<< Back to Project Gallery

Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 317 September 2008

Social distinctions and animal use in the South Indian Iron Age: archaeological evidence from Kadebakele, northern Karnataka

Radhika Lu Bauer


This work explores dimensions of animal use and social differentiation during the Iron Age (1200 to 500 BC) in northern Karnataka, India by examining practices of consumption and procurement through an analysis of faunal remains from a site in the Tungabhadra River Valley. The following preliminary conclusions are based on an analysis of over 64 000 faunal specimens recovered from the 2003 and 2005 seasons of excavation at Kadebakele. These were examined in the EHLTC field laboratory in Hospet, Karnataka and the Deccan College Archaeozoology Laboratory in Pune, Maharashtra.

Hunting practices

Figure 1
Figure 1. Proportion of various taxonomic categories present in areas of the upper terrace (based on percent NISP). Click to enlarge.

A wide variety of wild fauna was exploited by the Iron Age residents of Kadebakele. While larger bodied-game such as deer and bovids were present in the site's deposits, the remains of smaller-bodied taxa were more abundant within the assemblage, specifically non-mammalian taxa such as birds, turtles and fish, were relatively abundant in all excavated areas of the site (Figure 1). Bird remains constituted the most dominant taxa represented in generalised midden deposits at the site (one-third of all specimens in this unit). These data suggest that a range of species were exploited for daily consumption, with the contribution of non-mammalian taxa exceeding that of domesticated and wild mammals.

Of the animals endemic to the region, an array of water fowl, game birds, reptiles/amphibians and fish would have been easily procured in the site's environs. Such a procurement pattern is consistent with opportunistic hunting strategies rather than the labour-intensive efforts involved in planned hunting expeditions (e.g. Binford 1980). The wild fauna used in everyday meals could have been easily captured nearby the site, or may have been encountered in the tending of fields (e.g. Linares 1976). In addition, a quotidian diet reliant upon a diverse range of animals suggests that procurement of animals intended for consumption was not socially restricted. Birds, turtles and fish were central components of the Iron Age diet, and could easily have been trapped by individuals regardless of gender or age.

Husbandry and secondary products economies

The remains of domesticated mammals constitute approximately one-third of all identifiable faunal specimens at Kadebakele. Although they represent a minority of the assemblage by NISP, their dietary and economic importance is apparent in their predominance within the assemblage by weight (representing over 90% of the identifiable specimens by weight). Domesticates reared by Iron Age inhabitants consisted of zebu, water buffalo and sheep/goat.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Bovid third phalanx with evidence of traction-related pathology. Click to enlarge.

Numerous lines of evidence suggest that the rearing of caprines (sheep/goat) and cattle (zebu and water buffalo) was a component of daily life for Iron Age residents of Kadebakele. The available data regarding the age at death of these animals indicated that the majority of them survived into adulthood. Furthermore, osteological evidence representing animals of advanced age was not uncommon, and suggests that juveniles were not slaughtered at 'prime-age' for meat off-take. Instead, herds were reared such that their potential to produce secondary products could be realised. In addition, metrical data (see R. Bauer 2006; 2007) suggested that the practice of castrating zebu bulls was undertaken to control the breeding population, as well as to increase the labour potential of adult males. Pathologies consistent with use of cattle for traction labour were observed among a few specimens in the assemblage, and buttress the interpretation that secondary products such as dairy and labour were important to the Iron Age economy at Kadebakele (Figure 2).

This secondary products economy would have incorporated the herds in a number of ways. Both female cattle and caprines are milk-producers, and could have been used together to create a stable source of dairy year-round. Castrated male cattle were likely useful for traction labour, which may have been important with the expansion of rice cultivation in South India during this time. It is possible that water buffalo were preferred for these activities, as they have a physiological aptitude for working in paddy fields. Furthermore, in the absence of horses, zebu-drawn carts could have facilitated contact and trade with other communities in the region.

Figure 3
Figure 3.Megalithic deposit in the site's southern slope contained a high density of fragmented and charred faunal remains almost entirely from large mammals. Click to enlarge.

Ritual and symbolic use of cattle

The importance of secondary products in the Iron Age subsistence economy would have almost certainly imbued these domesticates with a great deal of social value, perhaps even denoting wealth to their owner(s). Indeed, the inclusion of numerous cattle in strata relating to megalith construction at Kadebakele indicates their ritual importance (Figure 3). Data indicate that domesticates were more likely to be prepared via roasting and cattle remains from the megalithic strata indicate a predominance of partially charred specimens, indicating a practice of roasting large portions of meat on the bone. This manner of preparation is probably correlated with large-scale consumption events as part of ritualised megalith construction.

These lines of evidence suggest that cattle were consumed during the Iron Age, but not necessarily within a daily subsistence context. Data show that non-domestic, megalithic deposits include the highest proportion of bovid bones (R. Bauer 2006; 2007). Thus, the slaughter and communal consumption these creature both highlighted the sacrifice of the owner, as well as created a social context for community members to participate in ritual activities of megalith construction.

Intersections between subsistence and political economy have yet to be explored in detail for this region (A. Bauer et al. 2007). Further research in the Tungabhadra Valley and beyond is needed to advance these lines of enquiry, and integrate our current understanding into a broader and more holistic understanding of human-animal relationships during South Indian prehistory.


  • BAUER, A.M., P.G. JOHANSEN & R.L. BAUER. 2007. Toward a political ecology in early South India: preliminary considerations of the socio-politics of land and animal use in the Southern Deccan, Neolithic through Early Historic periods. Asian Perspectives 46(1): 3-35.
  • BAUER, R.L. 2007. Animals in Social Life: animal use in Iron Age Southern India. Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag.
  • - 2006. Animals in social life: hunting and herding in Iron Age Southern India. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
  • BINFORD, L.R. 1980. Willow smoke and dogs' tails: hunter-gatherer settlement systems and archaeological site formation. American Antiquity 45: 4–20.
  • LINARES, O.F. 1976. Garden hunting in the American tropics. Human Ecology 4(4): 331-49.


  • Radhika Lu Bauer New York University School of Medicine, 500 First Avenue, New York NY 10016, USA (Email: radhika.bauer@nyumc.org)

Published as part of a group presentation

Back to Top