Exploitation and possible Cotton Domestication at Neolithic Mehrgarh, Pakistan (6th millennium BC)

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled: “First Evidence of Cotton at Neolithic Mehrgarh, Pakistan: Analysis of Mineralized Fibres from a Copper Bead“, by Christophe Moulherat et al., 2002.

“The fibres discussed in this article were discovered during the metallurgical analysis of a set of eight copper beads found in a Neolithic burial at Mehrgarh in central Balochistan. Situated at the foot of the Bolan Pass, in the northern part of the Kachi Plain, Mehrgarh occupied a strategic position in the zone of transition between the mountainous regions of the Iranian Plateau and the alluvial Indus Basin. The excavation of several sites in this area (Mehrgarh, Nausharo, Pirak), carried out by the French Archaeological Mission under the direction of Jean-François Jarrige, has revealed a continuous occupation during almost 6000 years, from the 7th millennium BC until the 1st millennium BC.


Owing to the presence of water and arable soils, the Kachi Plain formed a particularly favourable environment for human settlement and the analysis of faunal and floral remains has shown that agriculture, together with pastoralism, constituted the base of subsistence already in the earlier periods The occupational sequence at Mehrgarh, the oldest of the Kachi sites, begins in the early 7th millennium BC and stretches into the first part of the 2nd millennium BC. According to the chronology established by the French Archaeological Mission, an initial aceramic Neolithic period I and Neolithic period II are followed by a Chalcolithic occupation (periods III–VII). The Neolithic sequence is characterized by the alternation of habitation levels and burial levels. More than 300 graves, attributed to the aceramic Neolithic period I, have been excavated and the copper bead containing the cotton fibres was found in one of these graves dated to the first half of the 6th millennium BC.

The copper beads are annular and their diameters vary between 2·2 and 4·8 mm. Their average weight, in the present state of preservation, is 0·13 g. All the beads have been X-ray radiographed at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, as a part of a larger research program on the development of early metallurgy in Protohistoric Balochistan. The radiographic image clearly shows that the beads were formed by rolling of a narrow metal sheet around a circular rod.

The radiographic examination also reveals the heavy corrosion of the beads. Besides the copper, and a few small precipitates of metallic silver trapped between the internal and external layers of corrosion, no other metallic elements were detected.

Quite exceptionally, the earliest metal artefacts found at Mehrgarh date back to the aceramic Neolithic period. The copper beads described had been worked according to specific metallurgic procedures in which hammering and probably also annealing techniques were used alternatively. However, the state of preservation of the bead does not allow a detailed study of its microstructure.

A sample of less than 5 mm² was isolated from inside the Mehrgarh copper bead and then covered with a fine, conducting layer of gold in order to allow observations to be made by SEM (scanning electron microscope). Later, the same sample was encased in a cube of translucide epoxy that, after having been polymerized, was polished with diamond paste. Carefully chosen sections were then observed with a reflected-light microscope in order to determine the morphology and diameter of the fibres.

The observations made in the transverse section allowed us to identify the fibres as cotton, Gossypium sp. They show a characteristic oval and sometimes slightly flattened shape with, in most cases, a large lumen.

Reflected-light micrography of the mineralized cotton fibres

Reflected-light micrography of the mineralized cotton fibres

The diameters measured on a hundred of the Mehrgarh fibres fall into the range of several present-day cotton species, in particular Gossypium herbaceum. However, considering the morphological evolution of the domesticated cottons during millennia of cultivation these measurements cannot be used to identify the Neolithic cotton fibres as definite modern species. In general, the lack of comparable reference material makes the identification of prehistoric archaeological cotton fibres to the species level highly improbable.

Cotton, whether wild or domesticated, belongs to the genus Gossypium of the family Malvaceae. The Old World cottons can  be subdivided into an Asiatic (G. arboreum) and an African (G. herbaceum) subgroup, each comprising several races that developed under cultivation.

No wild form of G. arboreum is known so far but it is likely that the domestication of this species took place within the range of its most primitive race ‘‘indicum’’, i.e. somewhere between India and eastern Africa. The Indus Valley has been suggested as a possible centre of domestication and diffusion but in the light of the early cotton find from Neolithic Mehrgarh, it seems that cotton was used and perhaps even domesticated in the Kachi Plain of central Balochistan, several millennia before the rise of the Indus Civilization. Even though no wild Gossypium species is known from this part of Pakistan today, the open woodland or pseudo-savannah that characterized the surroundings of Mehrgarh in the past could have constituted a favourable environment for the possible progenitor of G. arboreum.

Neither the fibres, nor the seeds from Mehrgarh allow us to assert that cotton was actually domesticated in the Kachi Plain during the Neolithic and the use of wild cotton fibres remains equally possible. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the early inhabitants of the site were already experienced agriculturists, well acquainted with the cultivation of several crop plants.

The fortuitous find of the Mehrgarh cotton fibres sheds new light on the early history of this textile plant in the Middle East. The generally accepted end 3rd/beginning 2nd millennium BC dates for the first use of cotton, based on finds from Harappan sites in the Indus Valley, was already pushed back to the 4th millennium BC by the discovery of fibres and impressions from a cotton fabric at Duweilah in Jordan. The evidence from Neolithic Mehrgarh allows us to consider an even earlier use of cotton in the Old World, dating to the 6th millennium BC. Even though we cannot be sure that the cotton thread used to string copper beads at Mehrgarh derived from an already domesticated species, it seems clear the cotton as such was already known and exploited for its fibres at this period. The accumulation of evidence of early cotton in Pakistani Balochistan (Mehrgarh, Shahi Tump) and in the Indus Valley seems to confirm the hypothesis of a South Asian origin, probably in the Greater Indus area, of one of the Old World cottons.”

Copper bead (MR. with remains of

Copper bead with remains of mineralized fibres

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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