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Stalin Said Tamil Nadu Has India’s Oldest Iron Age Settlement. Was He Right?

Stalin Said Tamil Nadu Has India’s Oldest Iron Age Settlement. Was He Right?

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, June 2021. Photo: PTI

  • Hindutva supporters have propagated the myth that Harappans were linguistically Indo-Aryans and that they were members of a supposedly much older ‘Vedic culture’.
  • But the Dravidian movement has an ideological stake in resisting the emerging pan-Indian ascendancy of this idea of a ‘Vedic supremacy’.
  • The movement is vested in particular in the view that the Harappan settlers were the original ‘civilised’ inhabitants of India and that they spoke Tamil.
  • Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin recently claimed that India’s oldest Iron Age site so far is located in Mayiladumparai, in Krishnagiri district.
  • Stalin’s statement implies an intent to promote the nativism of an ancient South Indian culture that existed independently of the Harappan civilisation.
  • However, his claim does not hold up to closer scrutiny. To understand why requires a familiarity with a history of findings at archaeological digs in South India.

On May 9, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said in a statement in the state assembly that excavations in Mayiladumparai in Krishnagiri district, conducted by the state’s Department of Archeology, had unearthed iron artefacts dating back 4,200 years, i.e. roughly of the period from 2172 to 1615 BC.

In South Asia, the Iron Age is thought to have lasted from around 1200 BC to around 200 BC.

Stalin claimed the dates confirmed that Tamil Nadu’s Iron Age was much older than previously reported. According to him, the early use of iron implements implied that the people of this civilisation cleared forests to make way for farming, which then implied that Tamil Nadu began to urbanise as many as 4,000 years ago – if not earlier.

It would appear that by rushing to the assembly hall before the findings had been checked by independent experts, Stalin wanted to make a political statement. He seems to have been intent to use age data from Mayiladumparai to promote the nativism of an ancient South Indian culture that existed apparently independently of the Harappan civilisation in the country’s north. Stalin probably wanted to develop this discovery as a pushback against the Hindutva narrative of the antiquity and superiority of the ‘Aryans’.

But his intentions aside, his claim in the assembly does not hold up to closer scrutiny. To understand why requires a familiarity with the recent history of findings at archaeological digs in South India.


Even though they stand against the strident criticism and scholarship of several independent scholars, Hindutva supporters have managed to appropriate the methods of archaeology to propagate the particular origin myth that the Harappans were linguistically Indo-Aryans and that they were indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, as members of a supposedly much older ‘Vedic culture’.

These ideologues wish to obfuscate the fact that, despite the abundance of scientifically validated genetic data, the Indus or Harappan civilisation was pre-Aryan or non-Aryan. They have even managed to transfer the homeland of the Vedic people to adjacent to the course of the Ghaggar-Hakra river – otherwise often known as the fabled Saraswati. (The Ghaggar-Hakra currently flows parallel to the river Indus within the extant India-Pakistan border.)

Indian nationalists have also subscribed to the idea that the early Indian culture emerged when the ‘original’ settlers intermingled with the migrating Aryans.

The Dravidian movement on the other hand has an ideological stake in resisting the emerging pan-Indian ascendancy of the myth of ‘Vedic supremacy’. The movement is vested in particular in propagating the view that the Harappan or Indus settlers were the original ‘civilised’ inhabitants of India, and that they spoke Tamil. According to Tamil nationalists, the Aryans were ‘barbaric’ destroyers of this original culture which was spreading from the south to the north.

Sadly the Hindutva narrative is gaining ground, with active support from the Bharatiya Janata Party.


Keezhadi, Madurai, Sangam era, Sangam literature, Tamil literature, Dravidian languages, Tamil, Tamil language, Indus Valley civlisation, Vasant Shinde, Niraj Rai, archaeogenomics, Archaeological Survey of India, Sivaganga, Madurai, Su Venkatesan, Iron Age, Bharatiya Janata Party, Vedic people, Harappan people, cultural invasion,
Artefacts at the Keezhadi excavation site. Photo: Tamil Nadu government

The Tamil Nadu government – which stands in opposition – has been supporting some archaeological digs in the state. Among them is the Keezhadi site near Madurai, originally started by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 2015. Here, archaeologists found the remains of an urban settlement that they attributed to the Sangam period (which lasted roughly from 600 BC to 300 AD).

For unknown reasons, the ASI, which reports to the Union government, did not approve further digs at the site. This decision encouraged the Department of Archaeology in Tamil Nadu to assume charge of future work, with an allocation of Rs 40 lakh. In 2019, researchers operating at the site published a report entitled ‘Keeladi: A Settlement of Sangam Age on the banks of the River Vaigai’.

Based on carbon-dating, they concluded that the artefacts here were from the sixth century BC, or about 2,600 years ago. The state government touted the findings as a vindication of its belief that the ASI’s excuse to abandon the site – that there was nothing more to be found – was false. It has allocated at least Rs 1 crore more for work at Keezhadi.

In particular, the researchers interpreted the graffiti they discovered on the artefacts as demonstrative of a linguistic link between the Indus script, which is yet to be deciphered, and the Tamil-Brahmi script. This in turn provided a strong impetus to the idea of an ancient link between the original early, non-Aryan settlers of the Indus Valley and sites in South India.

