From the book ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).
THE EARLY HUMAN SETTLEMENTS
Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times
The earliest human settlement in the Western Ghats have been traced back to the Palaeolithic or the Old Stone Age period – over 10,000 years BC.
Stone tools were discovered from the river valleys of Bharatpuzha (Palghat district), Beypur (Malappuram district) and Netravathi basin (Dakshina Kannada district).
Palaeolithic artifacts have been found at Kibbanahalli (Mysore district), Lingadahalli and Kadur (Chickmagalur district) and Honnalli (Shimoga district).
Tribal Woman, Wayanad, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai
Mesolithic or the Middle Stone Age (10,000 – 3,000BC) witnessed the transition of hunter-gatherers into food growers. Many Mesolithic sites have been discovered from Mandovi river in Goa to Kerala. They are located at Karwar and Ankola (Uttara Kannada district), Netravathi valley (Dakshina Kannada district) Nirmalagiri (Kannur district), Chevayur (Kozikode district) and Tenmalai (Kollam district). Charcoal found from the trenches in Tenamalai, indicates that the people could have burned forests.
The Deccan Plateau during the Neolithic or the New Stone Age (3,000-1,000 BC), was practising primitive agriculture and pastoralism. In Hallur (Dharwar district) close to the Western Ghats, cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated (1500 BC) and millet and horse gram were cultivated 300 years later.
The Jorwe people of Inamgaon – in the western Deccan Maharashtra, had irrigated rice during 1400-700 BC. The Jorwes brought marine fish and shells from the Konkan coast, 200 km to the west, which shows that the Neolithic people had some knowledge of the Western Ghats and the coast.
Many Neolithic sites have been found in the Western Ghats at Tambdi Surla (Goa), Anmod (Uttara Kannada district), Agumbe (Shimoga district), the hill slopes of Sita river (Karkala) and many others in Kerala. The Nilaskal site in Agumbe, being close to the sources of west coast rivers Sharavathy, Chakra and Haladi, was strategic to Neolithic people giving them an easy access to the coast.
Neolithic people with their stone axes descended from the Western Ghats of Dakshina Kannada to the coast in the last part of second millennium BC and resorted to cultivation, probably by slash and burn method. Hill cultivation (presumably shifting) in South India is probably older than the spread of iron tools, about 3,000 years ago.
During the Megalithic period (1000-0 BC) iron implements were widely used. Iron implements date back to 1500 BC in Hallur. The west coast of south India was intensely settled during this period and the Megalithic period witnessed intensification of forest clearance by agri-pastoralists. Many excavated burial chambers in laterite plains have been found in Malabar, Dakshina Kannada and also in Siddapur.(Source : Subhash Chandran, 1997)
The Nilgiris were colonised by the Todas, as early as 200 BC.
Vedic civilisation was largely confined to one of the most fertile tracts of the northwest part of India that includes the present day states of Punjab, Rajasthan and north Gujarat.
Drained by seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu), this region was referred to as the cradle of Indian civilisation. This ancient civilisation of India appears to have had an extended period of development from 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC when a great period of drought seems to have put an end to it. Because of the drought, the Vedic people migrated eastwards and occupied the Gangetic valley region forming parts of the present day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Many enterprising people migrated southward both by land and sea and colonised the west coast around Ratnagiri, Goa, coastal Karnataka and Kerala.
These people are even today called Saraswats and Goud Saraswats, a name reminiscent of their original homeland on the banks of the Vedic river Saraswati in north-west India.
Harappan migration ?
According to some historians the Indus civilisation did not perish suddenly. The later Harappan Phase survived in Saurashtra, Gujarat and north Maharashtra up to 1,200 BC.
The biodiversity rich forests, the abundant water resources, the productive estuaries and the sea, could have attracted the drought stricken Neolithic and Megalithic agri-pastorals from the Deccan, as well as the Harappans.
Forest clearance was inevitable for farming and yet, there was an overwhelming belief in the sacredness of the woods. Secondary species and heavily savannized tracts were interspersed with lofty evergreen patches, the menasukans or pepper forests, where the people tended to the wild pepper. The relics of such kans occur to this day in Uttara Kannada and Shimoga. They were important tracts of pre-colonial forest conservation in the Western Ghats. Myriad relics of such groves, exist even today all over the Western Ghats. They may be called Devrai in Maharashtra, Devarkadu in Kodagu and Kavu in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, these forests in pre-colonial landscape, served many functions like the conservation of biodiversity and watershed, moderation of climate and promoted varied wildlife.
A Sacred Forest in Goa
Hunting was subjected to many community regulations. The sacred forests ranged in size from a few hectares to few hundred hectares. The kans of Sorab taluk in Shimoga district, for instance, covered about 13,000 hectares or 10% of Sorab’s area.
The British occupation of the Western Ghats, from the early 19th century altered forestry operation and traditional forest management gave way to state forestry. The forest working plans for the evergreen belt of the southern Western Ghats concentrated on the extraction of commercial deciduous timber like teak. As large areas of teak were harvested, adequate regeneration did not follow and the rising demand for teak and its depletion in nature compelled the foresters to launch massive vegetational changes in favour of teak monoculture.
The British began large scale forest exploitation and wholesale vegetational changes and transformation into commercial plantations of coffee, tea, wattle and eucalyptus.
Such commercialisation of the high altitude areas such as the Nilgiri plateau, Southern Tamil Nadu and the High Ranges in Kerala marginalised the small tribal groups engaged in hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation.
The state policies favoured the new immigrants who controlled natural resources, and extracted and traded them in the markets. The spurt in commercialisation of natural resources and commodity production also attracted an exodus of migrant labourers with overall serious ecological consequences on the region. The destruction of the forest cover of the Western Ghats has been the result of a nexus between unregulated exploitation by commercial interests, beginning with ship building, railways and the hydel projects in British times and going on to mining, plywood and polyfibre industries after Independence and equally indisciplined harvests by the progressively impoverished rural masses.
From the Edict of Shivaji
“The Armada of our kingdom requires durable hardwood for their hulls decks and masts.
Teak and other appropriate trees of our forests may be felled for this purpose after applying to His Majesty and obtaining the royal permission. If, any more be required, they may be purchased from neighbouring kingdoms.
The Mango and Jackfruit trees of our kingdom also provide suitable timber for naval purposes. But they should not be touched, for it is not as if these trees can be grown in a year or two. People plant them and bestow upon them long years of care, as they would on their own children.
If such trees were to be felled, would not the people be inconsolable? An edifice built upon anyone’s sorrow soon collapses, taking down with it the architect too. In fact the ruler has to bear the guilt of tyranny. Also absence of such trees causes irreparable damage. Hence under no circumstances are such degradations to be allowed.
Perchance, if a very old tree has ceased to bear fruits, then it may be taken with the consent of the owner after persuasion and payment of compensation. Coercion shall not, under any circumstances, be pardoned”.
– Courtesy WWF – INDIA, Newsletter- April 1997