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Iron in Tamil Nadu 4,200 years ago: a new dating and its significance

Carbon dating of excavated finds in Tamil Nadu pushes evidence of iron being used in India back to 4,200 years ago. A look at the findings of a new study, and its historical significance.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
Updated: May 15, 2022 7:27:38 am
Iron items recovered from the site at Mayiladumparai. (Photo: Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology)

Carbon dating of excavated finds in Tamil Nadu pushes evidence of iron being used in India back to 4,200 years ago, the Tamil Nadu government announced this week on the basis of an archaeological report. Before this, the earliest evidence of iron use was from 1900-2000 BCE for the country, and from 1500 BCE for Tamil Nadu. The latest evidence dates the findings from Tamil Nadu to 2172 BCE.

Chief Minister M K Stalin said in the Assembly that it has been established that Tamils who lived 4,200 years ago were aware of iron. “Dense forests were converted into fertile lands only after humankind began realising the use of iron. This finding has answered questions relating to the start of agricultural activity in Tamil Nadu,” Stalin said.

The findings

The excavations are from Mayiladumparai near Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, about 100 km south of Bengaluru. Mayiladumparai is an important site with cultural material dating back between the Microlithic (30,000 BCE) and Early Historic (600 BCE) ages.

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“The site is situated in the midst of several archaeological sites such as Togarapalli, Gangavaram, Sandur, Vedarthattakkal, Guttur, Gidlur, Sappamutlu and Kappalavadi… All these important archaeological sites lie within 10 km,” said the report cited by Stalin, titled ‘Mayiladumparai: Beginning of Agrarian Society 4200 years old Iron Age culture in Tamilnadu’, and headed by archaeologist K Rajan.

Prof Rajan had discovered the site in the 1990s, and the first excavations from there were made in the 1990s. The results of dating, which used accelerator mass spectroscopy, came last week.

Timeline revisited

The dates when humans entered the Iron Age vary from one region of the world to another. In India, too, the date has been revised with successive findings over the decades.

In 1979, use of iron was traced to 1300 BCE at Ahar in Rajasthan. Later, samples at Bukkasagara in Karnataka, indicating iron production, were dated back to 1530 BCE. The date was subsequently pushed back to 1700-1800 BCE with excavations finding evidence of iron smelting at Raipura in the Mid-Ganga valley, and then to 1900-2000 BCE based on investigations in sites at Malhar near Varanasi and Brahmagiri in North Karnataka. A series of dating results on finds from various parts in India have shown evidence of iron-ore technology before 1800 BCE.

Before the latest discovery, the earliest evidence of iron use for Tamil Nadu was from Thelunganur and Mangadu near Mettur, dating back to 1500 BCE.

Historical significance

Iron is not known to have been used in the Indus Valley, from where the use of copper in India is said to have originated (1500 BCE). “But non-availability of copper for technological and mass exploitation forced other regions to remain in the Stone Age. When iron technology was invented, it led to the production of agricultural tools and weapons, leading to production required for a civilisation ahead of economic and cultural progress,” said a leading scientist associated with the Mayiladumparai excavation.

While useful tools were made out of copper, these were brittle and not as strong as iron tools would be. It would have been difficult to use copper tools to clear dense forests and bring land under agriculture — which is why scientists infer that deforestation took place only after humans began using iron.

“With the latest evidence tracing our Iron Age to 2000 BCE from 1500 BC, we can assume that our cultural seeds were laid in 2000 BCE. And the benefit of socio-economic changes and massive production triggered by the iron technology gave its first fruit around 600 BCE — the Tamil Brahmi scripts,” the scientist said.

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Culture and politics

The Tamil Brahmi scripts were once believed to have originated around 300 BCE, until a landmark finding in 2019 pushed the date back to 600 BCE. This dating narrowed the gap between the Indus Valley civilisation and Tamilagam/South India’s Sangam Age. This, and the latest findings, are politically significant.

The dating of the scripts, based on excavations from sites including Keeladi near Madurai, became controversial when the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) did not go for advanced carbon dating tests, and an ASI researcher who had initiated the study was transferred out of the state. The 2019 findings came out of the state government’s efforts.

In the Assembly, Stalin said the goal of the state government is to establish through scientific methods that the history of India should be rewritten from the Tamil land. He said the state archaeology department would begin work on a comparative study of graffiti found in Keeladi and the signs of the Indus Valley civilisation.

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