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From the Zagros Mountains


Could the farmers and herders of Mehrgadh have come from across the Bolan Pass, from the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, carrying the wheat and barley domestication ‘technologies’ developed in the Fertile Crescent ?

There is more than one reason to believe so. Comparing with the forces that would have driven the farmers from Gangetic plain into the cold Mehrgadh, or drawn to it, it looks much more probable for the Zagros farmers to be driven into, or drawn to, the warmer Kachi-Bolan plain; their homeland was in the midst of ‘arid plateaus, ridges, and deserts of Iran and Afghanistan, where rainfall agriculture is possible only in the foothills and cul-de-sac valleys,’ says Gangal [Gangal et al, 2014: The Near-Eastern Roots of the Neolithic in South Asia, in PLoS ONE Vol. 9, No 5, 2]. And there is one strong reason which lets us discount the probability that the Gangetic plain farmers populated the Kachi-Bolan plain: Mehrgadh grew wild and domesticated wheat and barley; the Lahuradewa farmers were rice growers; they adopted wheat and barley only as late as 2,500 BCE to 2,000 BCE.

The Fertile Crescent in the Near East has been accepted as one of the independent origins of the Neolithic, the source from which farming and pottery-making spread across westwards to Europe from around 7,000 BCE to 4,000 BCE. It is highly probable that it spread eastwards too, up to the Indus Valley?

There are several lines of evidence that support the idea of a connection between the Neolithic in the Near East and in Mehrgadh. About 90 per cent of the major produce of the Mehrgadh farmers seems to have been barley; the rest was wheat. It is possible that barley was at least partly domesticated locally in Balochistan; but not wheat. The wheat varieties seem to be of Near-Eastern origin, as the modern distribution of wild varieties of wheat is limited to Northern Levant and Southern Turkey [Gangal et al, 2014: 2]. Fuller puts it more categorically: The situation with cereals recovered from Mehrgadh strongly argues for the introduction of cultivation to this region from the west at some period prior to the founding of Mehrgadh [Fuller, 2006: Agricultural Origins and Frontiers in South Asia: A Working Synthesis, in J World Prehist, Vol 20, 22].

The few graves exposed at Ali Kosh in the Deh Luran region of Iran show skeletons with positions rather similar to those in Mehrgadh cemeteries [Gangal et al, 2014: 2]. Among the grave goods found at Mehrgadh as well as Ali Kosh, one can see ornaments made of seashells and semi-precious stones such as turquoise, and copper beads. Also found at both the places are baskets coated with bitumen and oblong-shaped cakes of red-ochre. The walls of the clay houses in Mehrgadh were plastered inside and outside with thick clay mortar. There are evidences that the coatings of the external walls of several houses were coloured in plain red ochre. Traces of similar red paint have also been noticed on the walls of houses in Neolithic sites in the Zagros, such as Ganj Dareh or Ali Kosh. We find strong parallels between the setting of big multi-cellular granaries at Mehrgadh around 7,000 BCE to 5,500 BCE and at several sites in Mesopotamia, among which was Umm Dabaghiyah, before and around 6000 BC [Jarrige, 2006: Mehrgadh Neolithic, in Pragdhara, No 18, 152]. Clay figurines found in Mehrgadh resemble those discovered at Zaghe on the Qazvin plain south of the Elburz range in Iran (the 7th millennium BCE) and Jeitun in Turkmenistan (the 6th millennium BCE) [Gangal et al, 2014 : 2].

“In spite of some obvious differences, for instance the progressive predominance of the breeding of zebu cattle,” concludes Jarrige, “the full setting of farming economy at Mehrgadh displays evident similarities with what had been noticed in the case of the early Neolithic settlements in the hilly regions forming the eastern border of Mesopotamia” [Jarrige, 2006: 151].

Over and above, there is sufficient “genetic evidence for the occurrence of two major population movements, supporting a model of demic diffusion (immigration) of early farmers from southwestern Iran and of pastoral nomads from western and central Asia into India” [Quintana-Murci et al, 2001: Y-Chromosome Lineages Trace Diffusion of People and Languages in Southwestern Asia, in Am J Hum Genet, No 68, 541]. The authors put the migration of early farmers from southwestern Iran to the Indian subcontinent between the 6th and the 5th millennia BCE, a little later than we have supposed. Such discrepancies between the archaeological and genetics derived dates is not uncommon; as the authors themselves point out, several factors, such as the distinctive demographic histories of the populations sampled and the diverse mutation rates among different Y-chromosome haplogroups may distort the estimates of age. As Lazaridis et al point out, due to the poor preservation of ancient DNA in warm climates, it has been impossible to study the population structure and history of the first farmers in South Asia. Nevertheless, some broad inferences have been drawn by the authors: “In South Asia, our dataset provides insight into the sources of Ancestral North Indians…  However, it can be modelled as a mix of ancestry related to both early farmers of western Iran and to people of the Bronze Age Eurasian steppe” [Lazaridis et al, 2016: Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East, in Nature, No 536, 6]. The ‘mix of ancestry’, however, is not an issue. We have already distinguished between the two ancestral communities that constitute the Ancestral North Indians: the ksatriya and the bramhan; the ‘early farmers of western Iran’ of Lazardi or the ‘farmers from southwestern Iran’ of Quintana-Murci are the ancestors of the ksatriya; and the ‘people of the Bronze Age Eurasian steppe’ of Lazardi or the ‘pastoral nomads from western and central Asia’ of  Quintana-Murci are the ancestors of the bramhan; at the moment we are interested in the former only; that leaves us with no doubt that the farmers of Mehrgadh did indeed migrate from the Zagros mountainside.

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