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date: 20 October 2017

The Agriculture of Early India

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

A unique Neolithic transition to agricultural domestication occurred in South Asia, even though far less attention has been given to the quest for the archaeological evidence of early agriculture in India than in other regions of the world traditionally recognized as “centers of domestication,” such as the Near East, western Asia, China, Mesoamerica, and Africa. During the early Holocene, hunter-gatherers with agricultural production appeared, and around the middle of the epoch (4000–500 bce), cultivation of domesticates and a correspondingly more sedentary lifestyle emerged. Two thousand years ago, India was mostly inhabited by farmers supporting densely populated river valleys, coastal plains, urban populations, states, and even empires. While some of the crops that supported these early civilizations had been introduced from other regions of the world, many had local origins in wild plants native to the subcontinent.

In the study of the origins of agriculture, South Asia has much to offer archaeologists and environmental scientists in terms of elucidating domestication processes and local transitions from foraging to farming and the ways in which early farming adapted to and transformed the environment and regional vegetation. Although inspiration from farmers in distant parts of the subcontinent cannot be ruled out, it is clear that local agricultural practices originated via a series of processes, including the dispersal of pastoral and agro-pastoral peoples across regions, the local domestication of animals and plants, and the adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers of food production techniques from neighbouring cultures. Indeed, local domestication events in India occurred alongside agricultural diffusion from other parts of the world in an interconnected mosaic of cultivation, pastoralism, and sedentism. As humans in South Asia increasingly relied on a more restricted range of plant species, they began an equally precarious and fixed trajectory that allowed greater subsistence levels to sustain larger populations and support their developing social, cultural, and food traditions.