The Prehistory of Sri Lanka: An Ecological Perspective
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The Prehistory of Sri Lanka: An Ecological Perspective

@Antiquity, Dec, 1995 by Robin Coningham
COPYRIGHT 1995 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

I am frequently asked why one should bother spending funds working in a jungle in Sri Lanka or on a mound in Pakistan when there is so much to do in the UK. The answer is simple - South Asia contains not only a fifth of the world's population, but evidence of the independent emergence of the domestication of plants and animals, two urbanizations, iron-working and two systems of writing. Within the last 20 years, in this the most archaeologically prolific area of the English-speaking world, we have seen the discovery of a 2.2-million-year-old tool in Potwar (Rendell et al. 1989), a 4th-millennium BC planned city at Rehman Dheri (Durrani 1988) and a 6th-millennium BC pre-pottery Neolithic site at Mehrgarh (Jarrige 1985) providing examples of the importance of the region. In view of the above it is perplexing that there are only two British universities that teach this subject and that there is a single British Academy society with an annual budget of less than 100,000 [pounds], even more so considering the UK's historical links with South Asia and its large resident population of South Asian origin. South Asia's past is not peripheral but has an important role in both world chronology and understanding social processes, and moreover, has a part to play in Britain's future.

Sri Lanka's politics are better known than its pre-history; however The prehistory of Sri Lanka now provides a definitive reference volume. Deraniyagala's study closely integrates Sri Lankan prehistory with that of South Asia and presents evidence of geometric microlithic technology dating to c. 28,500 BP (the earliest in South Asia) and possible evidence of human colonization as early as 300,000 BC. Following a division of the island into distinct ecological zones, Deraniyagala discusses the nature of the three sediments from which the island's prehistory is derived. Although he favours a date of 300,000 BC for the earliest human occupation, he also concedes that tools associated with Pleistocene fauna in the Ratnapura beds (p. 49) may be the result of mixing. The evidence from the Iranamadu Formation (linked with the teri of South India), Reddish Brown Earth Formations and cave sites is, however, much clearer. In addition to providing evidence of human occupation at c. 130,000 BC, a series of radiocarbon and TL dates have confirmed the presence of geometric microliths dating to c. 28,500 BP, precipitating the question of whether this technology developed earlier in the island or why it has not yet been identified elsewhere in South Asia. The volume concludes by proposing a model of subsistence and social behaviour for each of the island's ecozones, derived from the ethnographic details of modern hunter-gatherers occupying similar ecozones in South and Southeast Asia. In addition, it provides useful syntheses covering Sri Lanka's history of prehistoric research, flora, fauna, geomorphology, quaternary environment, ethnographic analogies, as well as 278 pages of appendices and addenda covering topics from lithic artefact categories to edible plants and chronologies.

Of this work, I have four critical comments. The foremost is that there is not a single photograph or plan of a site; the second that there is a problem in Deraniyagala's application of modern ethnographies to prehistoric ecozones on the grounds that they occupy similar environments. Many such groups have been under pressure from surrounding populations for hundreds of years and may be occupying peripheral areas, conversely failed agriculturalists and pastoralists may become hunter-gatherers. We must also be careful of the suggested continuity between Sri Lanka's Veddas and prehistoric microlithic-using peoples (p. 367), as this might reflect similar subsistence strategies rather than genetics. Deraniyagala holds that exchange occurred between groups living in different ecozones (pp. 326, 456); however it is equally possible that groups exploited a number of ecozones. Despite the exhaustive bibliography, a number of important ethnoarchaeological studies have been omitted (Cooper 1989). Thirdly, it is unclear why Appendices II and III were included as they cover Protohistoric and Early Historic themes and have already been published (Deraniyagala 1990a; 1990b). Finally, I am still unconvinced in Deraniyagalas lack of transition between the Stone Age and Iron Age (p. 475), as Begley recovered stone tools from Iron Age burial burns at Pomparipu (1981). This is a well-written and easily accessible summary of the current state of prehistory of Sri Lanka - it is a sad reflection that now many of the sites are now too dangerous to visit.

