When a small village a little above sea level called Pattanam was dug up, what was revealed was Muciri Pattanam or Muziris, one of the world's greatest maritime hubs some 2,500 years ago. Now, a group of 'Citizen Scientists' are walking around Idukki, some 100 km southeast of Pattanam, and asking its oldest inhabitants for evidence of prehistoric life.
"What made Pattanam a world-famous port can only be studied with the evidence of human organisation in the hinterlands. Such evidence abounds in Idukki, once the fertile resource-abundant residential area along the remote fringes of Muziris," said P J Cherian, the principal investigator of the Idukki 'memory' project. Cherian was the former director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research and had headed the Muziris excavation.
From the evidence he and his team had collected from Pattanam, Cherian has concluded that the prosperity of Muziris, a prehistoric port near today's Kochi, was fed by the riches of Idukki.
Not just Muziris but the Alagankulam port on the east, in Tamil Nadu, was also sustained by the trade of Idukki spices, ivory and medicinal plants. It is said that there was a business corridor/highway that went east to west and back through Idukki; from Alagankulam in the east to Muziris in the west.
And these Idukki products travelled across the globe, on ships, to at least three continents. "We had found evidence of 40 different cultures at Pattanam, from Greece and Spain and China," Cherian said. Muziris Papyrus, for instance, is an archaeological find that speaks of a second-century AD ocean trade in perfumes, ivory and pepper from Muziris to Alexandria in Egypt.
The Idukki Memory Exploration project is an attempt to understand what made the Idukki high range the paradise of the east.
Idukki might now be considered backward, but Cherian said it was one of the most advanced civilisations during the Iron Age or Sangam period, between 3 BC and AD 3.
"The Pattanam excavations obliterated the Eurocentric view that the primitive period was dark and savage. These were people who could read the complicated scientific treatises of the Sangam era and understand poetry," Cherian said. "There was also no evidence of religious practices at the site, which again is evidence not of savagery but refinement," he said.
The 'memory' project is, therefore, an attempt to understand how, 90 generations ago, life in Idukki (then known as 'Kurinjinaadu') was structured.
For this, 'Citizen Scientists' ask Idukki's oldest inhabitants to summon up from their memory uncommon sights related to prehistoric funeral customs they might have come across in their lives. It is an archaeologist's axiom that the secret of a civilisation is embedded in its funeral practices.
The Idukki Exploration Survey is jointly organised by the Pattanam-based PAMA Research Institute and Pappini Research Institute at Nedumkandam in Idukki.
Citizen Scientists, mostly young volunteers who sign up for the project by paying a nominal fee of Rs 200, are first offered training on 'memory collection'.
"Using a mobile app called 'Kobocollect', these CSs will record information they secure on urn burials, menhirs (tall stones that perhaps mark graves), dolmens (Stonehenge-like tombs), hood stones and the like. Later the CSs will document the present condition of these prehistoric remnants," said R V G Menon, the chairman of PAMA Research Institute.
In one of the videos, an old woman speaks of a large urn that she and some others had accidentally hit upon some 38 years ago while they were digging up a stretch of land in the lower slopes of the Nedumkandam Eye hospital. "We thought it could be a hidden treasure. We carefully dug around it and retrieved it," the woman says.
Two such urns, as high as the old woman's hips, were dug up. Both of them had lids. "It was made of red sand. Inside, we found the remains of a 'rudraksha' chain and two or three small bone pieces. It was hard to say whether it was a human's or animal's," she says.
The participants will also be requested access to their personal collection of potsherds like rims, necks, handles and bases of prehistoric pots.
"From the pilot survey, we have realised that Nedumkandam Panchayat is rich in prehistoric funeral remnants," Menon said. One such area is the flattop of Murukankunnu, a hillock wedged in between the Hyder and Anakkara valleys in the 10th ward of Nedumkandam Panchayat.
"The CSs have recorded an abundance of Iron Age funeral remnants like menhirs and stone circles on the hilltop, on a 100 sq ft area. On the eastern slope of the hillock is a square-shaped entrance to a cave," Menon said.
Both Menon and Cherian said that such sites could be preserved as heritage sites.
By now, the CSs have talked to over 300 people in 12 wards. "We came across at least five people who are more than 100 years old," Cherian said.
Call for 'Citizen Scientists'
Rajeev Puliyur, the convenor and co-investigator of the Idukki Explorations, said that PAMA and Pappini were planning to recruit 'Citizen Scientist' volunteers in all the 861 wards of Idukki and begin documentation from August. "Through this, we hope to disseminate the scientific temper and awareness of the ancient culture of this region far and wide. This pedestrian survey will help to create a comprehensive database of Kurinjinadu of ancient Tamilakam," he said.
The Idukki Exploration project is carried out with the permission of the Archaeological Survey of India, and the Forest and Schedule Tribe Departments of Kerala. The Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology is also a research partner in the Idukki Explorations.