Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Sri Lanka: Agriculture in the Pleistocene?

Anil Suri has an article at How Old Is Indian Agriculture?

The article goes over some well-known findings; but also makes an extraordinary claim.

To trace the trajectory from incipient cultivation as a dry crop to the wetland crop rice had become by around 7500 BCE, we must journey south, indeed, as far down as the southern part of Sri Lanka. To the mesmerizingly beautiful Horton Plains National Park, to be precise. Here, there is evidence of cattle herding and grazing, microcharcoal indicating the use of fire to clear the land of forests, cultivation of edible plants, and early management of barley and oats from – hold your breath – 15,500 BCE. It is believed the subcontinent experienced a semi-arid climate between 22,000 and 15,500 BCE, followed by a sustained, progressively warmer spell, with a concomitantly strengthening monsoon, starting around 16,500 BCE. Thus, early attempts at pastoralism and agriculture begin almost as soon as the climate became ever so slightly conducive. The climate got progressively better for agriculture, peaking in an extremely humid period around 6700 BCE. As the humidity increased, cultivated rice made its first known appearance here around 13,000 BCE. Notice that the early dwellers of the Horton Plains seem to have figured out which crop was best suited to a particular climate. Closely following the improvement in the climate, intensive agriculture in the region began around 11,000 BCE, and there was an abrupt shift in emphasis from oats and barley to rice after 8000 BCE. The fact that intensive rice cultivation was being done on the Ganga plain by no later than the mid-8th millennium BCE, as described above, shows there were many independent centres for the establishment of agriculture in the subcontinent, and that the progress in agriculture happened closely in tandem with climactic changes.

In around 16,000 BCE, which falls in the Ice Age, India and Sri Lanka would have been contiguous as the sea level was about 120 metres lower than it is today. (Around 8000 BCE, it was still 50 metres lower.) This early attempt at agriculture was no flash in the pan. Archaeologists believe that there is a continuity of agricultural tradition in the subcontinent right from then. The archaeologist, Premathilake writes, The evidence of early form of agricultural activities found in the Horton Plains do not appear to have got isolated at the regional level and similar type of evidence in the form of cultivated pollen and other proxies is available in the Indian subcontinent.

Horton Plains is called "Maha Eliya Thanne" by the locals.

  1. The above claim is based on the 2006 paper by R. Premathilake, "The emergence of early agriculture in the Horton Plains, central Sri Lanka: linked to late Pleistocene and early Holocene climatic changes", which seems to have been pretty much ignored, if one goes by the number of citations this paper has received.  A quick search does not show any follow-up activity going on either.

  2. The Premathilake paper says: "It is clear that incipient management of barley and oats occur around 15 500 BC in the Horton Plains as evidenced by pollen and other multi-proxy records (e.g. phytoliths, diatoms, stable carbon isotope, organic carbon, total carbon, environmental mineral magnetic). The semi- humid event between 15 600 and 14 000 BC corresponds to incipient management of cereal plants (oats and barley). The pollen evidence also indicates herding, possibly of Bos sp. and supportive indications are (1) forest clearance/ burning, (2) grazing, (3) pastures, (4) the presence of a characteristic edible plant, (5) a cultivated shrub, (6) various types of disturbed fields, e.g: patanas, (7) enhanced anthropogenic erosion as indicated by the initial increase of the values in magnetic susceptibility parameters (8) and high percentages of microscopic charcoal particles. These observations can be interpreted as the result of the initial stage of slash- and-burn activity."
Agriculture 16000 years ago is an extraordinary claim and I think that these findings are in need of independent replication; and presumably much more intensive studies of the Maha Eliya Thanne region are called for.