Cultural imperialism represents an accurate synthesis of the development of Harappan culture in Western India by Dhavalikar, late Director of Deccan College, Pune. One of the great successes of Indian post-partition archaeology is the search for Harappan sites, as the Indus valley was ceded to Pakistan. There is now evidence that the Harappan civilization spread into western India between 2600 BC and 2200 BC. This book is an analysis of that process. Before 2600 BC, small settlements, practising stock-raising or incipient agriculture, were interspersed with large numbers of hunter-gatherers; however after that date a series of small, fortified settlements were established in the inhospitable region of Kutch. The majority consisted of a fortified core of some 1-2 ha, surrounded by a further 1-2 ha (p. 55). The excavator of one such site, Kuntasi, Dhavalikar provides new data as to the purpose of these settlements - to collect and process raw materials and to export them to the Harappan core and along the Gulf to the Near East. As this trade boomed c. 2300 BC agricultural villages were then established in more fertile areas. Dhavalikar interprets this pattern by making a comparison between the fortified settlements and the first 16th-century factory-forts of the East India Company. Although John Company was first established to trade and use cheap labour, within 200 years it bore a resemblance to the Roman Empire (p. 4). This book is not only interpretative but provides summaries of the geography, agriculture and raw resources of western India, as well as its main cultural phases and chronology. Identifing Gujarat as the Meluhha of the Akkadian documents (p. 123), it also discusses political and religious models for the Harappan civilization and potential factors, including chariot-wielding Aryans and iron (p. 204), for its collapse.

Dhavalikar has presented a very useful synthesis of Harappan civilization in western India and illuminating analogies with 19th-century colonial powers, stating that the Harappans, like the Belgiums in Africa, `exploited the colonies to the maximum without making any attempt to ameliorate the lot of their subjects' (p. 100). Although he claims to follow a `porcessual' (sic) approach and quotes Binford and Renfrew, the book remains solidly within the cultural historical school: `the craftsmen ... were probably brought by their employers from Lower Sindh and/or Rajastan' (p. 42) and `where did the Harappans go?' (p. 94). He also ignores the potentials of a rise to complexity within Gujarat as a response to trade stimuli from the Harappan world - certainly evidence of pre-Harappan habitation at a number of sites which later became key Harappan centres should have been incorporated.

Excavations at Nahran documents the excavation of the `Nahran' culture site in the Middle Ganga (Ganges) plain. The site was first occupied c. 1300 BC and abandoned c. 600 AD and has a very plausible sequence from Period I with finds of iron and copper objects and white-painted Black and Red ware, through to Period III with the first finds of Northern Black Polished ware and punch-marked coins, followed by Periods IV and V representing the Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods respectively. Although the site's geographical setting, environment, previous archaeological investigations and culture-sequence are well presented, the vast majority of the volume is taken up by artefact reports. They do, however, offer good comparisons with other sites, and the palaeobotanical report is of a particularly high quality. This is a good report, notwithstanding typos, of the excavation of a rural settlement in the middle Ganga valley, threatened by the local river and farmers. Its findings strengthen Lal's hypothesized colonization of the Ganga valley (Lal 1984). A number of criticisms can, however, be made. The most obvious is that structural description is short (37 pages) in comparison with artefacts analysis (309 pages), and this is worsened by an absence of information as to in which levels or rooms artefacts were found. I also found the hypothesized shift in occupation to mound 2 at the beginning of Period III unconvincing (p. 33); there may actually have been a break in occupation at this point. This represents an interesting report; however, one is left wondering whether the `Narhan culture' is just the variation of a single site within the painted Black and Red ware techno-complex of the late Chalcolithic/early Iron age.

