Sunday, 24 July 2022

Mesolithic microliths from Gujarat State, India.

The term 'microlith' was first coined by the English archaeologist Archibald Campbell Carlyle, to describe small retouched stone blades generally thought to have been part of a larger tool, while he was working in the Vindhya Hills of central India in the 1860s. Here these items were produced from about 45 000 years ago onwards, with Pleistocene examples being referred to as 'Late Palaeolithic' and Holocene examples as 'Mesolithic'. The term was later applied to a wide range of similar small tools at sites around the world, and became the defining tool for separating Mesolithic from earlier technologies. 

The term is now used to cover a wide range of small stone tools with a wide variety of uses, with a confusing variety of descriptions. These tools appear at different times in different places, but are found on every inhabited continent by the end of the Pleistocene. The use of these tools persisted through the Neolithic and Bronze ages, and in some parts of the world into the modern era, making their use as a dating tool limited without a good understanding of local history.

In India, these tools were used by a wide range of semi-nomadic peoples engaging in hunting, gathering, fishing, and foraging, over a long time period that saw the arrival of the first Human inhabitation of the Ganga plains, the West Bengal delta, the Indian west coast and Kerala. Microlithic tools appear to have been used for a huge range of activities during this time, but there was no single microlith-producing culture or technology, but rather a vast range of peoples making and using microlithic tools over a long period of time.

The Thar Desert, which covers large areas of Rajastan and Gujarat states in India and Sindh Province in Pakistan, contains thousands of relic dunes (dunes which have no present day source of sand) with scatters of microlithic tools on their tops. These dunes typically overlook bodies of water, such as lakes or rivers, and which may be permanent or seasonal. Studies of the local geography suggest that these waterways date to the latest Pleistocene, at which time the dunes were still active. This was associated with the development of a wetter climate, with higher rainfall and increased vegetation, which in turn stabilised the dunes. This wetter climate appears to have attracted the first hunter gatherers into the area, resulting in the microliths on the dune tops.

This was not a simple change from a dry to a wetter climate, but a gradual process with bodies of water appearing and then disappearing over a period of several thousand years, which presumably resulted in different groups of people moving into and out of the area over that time. The available evidence appears to support this, with some dunes having successions of different tool-bearing and non-tool-bearing layers up to 150 cm thick. However, few of these sites have had chronologies developed, and there has been almost no work done which correlates any of this material to material elsewhere in India.

In a paper pulished in the journal Plos One on 22 June 2022, Charusmita Gadekar of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Milà iFontanals Institution for Research in HumanitiesJuan José García-Granero, also of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Milà i Fontanals Institution for Research in Humanities, and of the School of Archaeology at the University of OxfordMarco Madella of the Department of Humanities at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, the Institució Catalana de Recerca iEstudis Avançats, and the School of Geography, Archaeology and EnvironmentalStudies, at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Pottentavida Ajithprasad of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, examine the a lithic assemblage from Vaharvo Timbo, a dune-top archaeological site in the Patan District of Gujarat State, India.

The Vaharvo Timbo site was discovered in the 1980s, and was the subject of an excavation by the North Gujarat Archaeological Project (a collaboration between the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and the Milà i Fontanals Institution for Research in Humanities) in 2011. The site covers 52 000 m² at the top of a set of stabilised dunes in the estuary of the River Rupal. 

Two trenches were dug during the excavation, both measuring 4 x 4 m. The first of these was on the dune summit, and found a layer 135 cm deep, containing lithic tools and debitage, pieces of ochre, iron or manganese oxide nodules, Dentalium sp. (Tusk Shell) shell beads, bone points, and grinding stones, which was isotope dated to between 5600  and 5000 BC. The second trench was excavated lower on the dune slope, and uncovered a Human burial, containing a young individual and two pottery vessels in the style of the Early Harrapan Period (3300-2600 BC).

Vaharvo Timbo is located about 6 km to the south of the Loteshwar site, which was excavated by the North Gujarat Archaeological Project in 2009. The Loteshwar site produced material dated to 7168–4703 BC, which makes it one of the earliest known Holocene settlements in northwest India, including a wide range of Mesolithic stone tools, as well as traces of the consumption of Animals (principally Antelope) and Plants (principally wild grains and pulses) and charcoal.

Map of western India showing the location of notable archaeological sites in the Thar Desert. Francesc Conesa in Gadekar et al. (2022).

The relatively recent exploration of Loteshwar and Vaharvo Timbo mean that both were excavated in a controlled manner, with the precise location of each lithic item carefully recorded, and directly related to sediment structures, and biological items from which dates can be obtained, allowing direct comparison of the sites.

Gadekar et al.'s study concentrated on the early hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the Thar desert, and therefore concentrated on the material from the trench on the top of the dune, rather than the later burial. The lithic material included 5034 pieces of debitage (waste from the manufacturing of tools), 192 blades (including simple blades with parallel sides, backed blades, obliquely blunted blades, and retouched blades), 90 geometric tools (including isosceles triangles, with two equal sides, scalene triangles, without equal sides, lunates, shaped like a crescent, and trapezes, with two parallel horizontal sides and two non-parallel shorter sides), and 20 non-geometric tools (including points and double-sided scrapers). The material from which these tools were made includes chert, chalcedony, banded agate, moss agate, carnelian, bloodstone and quartz. The presence of large amounts of debitage implies that stone tools were being made at the site.

Examples of the lithic assemblage recovered from Vaharvo Timbo: (a)-(j) trapezes, (k)-(l) lunates, (m)-(p) points, (q) triangle isosceles and (r)-(z) various types of blades. Pottentavida Ajithprasad in Gadekar et al. (2022).

The microliths at Loteshwar and Vaharvo Timbo appear to have been made using similar techniques, and both at both sites the assemblage is dominated by blades. However, the Vaharvo Timbo assemblage contains a far higher proportion of retouched blades and geometric tools than that at Loteshwar. Conversely, the Loteshwar assemblage is dominated by blade flakes (flakes without uniform parallel sides like a blade), which are very rare at Vaharvo Timbo.

The Vaharvo Timbo site shows extensive evidence of tool manufacturing, as well as the exploitation of Plant and Animal resources. Ceramics are absent from the site, and, curiously, none of the tools show signs of wear, possibly implying they were being manufactured here for use elsewhere. The tools at Vaharvo Timbo appear to have been made using similar techniques to those at Loteshwar, but the range of tools is more limited. Possibly this reflects Loteshwar, which is located about 500 m from the Khari River, being a more permanent settlement, while Vaharvo Timbo was used as a base for hunting and fishing expeditions.

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