When did man stop wandering and settle somewhere? About 10,000 years ago, in the Middle East, human beings learnt the skills of agricultural cultivation and raising cattle. This marked the beginning of the Neolithic Age. Man learnt that hunting wild animals and gatherings fruits and plants were not the only ways of getting food. Man learnt to cultivate plants and domesticate animals. When human beings learnt how to produce their own food, their lives changed. This process is so important that we call it a revolution. The first plants they cultivated were cereals. In India, it was mainly rice and wheat. The first domesticated animals were dogs, horses, goats, sheep and oxen.
People needed to live near fertile land to cultivate cereals. They built villages, usually next to rivers. Their houses were built of sticks and mud and fences kept out wild animals. The New Stone Age ushered in new ideas and a new way of life. However, the move from a hunter gatherer to a farming lifestyle did not take place overnight. It was a gradual process, a silent revolution that laid the foundation of life as we know it today.
In the Indian subcontinent, the most important sites where Neolithic remains have been found are:
Mehargarh: Mehargarh finds a unique place in history because it was the site of one of the earliest agricultural communities in the world. It is situated in Baluchistan in Pakistan. Wheat and barley were grown and the farmers kept herds of cattle, sheep and goats. The people of Mehargarh lived in brick houses and stored their grain in granaries. They also learned to line their baskets with clay to make them waterproof. Mehargarh was occupied by human settlements from around 7,000 BC. Pottery, dating back to around 5000 BC, was discovered here. Beautiful ornaments were made from conch shells, lapis lazuli and turquoise beads. The first evidence of drilling a tooth on a living person was also discovered in Mehargarh.
However, not all Neolithic economies were based on species locally domesticated. Neolithic cultures in the Jhelum valley and in the Garo and North Cachar Hills exhibit a frontier character, with artefact links with cultures outside the subcontinent. On the other hand, in Orissa, we may have mingling of traditions from the Northeast and the Deccan plateau.
Burzahom: Burzahom, situated 16 km mortheast of Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, is one of India’s major archaeological sites. Its geographical coordinates are 34°10’5” North, 74°52’40” East, and 1800 metres above sea level. It is located off the Naseem-Shalimar Road between Dal Lake and the Zabarwan Hills. Burzahom was the first Neolithic site to be discovered in Kashmir. Burzahom means ‘place of birch’ in Kashmiri. This is because there are many birch trees in the area. There is something unusual about the earliest Neolithic homes at Burzahom. They were below ground level. The people dug pits into the ground with the help of stone tools. They plastered the sides of the pits with mud. Living in these pits in which people of Burzahom tried to keep snug and warm in the bitterly cold winter.
The people of Burzahom used coarse grey pottery. It is interesting that at Burzahom, domestic dogs were buried with their masters in their graves. This practice does not seem to be evident in any other Neolithic culture in India. The earliest date for Burzahom is about 2700 BC, but the bones recovered from Chirand, around the present Bihar, cannot be dated earlier than 2000 BC and possibly belong to the late Neolithic phase. Radiocarbon dating has placed this site about 4,500 years old. Radiocarbon dating is a method that is used to determine the age of a thing. It helps a lot in the archaeological studies.
Gufkral: Gufkral (literally the ‘Cave of the Potter’), a Neolithic site 41 km Southwest of Srinagar, practised both agriculture and animal husbandry. Archaeologists have confirmed that there were five main periods of occupation at Gufkral. These included early Aceramic Neolithic period, the Pottery Neolithic period, the Mature Neolithic period, and the Megaliths period. The Aceramic phase at Gufkral showed large and small dwelling pits. Shallow and large pits are said to be more common in its earliest phase. There are examples of pits with two chambers in the later phase. Handmade grey pottery with a mat-impressed base is a distinguishing feature of the Kashmir Neolithic at Gufkral. The remains of animals clearly showed that in the Aceramic Neolithic period at Gufkral, settlers were both engaged in wild game as well as in domestication of animals. The animals that were known at that time were wild sheep, wild goat, wild cattle, red deer, wolf, Himalayan ibex and bear. Sheep and goat were the only animals that were domesticated or tamed by the people of Gufkral. The recovery of bones, stone tools, copper, iron, etc, indicates different patterns and period of the evolution of human life in Kashmir. The site is important because it paves way for the understanding of the start of domestication of animals and cooked food patterns. In the annals of history, wheat, barley and lentils were the staple food, not rice.
The site is still looked after by the potter inhabitants of the villages. These caves are actually part of routine life and local inheritance. For most part of time, locals used to live in the caves.
The other important sites of historical importance regarding Neolithic Age in Kashmir are Begagund, Hariparigom, Olchibag, Pampur, Panzgom, Sombur Waztal and Brah. All these sites have historical importance as throw light on the evolution of agriculture and pottery.
The present condition of nearly all the Neolithic sites is pathetic. The callousness of both the government and the people of the region is highly disturbing. In the West, people preserve such sites. They know their origin and work accordingly. But in our world, the sites are playgrounds for the local people. They have encroached on the sites, stray animals are seen there, grazing grounds is what has become of them. Students are least interested in archaelogical courses, which inform us of our past. In Kashmir, history in general and ancient history in particular are considered as boring subjects. They are studied only for the sake of passing the exam.
The way ahead is difficult but not impossible. The government as well as the common people have to come forward in preserving such sites. Some caves have been destroyed due to natural calamities while some are crumbling. Man versus animal conflict also acts as a big hurdle in preserving these caves. Wild animals often stay in the caves for months together. A change of mindset towards these sites can prove beneficial. If we lose these historical places, which are decaying by the day, we will lose our identity. At the end of the day, we may become strangers to our native land.