The high point of the review is South Asian Archaeology 1993, containing 70 papers presented at the 12th international conference of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Helsinki in 1993. They encompass a huge geographical coverage from Oman to China and Tukmenistan and vary from technical studies and preliminary reports to regional syntheses and art-historical notes. Generally they are of a high quality, well illustrated, and present new data. Although subjects range in date from Namada man to Mogul coins, the majority cluster around the Chalcolithic, whether in its formative or mature stage or aftermath. A number demand special mention. Foremost is the excellent work by Cleuziou & Tosi who present evidence of reed ships in Oman, evidence of trade between the Harappans and the Near East. The importance of the cross-country routes is not ignored, indeed Hakemi's report of clay statues from Shahdad in eastern Iran helps to explain links between Harappan and Elamite statuary. Amongst the most interesting papers are those which consider the Indo-European question, whose contributors find the Aryan invasion unquestionable: `The second millennium BC must have witnessed the arrival in India of those immigrants usually called the Aryan' (p. 194). Most of these approaches are traditional and construct a set of artefacts identifiable with the Aryans: however, none of contributors appear to be able to agree on of what the set should consist! In addition the volumes contain excellent excavation reports - the work at Harappa is of a very high standard, demonstrating the fluctuations and dynamics of occupation within a sector of a Harappan city. Papers on later periods concentrate on art-historical studies with Taddei's critique of Stronach's dating at Pasargadae being most impressive. It is also encouraging to find scientific techniques, usually applied to prehistoric sites, being used on Historic sites in the Hampi region. Apart from the difficulty of searching for topics, because papers are arranged alphabetically, these volumes represent a clear and important summary of current research topics within South Asia and are an invaluable (if expensive) reference.

Our discussion now shifts to two books on Southeast Asia, whose position within this review is justified as belonging to Greater India! Archaeology in Southeast Asia is the proceedings of a conference held in Hong Kong in 1995 and contains 41 papers divided into a number of general sections. The Aryan invasion of South Asia is given a further airing with Bellwood's acceptance of the `Indo-European colonisation of India' (p.

13). Adopting Renfrew's agriculture and language package (1989) he argues that there was a spread of agriculture from the East: `a dispersal, via human colonisation, of Neolithic material culture and agricultural systems took place from the general region of Sub-Yangzi China through much of eastern India and Oceania' (p. 17). Higham follows suit, arguing that Munda-speaking rice agriculturalists reached eastern India by the late 3rd millennium BC having left the upper Yangzi river four millennia earlier (pp. 23-4). Other papers of note include Glover & Yamagata's discovery of not allowed ware in central Vietnam, expanding the distribution of this South Asian ceramic, and Engelhardt & Rogers' ethnoarchaeological study of discard patterns of shellfish. A chilling paper by Huang Miaozhang, "the preservation and exploitation of cultural relics in Shenzhen', outlining changes to China's antiquities policy (including the sale of artefacts in state shops) was quite revealing. Other papers included a mix of specialist techniques, regional syntheses, a history of archaeology in Hong Kong and preliminary reports, underlining this volume as a collection of papers of variable quality. Papers favouring a Chinese origin of agriculture in central and eastern India appeared to ignore Singh et al.'s dates of c. 7000 BP for Rajasthan (1974). An added burden is that the majority of the papers are in Chinese, whilst those in English are not for the uninitiated: `This regional culture might then be named "Ganjiang-Poyang culture" to stand in line with the remarkable Chu culture and Wu-Yue culture' (p. 122). A lavish volume with coloured page borders, one is forced to consider its overall value, for example, the quality of the illustrations was highly variable. I also begin to wonder whether this publication was part of an archaeological reintegration of Hong Kong in advance of its political merger: `China and Hong Kong should work closer together to allow a more effective exchange of information and opinions' (p. 248). This exchange (and volume) did not include Taiwan; surely this cannot suggest that there is no archaeology on Taiwan!

