the material culture changes that attended the Neolithic transition, as well as the subsequent transition from the Neolithic to the Megalithic or Iron Age (see Table 1 for period designations and chronology). Such understanding is currently poor, and this essay offers an attempt to address this lacuna with respect to one particular form of material culture: stone artifacts.


Recent archaeological investigations at the Neolithic sites at Sanganakallu-Kupgal, in the district of Bellary in mideastern Karnataka, South India, produced a very large assemblage of worked stone artifacts. As with many Southern Neolithic sites, sophisticated chert and chalcedony pressure microblade technology was encountered (e.g. Allchin 1963; Ansari 1988; Dufresne et al. 1998; Foote 1916; Subbarao 1948). Various other characteristic Neolithic tool types, such as granite querns and grindstones, also formed a significant component of the assemblage. Interestingly, however, of the >600,000 stone artifacts recovered during recent investigations, the vast majority (80-90 percent) comprised dolerite debitage from the manufacture of bifacial edge-ground axes. This immense quantity of dolerite debitage seemed to indicate a particularly intense focus on the production of stone axes at Sanganakallu-Kupgal during the Neolithic period, a possibility first raised by Robert Bruce Foote in the late 1800s (Foote 1887).

Several eminent Southern Neolithic scholars and South Asian prehistorians, most notably Foote (1887, 1916), Worman (1949), Subbarao (1948), Allchin (1957, 1960, 1962, 1963) and others (Deo and Ansari 1965; Sankalia 1988; Sankalia et al. 1971; Wheeler 1948, 1959), have undertaken research into the distribution and evolution of Neolithic stone axe industries of South India (see Korisettar et al. 2001 for review), including those of the Bellary District (e.g., Allchin 1957). These studies, however, have focused mostly on type-based morphological analyses of artifact assemblages (see Adams and Adams 1991; Bisson 2000; Dunnell 1986), with the distribution through time and across space of formal variation in artifacts used to document the history of the development and migration of specific prehistoric cultures (Lyman et al. 1997; Trigger 1989; but see Inizan and Lechevallier 1990, 1995, 1997; Inizan et al. 1992, 1994 for technological studies of microblade production in northern India, Pakistan, and elsewhere). Despite decades of research, little insight is provided into the technology and technical processes of Neolithic axe production (e. …


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