- Prehistory and Archaeology of Northeast India: Multidisciplinary Investigation in an Archaeological Terra Incognita by Manjil Hazarika
The subtitle of Prehistory and Archaeology of Northeast India refers to northeast India as an archaeological terra incognita; this is certainly no exaggeration. This volume is thus an important contribution to the history and archaeology of this fascinating yet understudied region. The northeast is here defined as including the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura, a vast area bordered by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal, and Myanmar. Almost completely overlooked by archaeologists, this region is a critical border zone between what is traditionally defined as South Asia and Southeast Asia. Its complex history reflects this interstitial location; one hopes that this volume is just the first of many archaeological studies of this key region.
The book covers a lot of ground in its effort to compile existing information about the archaeology and historical linguistics of the northeast and present new archaeological survey data from the Garbhanga Reserve Forest in the state of Assam, along with ethnographic observations of the Karbi, local swidden agriculturalists. In its wide range of topics, the volume reminds one of gazetteers, regionally-specific summaries covering topics from history to household composition. Produced throughout the colonial period and even beyond, gazetteers provided authoritative summaries of official knowledge for general use. Hazarika’s work, a revision of his Bern University PhD thesis, has something of this feel—a wide-ranging guide to the ethnography, historical linguistics, and archaeology of the northeast.
Of necessity, the goal of the work is primarily descriptive, asking questions about prehistoric cultural identity, territories, and change through time. Hazarika adopts a multifaceted approach, combining evidence from linguistics, archaeology, and ethnography to try and fill out a picture of local prehistory. Natural conditions have made archaeological fieldwork difficult in this area, with frequent floods, alluvial deposition by the Brahmaputra river, rain, and heavy vegetation cover posing logistical challenges. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the work and present general background. Chapter 3 is entirely devoted to a reviewof the linguistic groups of the region and their probable patterns of change through time. While linguistic patterns doubtless hold much historical information, the author is not in a position to draw firm connections between this material and the archaeological data, leaving this chapter hanging somewhat awkwardly.
Chapter 4 is a very useful synthesis of previous archaeological research in the northeast. There is, as noted, not a great deal of prior work, but this chapter does a good job of bringing what does exist together. In this chapter, the tables with lists of sites, their time periods, and basic artifact inventories are especially helpful, though it would have been even better if locational information had also been included. In many ways, this chapter is the heart of the volume. Not only does it provide a summary of existing work, but the tables also highlight similarities and differences between sites in terms of their recovered botanical material and artifact inventories.
Chapter 5 presents new data from Hazarika’s archaeological reconnaissance of the Garbhanga Reserve Forest in the state of Assam. He describes four sites, although only the site of Bargaon gets more than a paragraph of text. Bargaon contains redware ceramics, chipped and groundstone tools (including celts), iron artifacts, and megaliths. Although the surface was cleared, the site does not seem to have been excavated and so does not have a secure date. Many of the recovered remains, including a large number of bovine teeth, were collected by the local Karbi villagers, who the author views as an important analogue for past residents. Indeed, most of [End Page 489] chapter 5 is devoted to a description of Karbi farming and life ways. This material, also gathered by the author, is in many ways the primary novel contribution of the work.
In chapter 6, Hazarika makes a case for the in situ domestication of rice and other plant and animal domesticates in northeast India...