Crops, Clues to the Past! by V. K. Joshi (Bijji) SignUp
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Crops, Clues to the Past!
by V. K. Joshi (Bijji) Bookmark and Share

With the contemporary climate taking strange turns and population bursting at seams, food and water are likely to be the main critical issues in the times to come. A complete unraveling of the past civilizations, about their ways and means of sustenance will certainly help the future generation in combating the issues. Human use of plants is an age old relationship. Often plant remains carry information about the past. And that is how the science of archaeobotany comes to help. It is possible to obtain insights in to cultural ecology, agriculture, food production, food habits etc.  Agriculture is always linked with water. Thus all the seeds, pollen and other plant remains discovered from an archeological site are like a gold mine for the archeologists. One such ‘gold mine’ has been struck in Gujarat and here is a report.

Kanmer or Bakar Kot is an apparently insignificant inverted ‘V’ shaped hillock near Rann of Kachch in Gujarat. Today’s desolate hill used to be a place bustling with activity, a few thousand years ago. Recent technological advancements have turned locations like Kanmer in to a paradise for the archeologists and archeobotanists. New vistas on the agriculture and climate of that period are being opened up.

Recently Anil K.Pokharia and C.M. Nautiyal of Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow; J.S. Kharakwal of Institute of Rajasthan Studies, Udaipur; R.S. Rawat of Gujarat State Department of Archeology, Gandhinagar; Toshiki Osada of Research Institute of Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan and Alka Srivastava of Department of Botany DG College, Kanpur, India made detailed studies on the material collected from Kanmer. Their findings are interesting and throw alight on the climate of the days of the yore.

Between 2600 BCand 1900 BC the Indus Civilization was one of the four great civilizations. It was spread over an area of 680,000 square kilometres along the Indus and Ghaggar rivers. Despite the vast spread of the civilization, the urban phase lasted only for 700 years say Pokharia et al. Decline of such well-established civilizations and cities is a matter of concern for the archeologists and also paleo-environmentalists. 

The contemporary environmentalists are always worried about the future of the planet and the society. The study of past environments carried out with the help of fossil pollen, old wood (paleoarcheology) and other evidences. For example the researchers were able to decipher a lot about the culture and climate with the help of rice grains, burial sites with about 60 skeletons, Sun dried bricks and variety of artifacts.

Computers have given a new direction of this research in to past. Researchers were able to develop simulation programmes and found that the sea level in Harappa days was about two meter higher than present day level in Gujarat. In other words many of the contemporary inland cities would have been coastal towns in Harappan times! 

Archeological studies are quite complex. Excavations are made and based on the finds of pottery shards, seeds, seals, coins etc. different levels of civilization are established. We live in the present time and our normal vision about the past is hardly beyond 100 years. But when you examine a cultural site spanning more than 1000 years you realize that one civilization was at full bloom and the natural forces brought a doom. After a lull of few hundred years another civilization came up at the same place. Kanmer is one such place where five levels of civilizations (past human existence) have been discovered by J.S. Kharakwal While the Kanmer I exposed coarse and fine varieties of Red Ware, Kanmer V at the highest level represents Medieval Period marked by residential structures and large number of storage pits. What is interesting is the find of both, winter and summer crops, mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and mollusks. The residents also knew the art of rearing animals like goats, horses and pigs etc. In addition it is interesting to know that the site has seeds of Cereals such as Barley, bread-wheat, dwarf-wheat, field-pea, green-gram and cotton. It is suspected that rice appeared at the site during the late Harappan phase.

Variety of seed recovered from Kanmer.

Rice grains when dated gave much younger dates of AD 335, AD 425 and AD 321. This was possibly due to a leakage from younger horizons! But the presence of rice husk in the potshards of Kanmera and also phytoliths from glumes and sediments dating to 2200 BC give credence to the hunch of rice cultivation during those days! Here I must mention that the phytoliths are very significant piece of information for an archeologist. These are actually remains of silica absorbed by the plants from the soil. Silica reaches the inter-cellular space of the plant and remains intact even if the plant dies or gets burned. After death of any living being only the hard parts are preserved as fossils. Many times human or animal teeth are found at archeological sites. Scientists are able to recover phytoliths from the calculus of these teeth. They yield a lot of information about the type of vegetation in which they were present. Vegetation in turn gives clues to the past climate.

Gujarat in the days of yore was a region of single monsoon crop, because there were insufficient numbers of rivers to irrigate the fields. But the advancing civilization and growing population must have generated demand for more food. That is why in Kanmer evidences of two crops of Rabi and Kharif have been found. Ingenuity of the locals has to be marveled upon. They introduced new plant groups to enrich their crop products.

Pokharia report charred remains of a variety of plant seeds/fruits of West Asian, African and indigenous origins. Seeds of barley, bread-wheat, dwarf-wheat, pearl-millet, jowar-millet, field-pea, grass-pea, green-gram, black-gram, fenugreek, linseed and even cotton were identified by these researchers. Radiocarbon dating of these seeds gave ages of 2469 BC to 2335 BC.

Kanmer, in fact represents a site of happenings. Variability of agriculture production, despite lack of river systems proves that the residents were evolved enough to grow summer resistant crops and make the maximum use of the monsoon for the winter crops. It is indeed very fascinating to visualize how these people were developing ways and means to feed their population despite the climatic odds. With science of archeo-botany making rapid strides, time is not far when more detailed information will be coming forth about our ancestors in Gujarat! 

1. Image of Crop (c)
2 . Some seeds recovered from Kanmer
Courtesy Editor Current Science, Bangalore, India.  

More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)
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