The last volume, The Khmers, provides `a history of the Khmers, the people who for thousands of years inhabited the wooded interior of Cambodia, (dust jacket), and represents a useful resource, bringing together archaeological, architectural, linguistic and historical sources. Having defined the Khmer as a discrete historical group through the possession of a shared language and origin myths, the volume summarizes Cambodia's natural habitats, climate, main economic activities and natural history, before tracing prehistory and history of the Khmers. The archaeological section investigates the question of the rise of complex societies in the region by evaluating the possible roles of iron implements, agricultural developments, population growth, conquest and exchange in this process, and closely follows Higham (1989) by distinguishing two distinct stages in the growth of the Khmer civilization, firstly the emergence of proto-urban settlements, and later the formation of `Indian-style states'. The book also describes the foundation and nature of the kingdoms of Fu-nan and Chen-la as recorded by the Chinese. However, the heart of the volume is the masterful summary of what is known of the rise, religious system, agriculture, political organization, economy and fall of the Angkor-based state. The next 500 years of Cambodia are covered in 18 pages and the book culminates in the retelling of the killing fields. In fairness this book should have been titled `a short history of Cambodia', making it clear that it is concerned with the history and prehistory of that state, indeed the authors interchange `Khmer' and `Cambodian' without hesitation (p. 130). This problem is intensified when the authors swap between modern Cambodian practices and mediaeval Chinese descriptions in order to flesh monumental remains. Further confusion is created when they attempt to project the Khmers to prehistoric times: `By the third millennium BC, settlements of people practising hunting, gathering and simple agriculture were appearing in the Khorat plateau, the Tonle Sap area and the Mekong delta. Some of these were probably the ancestors of the Khmers' (p. 41). I also found the description of the kingdom of Angkor top-heavy, concentrating on kings and temples; however, in summary it is a useful contribution.

The above books deal with an immense range of topics, from thematic synthesis covering the initial colonization of South Asia or the establishment of urbanism to studies of individual historic artefacts or ethnoarchaeology. This range is paralleled by the wide range of theoretical approaches, from Kuz' mina's diffusion to Deraniyagala's environmental determinism and Dhavalikar's processualism. Both the topics and theory firmly link South Asian archaeology with that of the west, stressing that it does not form a separate discipline but rather contains all stages of the history of western archaelogical theory simultaneously; and whilst it is clear that UK interest in South Asia is low (only one of these books was published in the UK and only 8 of the 70 contributors in South Asian Archaeology 1993 were UK-based) it is hoped that new books like these can stimulate greater interest, involvement and investment!


Begley, V. 1981. Excavations of Iron Age burials at Pomparippu, Ancient Ceylon 4:49-142. Cooper, Z. 1989. Analysis of the nature of contacts with the Andaman Islands during the last two millennia, South Asian Studies 5:133-47. Deraniyagala, S.U. 1990a. Radiocarbon dating of early Brahmi script in Sri Lanka, Ancient Ceylon 11: 149-68. 1990b. The Proto and Early Historic radiocarbon chronology of Sri Lanka, Ancient Ceylon 12: 251-92. Durrani, F.A. 1988. Excavations in the Gomal Valley, Ancient Pakistan 6 :1-232. Higham, C. 1989. The archaeology of mainland Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jarrige, J.-F. 1985. Continuity and change in the North Kachi Plain (Baluchistan, Pakistan) at the beginning of the second millennium BC, in J. Schotsmans & M. Taddei (ed.), South Asian Archaeology 1993: 35-68. Naples: Instituto Universitario Orientale, Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici. Series Minor 23. Lal, M. 1984. Summary of four seasons of explorations in the Kanpur District, Man and Environment 8: 61-80. Rendell, H.M., R.W. Dennell, & M.A. Halim. 1989. Pleistocene and Palaeolithic investigations in the Soan Valley, North Pakistan. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. International series 544. Renfrew A.C. 1989. Archaeology and language: the puzzle of Indo-European origins. London: Jonathan Cape. Singh, G., R.D. Joshi, S.K. Chopra & A.B. Singh. 1974. Late Quaternary history of vegetation and climate of the Rajasthan Desert, India, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 269(889): 467-501.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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