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Not long ago, it seemed that South Asian history began at a singular moment in the second millennium BCE, when the oldest known texts, the Vedas, were composed. A clear, continuous stream of cultural tradition once seemed to flow from Vedic to modern times, allowing modern scholars to dip into ancient texts to savor the original essence of a culture that we can still see around us today. The early flow of culture seemed to swell into a fully developed classical civilization under the ancient empires of the Mauryas (321–181 BCE) and Guptas (320–520 CE), which arose on the banks of the sacred river Ganga. Classical societies seemed to follow Vedic norms and seemed to preserve sacred traditions recorded in other ancient Sanskrit texts that also prescribed the division of society into ritual strata, called Varna, containing social groups called jati. Classical tradition seemed to provide a blueprint for caste society down to modern times. After the Gupta Empire collapsed, apparently under the impact of foreign invasions, political fragmentation was seen to have characterized medieval times; but despite a long series of foreign conquests, the clear stream of cultural tradition seemed to flow on continuously. After the end of the ancient empire, history brought political turmoil and social and economic change, but ancient cultural tradition seemed to maintain its purity, responding and adapting to the challenges of history. South Asia was a radically different world during the millennia before it took on its modern character. The first basic lesson of this article is that traveling back into the distant past reveals cultures, identities, and environments that are as distant from those of today as are their physical surroundings. The landscapes in which pre modern populations lived would be very unfamiliar to people today. For most of its history, South Asia was thinly populated. Its countless small communities were widely scattered. In ancient and medieval times, much more of the land was covered by forests full of wild animals than by farms, villages, towns, and cities. Entering into the history of this vast pre-modern world provides us with a critical perspective on the novelty of modernity.
To understand history inside South Asia, we must escape the confines of modern boundaries that enclose and separate civilizations to explore a wider world within which these boundaries have been invented, contested, defended, and redrawn historically. As we will see, the political boundaries of South Asia have changed dramatically at various points in time. It is, therefore, most appropriate to study South Asia as a huge open geographical space in southern Eurasia, rather than imagining it to be a fixed historical region with a single territorial definition. Humans may have lived in South Asia for half a million years.
Relics of their activity for much of that time are preserved in so many places that we can surmise that the earliest human settlers lived in virtually every feasible ecological niche. They all would have migrated from somewhere else at some point in time, but some places have been continuously occupied since the eighth millennium BCE when agro-pastoral settlements were established. Mehrgarh, in central Baluchistan, is now the oldest site where archaeology can show that a microlithic tool-using people produced a complex farming society; it is in the dry, mountainous borderlands between the Indus valley and Afghanistan, where physical remains survive much better than they do in wetlands.
From the seventh to the fourth millennium BCE, Mehrgarh underwent an indigenous process of technological development that was connected to but not dependent on migratory trade with West and Central Asia. Nausharo:
Nausharo is located around six km from the site of Mehrgarh. At the upper levels of this site, we find the remains of the mature phase of the Indus Civilization. However, the lowermost levels hint towards the settlement of people of the pre-Harappan civilization. The strata of this site bear resemblances to that of Kot Diji.
Similar sites dating to about 3000 BCE also reflect a culture that is now named after a later Indus valley site at Harappa, which included large, solid buildings, pottery, wool and cotton textiles, copperware, seals, and female figurines. Along the Indus valley, large cities were built by about 2500 BCE at Mohenjo-Daro and
Harappa; but five hundred years later, they were being depopulated; and a few centuries later, they were abandoned completely. As they and other Indus urban settlements declined, other smaller sites containing similar cultural material multiplied in adjacent Gujarat and Punjab. Recent findings suggest that Harappan cultural production may have continued into the first millennium BCE alongside settlements that are distinguished by later archaeological finds of Painted Grey Ware pottery. The famous prehistoric cities along the Indus emerged within a very old, resilient cultural complex that covered a vast area of dry land and river valleys stretching from Afghanistan to Sind, Punjab, and the western Gangetic plain. These cities engaged in long-distance trade and their material culture was at the same time indigenous to South Asia.
If we toured South Asia around 2000 BCE, we would certainly want to begin with its impressive cities along the Indus, which boasted advanced hydrology and architecture. But we would soon find that South Asia’s scant prehistoric human population was composed primarily of hunters, gatherers, herders, and farmers, who lived in tiny and, typically, temporary settlements. Wild animals – including elephants, tigers, deer, and buffalos – outnumbered humans many times over. Dry, wet, high altitude, and coastal climates offered different kinds of opportunities for human communities.
In the wet regions, dense tropical jungles were naturally endowed with food supplies for humans but also with wild animals (notably snakes and tigers) and micro-organisms (notably water-borne parasites) that killed humans. To create stable living environments in tropical settings, people had to clear jungles to create farming communities, arduous work that needed to be done repeatedly because the jungle growth was tenacious. Before the advent of iron tools around 1200 BCE, jungles constantly defeated human efforts to create permanent farming settlements; shifting cultivation was the only agricultural option, which combined with hunting, gathering, and fishing provided ample human diets. Rice, originally a swamp grass, was first domesticated on temporary fields. Slash-and-burn farming remained the norm long after agrarian societies began to cut, burn, and build permanent fields and settlements. This agrarian transformation of the wet lowlands began in the first millennium BCE. In drylands, prehistoric migratory life typically moved over wider spaces. Where water failed to come to the land, people and animals moved to the water. Animal herding and nomadism combined naturally with extensive hunting, warfare, and trade; these all developed productive but often conflict-ridden synergies with sedentary farming. Nomads bred animals that settled farming communities used for manure and plowing, for edible meat and milk, and skins, fur, and wool.
Elements of sedentary cultures moved along circuits of migration and trade that connected and sustained small, separate communities. Cultural assemblages thus emerged that were composed of various symbolic and material elements, which we see in archaeological evidence. As elements dispersed geographically they formed distinct cultural areas that changed shape and overlapped. The cultural complex that includes Mehrgarh and
Harappa is now the oldest we know. Physical remains indicate that a different but perhaps related Banas culture characterized by white pottery painted black and red developed in Rajasthan and Malwa in the millennium after 2500 BCE. At the same time, another Malwa culture was spreading south in central India, as a Savalda complex formed in Maharashtra, and as other areas of settlement marked by distinctive pottery and metal tools developed in the Eastern Vindhyas and southern Deccan. Other cultural areas of comparable antiquity are also visible in the southern peninsula, which contained megalithic tombs, urns, cists, rock-cut caves, cairns, sarcophagi, and stone tombs that resemble hats, called topi kals. Especially in the wetter regions, most of the evidence of cultural activity in prehistory returned to nature and is invisible today, though later evidence indicates many cultural contributions from prehistoric forest dwellers.
The pre-Harappan culture was succeeded by the Indus Civilization. _ The Indus-Civilization was a unique product of a slowly growing and changing civilizational process that was occurring from the eighth millennium through the third millennium in north-western India, including the Indus and the Indus basins, in which the West Asian, Turanian, and Central Asian cultures had some role to play but generally in the field of economic interaction and not so much in social, cultural, religious and ideational fields._ 10 The Indus civilization grew out of this culture’s technological base, as well as its geographic expansion into the alluvial plains of what are now the provinces of Sind and Punjab in contemporary Pakistan and Northern India.