Shifting cultivators in South Asia: Expansion, marginalisation and specialisation over the long term
- Resource Type
- ACADEMIC JOURNAL
- In Long-term perspectives on human occupation of tropical rainforests, Quaternary International 6 February 2012 249:84-95
This paper will consider alternative perspectives on the long-term history of shifting cultivation in India and Sri Lanka. Ethnographic and historical accounts of shifting cultivation, often by groups marginal to centres of urbanism and agrarian civilisation, are reviewed. Shifting cultivation persists in hill regions which are more marginal for sedentary, high intensity agriculture and state procurement of taxation. This can be considered as a strategy both to exploit more marginal lands and to avoid state domination. The origins of this historical equilibrium are hypothesized to lie with the expansion of later Neolithic agriculture (4000–3000 BP) and the development of hierarchical polities in the Indian plains in the Iron Age (mainly after 3000 BP). The archaeological record of early agriculture indicates that cultivation precedes sedentary villages, suggesting that shifting cultivation may have been a widespread economic system in the Neolithic, in both the Ganges Valley and the Deccan Plateau of South India. These areas are more suited to sedentary cultivation that could support higher population densities. Therefore, as populations grew in the Neolithic the economic system shifted to sedentary agriculture. The expansion of trade networks, hierarchical societies and demographic density pushed shifting cultivation practices into increasingly marginal settings, where this became an interdependent strategy. Specialist hunter–gatherers trading in forest products became an increasingly important aspect of forest exploitation as did cultivation of ‘cash crop trees’. The potential to detect the effect of some of these processes in archaeological and palynological evidence is explored.