Basis for Periodization
The earliest traces of human existence go back to the period between 3,00,000 and 2,00,000 BC. A large number of primitive stone tools found in the Soan valley and south India suggests this. The modern human being first appeared around 36000 BC. Primitive man in the Palaeolithic age which lasted till 8000 BC used tools and implements of rough stone. Initially man was a food gatherer and depended on nature for food. He learnt to control fire which helped him to improve his way of living. From 8000 BC the Mesolithic age began and continued up to 4000 BC in India. During this time sharp and pointed tools were used for killing fast-moving animals. Chota Nagpur plateau, Central India and south of the river Krishna are some of the sites.
Neolithic settlements are not older than 4000 BC. Man began to domesticate animals and cultivate plants settling down in villages to form farming communities. The wheel was an important discovery. Towards the end of the Neolithic period metals like copper and bronze were used. This was the Chalcolithic phase.
Periodization of Indian Prehistory
To begin with the Palaeolithic Age was also called the old stone age covered the long period from the time the first ancestors of modern human beings started living in the Indian subcontinent from roughly 3 lakh B.C to 8000 or eighth millennium B.C.Archeologists divide it into three phases -the Lower or Early, the middle and the upper Palaeolithic age-according to the nature of the stone tools used by the people.
Then came the Mesolithic age also known as the late Stone Age which broadly covered the period from the eighth to fourth millennium BC.It is the intermediate or transitional stage between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic age. The tools of this age are called microliths. Neolithic Age: Third is the Neolithic age or the new Stone Age that covered the period roughly from 4000 to 1800 BC and was marked by the use of polished stone tools. Chalcolithic Age: Stone-copper age covered the period from 1800 to 1200 BC
Sources of Prehistory
Unlike the more advanced stages for which various types of sources are available the study of the initial stages of human history is based entirely on the material remains left by early man. The period is referred when man was primarily a food gatherer or had just begun a settled life and for which no written records are available. The material remains of early man is available mostly in the form of stone tools and sometimes with the remains of animals that he hunted do not speak comprehensively about his life.
The basic information provided by the tools of the early man, his habitat and observed facts about communities still in the initial stages of societal development have led to certain conclusions about variations even in the earliest cultures and the cultural zones.
Food Gathering Communities
Early Stone Age tools have been found in different areas of the subcontinent the most notable among which are the Potwar plain in north-western Punjab; the Beas and Banganga valleys; Nevasa in the valley of Pravara, a tributary of the Godavary; Gudalur in Gundlakamma basin in Andhra Pradesh; Nagarjunakonda in the Krishna valley, a string of sites (Vadamadurai, Attirampakkam etc) in the coastal plain near Chennai and the districts along the north bank of the Mahanadi in Orissa. Primitive man used tools and implements of rough stone. Flint was commonly used as it is hard but flakes easily. Tools serve a variety of purposes such as skinning of dead animals, cutting their flesh and splitting bones etc. Man during this period was essentially a food gatherer. He was totally dependent on nature for his food supply; requirement of game animals and edible plants. In course of time he learnt to control fire which helped improve the pattern of living in many ways.
He used the skins of animals, barks of trees and large leaves as clothes. Men were organized in small wandering groups consisting of few men, women and children. It was towards the end of the Palaeolithic period that the modern human being (Homo Sapien) first appeared around 36,000 BC. The middle stone age cultures were around the date 33,000 BC to about 16,500 BC.
There are indications that in some regions like western Rajasthan and MP the flake making technique was of a more improved variety than in others. These regional variations in dates and the total cultural assemblage became more prominent in the Late Stone age heralded by the use of smaller tools the microliths. In MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan and several other areas a long time span of 8500 BC-1700 BC has been suggested for these cultures.
Microliths being compound tools suggest a substantial technological change being hafted in bone, wood or bamboo. Atleast in few areas along with the microliths the technique of pot making a technique of great significance in human history as it came to be closely associated with food production and settled life. Langhnaj in Gujarat and Adamgarh in MP suggest presence of domesticated animals and exchange of commodities between different areas and communities.
Food Producing Men
Settled life based on food production first began in the northwest. Here man progressed from incipient food production to the foundation of Neolithic -Chalcolithic village cultures. In Ahar (Banas valley of Rajasthan), Maheshwar-Navdatoli in the Narmada valley, Nagda in the Chambal valley, Daimabad, Chandoli and various other sites of the northern Deccan early farmers were living in open villages and cultivating crops which included wheat, several kinds of legumes or rice as at Chirand in south Bihar.
In the south, in central and eastern Deccan the economy was predominantly pastoral and the Neolithic -Chalcolithic influence can be seen at Piklihal and Tekkalakota in Karnataka or Utnur and Nagarjunakonda in AP. This period continued from about 2000 BC to about the middle of the first millennium BC although in certain areas the advent of a new metallic technology seems to have taken place earlier.
Neolithic or the New Stone Age
The main period of the Neolithic Age in the Indian subcontinent was 4000-1800 BC. This was the food producing age when man completely changed his way of life. Traces of Neolithic communities have survived mostly in the north-western region and the Deccan. Neolithic settlements in Baluchistan seem to be oldest around 3500 BC. In the new way of life man began to domesticate animals and cultivate plants. The dog, sheep and goat were probably the first to be domesticated.
Among plants, wheat and barley were the earliest cereals grown. As a result man began to settle down in certain selected areas. This led to the growth of villages and farming communities. The tools he needed also changed. All these developments took place first in north western India and culminated in the rise and growth of great Indus Civilization while the rest of the Indian subcontinent was late in undergoing the transition from Mesolithic to the Neolithic and then to the Chalcolithic periods.
The early history of Iron in India can be examined in terms of different regional contexts through the study of the various iron-using areas of the subcontinent. The chronology of iron differs from one area to another but between the period 1000BC and 500 BC its use said to spread to all major areas-
The upper Ganges valley and its peripheries
Malwa plateau and Tapti valley
South and Central Indian megalithic areas
Middle and Lower Ganges valleys
North west mainly Peshawar region
Impact of Iron
Iron brought in a change of economy, the characteristic feature of advanced type of agriculture. In the Ganges Valley and in the Malwa region iron led to the rise of urban areas. Both Brahmanical and Buddhist texts are full with reference to cities during the middle of the first millennium BC and at sites like Ahichhatra, Varanasi, Kausambi, Sravasti and Ujjayini the evidences of Iron age urbanization is available.
By the middle of the 6th century BC some of these settlements had reached the proportions of urban centres. This suggests that for the first time since the decline of the Harappan civilization a substantial agricultural surplus which could sustain such urban centres had emerged. The use of silver and copper coins in large numbers during this period implies considerable trade and commerce. Some of the urban centres were also seats of political power as suggested by defence arrangements in some of them. Thus a political system with definable territorial units as its bases had developed by this time.
In the Upper Ganges valley and the Indo Gangetic divide iron is first found associated around 800 BC with a culture known as Painted Greyware. Its use was sparse in the beginning but by the middle of the 6th century BC it had become fairly common and was associated with the new Northern Black Polished Ware culture. During this period its horizon expanded to include the central and lower Ganges valley where it marked a significant break from the earlier cultures. In the Malwa region and Tapti valley too it sites such as Nagda, Eran and Prakash, iron brought in an element of change in the earlier Chalcolithic cultures and it is possible that the use of iron was slightly earlier in this region (1000 BC) than in the Ganges Valley. At Hallur in north Karnataka iron appears to overlap the Neolithic implements of 900 BC