Subsequently, Anne-Julie Etter, a scholar at Paris University, wrote in 2020:

“To fully understand what happened at Keeladi, one should bear in mind Tamil nationalist ancient claims that the Indus Valley Civilization was Dravidian. This narrative stands in sharp divergence with the one promoted by Hindutva circles and this is reinforced by the opposition between Tamil Nadu state and the Central Government.

This episode also helps us to understand the choice of Adichanallur for becoming an iconic site. It is somehow a way of making up for the ASI’s volte-face in Keezhadi through the promotion of Tamil history and archaeology in Tamil Nadu. To BJP’s eyes, nevertheless, Adichanallur is a much less dangerous site than Keezhadi and its remains hint at a sophisticated urban civilization.”

Also read: Experts Question Dates of Script in Tamil Nadu’s Keeladi Excavation Report


Findings from Adichanallur on display at the Government Museum in Chennai. Photo: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Indeed, Adichanallur, on the bank of the Thamirabarani river in Tirunelveli district, is one site at which the ASI can claim to have done considerable work in Tamil Nadu. It published a report in 2021 that presented evidence of an Iron Age/Megalithic culture, including urn burials, black and red earthenware and Iron Age implements. The report also included an anthropological examination of the skeletal remains at this site.

The Megalithic culture refers to one involving the erection of large stone structures, mostly either as burial or as memorial sites. In India, they have been dated from 5000 BC to 3000 BC or so.

Carbon-dating of materials indicated that the Adichanallur site was active 2,664 to 2,572 years before present1, with a margin of error of around 30 years. Optically stimulated luminescence and thermoluminescence dating of pottery unearthed at Adichanallur from a middle cultural phase range in age from 3,400 to 1,920 years – but with a higher uncertainty of 350-700 years.

The report read literary references to the Sangam literature together with the material evidence found at the Adichanallur site – including several potsherds bearing graffiti markings of a star, bow and arrow, a ladder, fish and a Brahmi variant sign. The report concluded that these findings were proof that the settlers had been involved in farming and in fishing for pearls. The analysis also established that Adichanallur and its adjoining areas were mining sites and that the settlers were familiar with the technologies involved in melting, casting and metal-working.

The Adichanallur settlement is interpreted to have been part of a Megalithic culture – which scholars consider to be an important archaeological phase in the history of South India.

Praveena Gullapalli of the Rhode Island College has conducted extensive studies of early metal artefacts and metallurgical traditions associated with Megalithic sites in all of the five major South Indian states. According to her, although the Megalithic monuments are visible and relatively easily to recognise on the landscape – as “alignments of standing stones, stone slab supported by boulders or arrangements of boulders and cairns” – not all sites that are Megalithic contain “large lithic elements”.

Likewise, Adichanallur doesn’t contain “large lithic elements” but was likely a Megalithic site.

Gullapalli also cautioned that while iron is associated with Megalithic monuments, the monuments are not chronologically confined to the Iron Age: their construction continued into the first centuries AD in South India. In fact, there is consensus among archaeologists that the Megalithic culture lasted from the Neolithic period of the Stone Age2 to the early historical period (around 2500 BC to 200 AD).

Ravi Korisettar, an archaeologist and professor at Karnatak University, Dharwad, said that there could be elements of settled life and emergence of a ruling class during the Megalithic period itself. He believes that with the collapse of Harappan society around 1900 BC, the people may have migrated to Central and South India. These initially primitive societies could then have developed into more prosperous agricultural societies as part of a second wave of urbanisation, possibly beginning from the early part of the Sangam period.

Also read: What the Most Recent Archaeological Findings in Tamil Nadu’s Sivakalai Mean


It is against this extensive background that we can interpret the statement by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Stalin, regarding the discovery of iron implements at the Mayiladumparai site. His statement read:

“Last year, excavation was carried out in Mayiladumparai at burial sites and residential areas, which contain rock paintings and neolithic artefacts, at the depths of 104 and 130 cms, in which two metal samples were sent to a Beta Analytic’s radiocarbon dating lab in Florida, in which it has been found out the date of the iron artefacts ranges from 1,615 BC to 2,172 BC. The results have reassured the fact that the Iron Age of Tamil Nadu dates back to 4,200 years, which is the oldest in India.”

The most contentious implication of the statement is that a farming community of the first wave of urbanisation began independently in Tamil Nadu, contemporaneous with the Indus Valley settlement. There is far from dispositive evidence for this claim, especially since the statement didn’t include the margins of error for the dates. Both 1615 or 2172 are almost impossibly specific, but more importantly, the total possible range of years could overlap with those of the Adichanallur or even of the Keezhadi dates.

Ultimately, Chief Minister Stalin should have waited for more reliable data to emerge, and for it to have been independently verified, before jumping to his conclusions.

The author thanks P. Aravazhi of the ASI for his comments and other guidance.

C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

  1. Where ‘present’ is taken to be the start of 1950, around when radiocarbon dating came into use

  2. The last phase of the Stone Age

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