The Nilgiri Archeological Project


Daniela de Simone, Anupama K.

Start Date: May, 2022
Status: Ongoing

Project Details

Department Ecology
Duration 3 Year(s)
Funding Agency(ies)

Ghent University, IFP


Letizia Trinco


The Madras Museum, Chennai

National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bangalore

Team Anbarashan MUNISAMY
Davit Naskidashvili
Letizia TRINCO
Email anupama.k AT ifpindia DOT org

Project Description

The Nilgiri Archeological Project: Palynology and Paleoecology component

Paleoecology is the study of past using the proxy data that remain preserved in various archives including sediment sections that occur naturally in the present landscapes, and also those obtained in the course of archeological excavations which also provide other sources of material evidences preserved in the artefacts recovered from excavations. Archives such as marine sediments, ice cores are also a part of the past paleoecological reconstruction because these can provide valuable inputs on the physical environment that prevailed in the past and a measure of past climate changes. These remains can be macro remains of plants or animals as also microscopic remains such as pollen and phytoliths which would be the main focus of the environmental component of the Nilgiris Archeological project which will also have an ethnobotanical survey aspect.

Pollen grains produced by flowers of all angiosperm plants are naturally made to be dispersed to reach the stigma of the same flower or a different flower (of the same plant or another one of the same species) to finally produce the seeds that will help the propagation of the species. The outer wall of the pollen grain which is highly resistant to degradation in the soil where most pollen produced by plants will eventually settle offers a powerful tool for paleoecological and archeobotanical studies. This is because when the plants in a forest or a meadow or a grove or an agricultural field are no longer there to record their past presence, the pollen they produced and dispersed would have settled in the soil layers to tell their story. Likewise if people used flowers in funerary rites, then the pollen of those plants in the recovered archeological artefacts are indicative of the past cultural practices of the people that lived in the past. Such practices also routinely include burial of food grains in the burial chambers in pots and pans and other materials buried with the dead. This is where Phytoliths come in.

Phytoliths are silica bodies produced by almost all parts of a plant and especially herbaceous ones like grasses, sedges and other dicotyledonous herbs including cultivated ones (lentils). Most of our domesticated crops are from the grass family with domestication leading to the formation of diagnostic phytoliths that like the pollen would be eventually buried in the soil or found in the funerary chambers and other sections in an archeological excavation.

In the new multidisciplinary framework to study the pre-colonial history of Indian upland forest-dwellers of the Nilgiris in Southern India, the project is envisaged in terms of 4 distinct strands:

1) Landscape (Built or Natural environment)

2) Identity (Museum Collections)

3) Upland Lowland interactions (oral histories and Texts)

4) Traditional Ecological Knowledge (Early Colonial Botanical Literature and Collections

The palynological, ecological and paleoecological studies will be a powerful component adding to almost all the research strands either directly, or by providing a broad environmental context of vegetation changes in these upland forest-grassland mosaics, commonly called Sholas and classified as high elevation wet evergreen forests in the framework of the altitudinally graded Western Ghats forest types. Several studies have already laid a basis for this, notably the PhD Thesis of J. P. Sutra (1997) in the framework of the long term project on Paleoenvironments of South India at the IFP and more recently another PhD thesis from IISc Bangalore by Ramyabala Prabhakaran (2019). While a complete review of this can be done elsewhere, these previous works highlight the availability of a basis to build our current project on.

The current project would focus on filling the gaps in both data and methodologies that would allow us to go from site specific reconstructions of the past vegetation to a regional quantitative pollen based reconstruction of the past landcover. This will allow us to appreciate the past in this region in terms of its landscape dynamics. To this end we plan to collect both surface samples and sediment cores and analyse them for pollen and phytoliths. It will also undertake vegetation surveys in and around the pollen and phytolith sampling sites to document the present vegetation at a regional scale using quantitative methods. By focussing in a multidisciplinary manner on the sites of archeological interest to the project, the first thread on landscape will have a direct intervention by the environmental component. The second thread on Identity on the other hand would benefit indirectly from the deeper time paleoecological dynamics that can provide an idea of both the terrain in which the people operated and at least some specifics on the actual forest/ timber resources potentially available in this region for human exploitation. Likewise the third thread on upland-lowland interactions would also benefit mainly indirectly from the ecological and paleoecological aspects and the last one will have a direct component especially from the phytolith studies focused on possible plant domestication markers in the archeological sites.

Currently one full term Postdoctoral fellow is associated to the project and potentially one PhD student and additional laboratory and field technical assistance to carry out the multi proxy Paleoecological part is also envisaged.