Dry, rainfed or irrigated? Reevaluating the role and development of rice agriculture in Iron Age-Early Historic South India using archaeobotanical approaches.
Domestic rice agriculture had spread across the mainland Indian subcontinent by c.500 BC. The initial spread of rice outside the core zone of the central Gangetic Plains is thought to have been limited by climatic constraints, particularly seasonal rainfall levels, and so the later spread of rice into the dry regions of South India is largely supposed to have relied on irrigation. This has been associated with the development of ritual water features in the Iron Age (c.1000–500 BC), and to the subsequent development of tanks (reservoirs) during the period of Early Historic state development (c.500 BC–500 AD). The identification of early irrigation systems within South Asia has largely relied on early historical texts, and not on direct archaeological evidence. This initial investigation attempts to identify irrigated rice cultivation in the Indian subcontinent by directly examining rice crop remains (phytolith and macrobotanical data) from four sites. The evidence presented here shows that, contrary to accepted narratives, rice agriculture in the Iron Age-Early Historic South India may not have been supported by irrigated paddy fields, but may have relied on seasonal rainfall as elsewhere in the subcontinent. More caution is urged, therefore, when using terms related to 'irrigation' and 'agricultural intensification' in discussions of the Iron Age and Early Historic South Asia and the related developments of urbanism and state polities. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]