Plant remains yield new clues to ancient societies
5 April 2011, by Adele Walker
Ancient societies may not have been as dominated by urbanisation as many archaeologists believe, according to a new study.
Silica casts of plant cells, called phytoliths, appear to show that rural communities of the Indus Civilisation continued their traditional agricultural practices, rather than changing in response to the economies of the cities growing around them.
Jennifer Bates from University College London completed the work while at the University of Cambridge. Her results mean that some long-held assumptions about the relationship between rural and urban centres should be reinvestigated.
The Indus Civilisation flourished between the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC, and covered around a million square kilometres of Pakistan and north and southwest India. Like many ancient civilisations, it has been studied mainly through the remains of its cities and the expensive objects that belonged to elite members of society – even though most of its people lived outside the cities.
Many archaeologists assume that urbanisation had a profound effect on rural settlements; as cities took control of the region's economy, surrounding villages would have changed their food production and exchange practices to meet the demands of city-dwellers.
So Bates decided to look for evidence for changes in agricultural practices in the village of Masudpur VII, using phytoliths from soil samples covering the period between c3200 and 1900 BC, when the city of Rakhigarhi was growing nearby. Her research is a part of a collaborative project between the University of Cambridge and Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India, and is published in Bioscience Horizons.
Because phytoliths are such accurate copies of plant cells Bates hoped to identify what sort of crop processing waste was present in the village. This would suggest which plant parts were being disposed of at the site, and therefore whether the villagers were producing or consuming plants, and crucially whether this changed as the city nearby grew.
Different stages of crop processing – like threshing, winnowing and sieving – each leave behind different bits of the plant. Food intended for local consumption would be fully processed, so you would expect to see a full range of crop waste – including stems, leaves and husks – at a site where this was taking place. But crops intended for trade would only be processed enough to make them economic to transport, leaving relatively more stem and leaf phytoliths at the site.
Bates' analysis showed that the villagers had been growing a mixture of crops like wheat and barley, and that this mix didn't change during the period that Rakhigarhi was growing nearby.
The phytoliths also revealed a full range of processing activities were taking place on the site, with relatively more from earlier stages of processing (stem and leaf phytoliths) than later stages (husks) – indicating that crops were being prepared mainly for exchange. This pattern also continued uninterrupted, which suggests that the village's food processing practices didn't change either.
So there is no suggestion – at least from this evidence – that the village changed its ways in response to urbanisation.
These results don't mean that urban centres had no long-term effect on their rural surroundings across the region; but they do suggest that villages might have had much more say in their economic role than has been assumed until now.
Bates emphasises that this initial study is small, but her findings do suggest that some long-held assumptions about the relationship between rural and urban sites should be challenged. We cannot understand these ancient civilisations purely by looking at their most conspicuous sites and remains.
Jennifer Bates. Social organization and change in the Indus Civilization; phytolith analysis of crop processing aims at Masudpur VII (2011). Bioscience Horizons doi: 10.1093/biohorizons/hzr001
Interesting? Spread the word using the 'share' menu on the top right.