Khasi hills (Inde): Iron used 2000 years ago
Evidence of ancient smelting ‘technology’ found in Meghalaya
Pawel Prokop in Khasi hills
Scientists have discovered evidence of iron being smelted in Khasi hills about 2,000 years ago, making Meghalaya the first northeastern state to figure in the list of ancient Indian sites known for iron extraction.
Two scientists from Poland engaged in geo-environmental research in the Khasi hills have found charcoal and residual slag from iron extraction at several sites, including Nongkrem in East Khasi Hills where the slag is 2,040 years old.
The British had first described an iron-smelting industry in Meghalaya in the 19th century but it had been unclear as to when iron-smelting practices had first emerged in the Northeast and for how long had ore been processed in the region.
“Now we know iron smelting was here at least 2,000 years ago and the technology used for ore extraction was similar to that used in central India,” said Pawel Prokop, a geo-environmental researcher with the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Nongkrem, located in a zone of granite at the bottom of a valley, seems to have been the primary centre for iron-ore excavation, Prokop and his colleague, Ireneusz Suliga, have reported today in a the journal, Current Science.
The duo have excavated several samples of iron slag from Nongkrem at a depth of about 2.7 metres. The charcoal, which is believed to be the fuel used for smelting, from the site is about 2,040 years old, they said.
At another site, Raitkteng, located in a zone of sandstone near the foot of a grassy hill, the scientists found charcoal about 1,100 years old.
Archaeologists have in the past reported even older iron smelting evidence from sites across central and north India, the oldest at Malhar in Uttar Pradesh where extraction of the metal was done at least 3,600 years ago.
“We still don’t know whether iron-smelting was discovered by the local Khasi people or it was brought here through migration from other parts of India,” Prokop, who visited Meghalaya several times, told The Telegraph.
He said a surprising element about the finding was the continuity of iron smelting from 2,000 years ago up to the 19th century. He said examination of the slag from Meghalaya also revealed “recycling” — mixing of old iron slag with fresh metal.
“Until now there had been no information about ancient iron smelting from the Northeast,” said Rakesh Tewari, a senior archaeologist in Lucknow who has been tracking iron-smelting sites across the country and was not associated with the Polish team’s research. “We can’t say yet where iron-smelting first appeared on the subcontinent.”
The discovery of evidence of ancient iron-smelting in Meghalaya is a spin-off from a project between Prokop and his collaborator, Hiambok Jones Syiemlieh, a professor of geography at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, that aimed at analysing terrain changes in Khasi hills, one of the rainiest places on the planet.
“We’re trying to look back in time to determine how rain has been affecting the soil runoff,” Syiemlieh, who was not associated with the ironore smelting research, told this correspondent.
The geo-environmental research was sponsored by the Indian National Science Academy and the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Prokop and Suliga said the relative isolation of the Khasi people, who live on an elevated plateau, suggested that they might have discovered iron-smelting on their own but did not rule out “diffusion or iron production knowledge” through trade contacts with people in the lowlands.