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Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa, a Neolithic cult centre or sanctuary of major significance. The earliest known example of megalithic art and architecture. Image
by Teomancimit. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
What is the Neolithic?
In Stone Age culture, the term 'Neolithic' (New Stone Age), first coined in 1865 by the English polymath Sir John Lubbock, refers to the period when people and communities abandoned the hunter-gatherer culture of their ancestors, in favour of a more sedentary existence based on farming and animal husbandry.
It is the third and final stage of the Stone Age, and follows immediately after the Mesolithic.
The term 'Neolithic art' refers to the arts and crafts practised by these new 'settled communities'.
As in all eras of prehistoric art, what happens in everyday life has a major influence on the art of the period.
So, because 'settlement' was the key feature of the age, it was natural that pottery and other domestic items should predominate.
In addition, the need for temples and tombs led to the growth of monumental stone architecture, and associated megalithic art. At the same time, paintings and engravings as well as sculpture, were also created in caves and at open air sites.
The Neolithic Revolution
The Neolithic Revolution - a term coined by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in 1935 - was centred on the 'Fertile Crescent', where the first domestication of plants and animals occurred around 10,000 BC.
This new farming culture transformed the small, mobile bands of hunters and foragers that had come to dominate the Paleolithic, into sedentary communities built around villages and towns.
In many areas, the adoption of agriculture and the build up of food surpluses, led to rapid population growth - a process known as the Neolithic demographic transition.
The Neolithic Revolution in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of two major civilizations. In Mesopotamia, we see Sumerian art and culture appear from about 4000 BC, while in North Africa along the lower Nile, Egyptian art and culture emerged later, around 3150 BC.
Prehistoric Chronology More Flexible Than We Think
The lines separating the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages, are becoming more blurred.
For example, contrary to earlier beliefs, microlithic technology and the exploitation of coastal fishing resources, are no longer seen as the sole domain of the Mesolithic, but as a creation of the late Paleolithic.
Similarly, the use of pottery - once thought to be the diagnostic feature of Neolithic culture - is now known to have been prevalent during the later Mesolithic.
In particular, the nature and pace of the agricultural revolution varied significantly from region to region.
In some regions, the lifestyle of many early Neolithic people is now known to have been based on wild rather than domesticated resources.
A good example is the proto-city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, around 7,000 BC, where hunting continued to be a major food-gathering activity even though the inhabitants cultivated crops and raised livestock.
So early Neolithic people are perhaps better described as complex hunter-gatherers or foragers, rather than farmers.
When Was the Neolithic?
The exact dates for the Neolithic vary from region to region as it lasted for different periods around the world.
In general, it began at the end of the Mesolithic and continued until the Bronze Age culture, about 3,300 BC. Here is a short summary of the dates of the period around the globe.
- Iraq: 10,000-3,500 BC
- Turkey: 9,500-3,200 BC
- China: 9,500-2,000 BC
- Egypt: 8,000-3,150 BC
- N. Africa: 7,500-2,800 BC
- India: 7,000-3,300 BC
- New Guinea: 7,000-1,500 BC
- SE Europe: 7,000-3,200 BC
- W Europe: 5,800-2,000 BC
- N. America: 4,500-800 BC
- Mexico: 3,000-800 BC
- S. America: 3,000-1,200 BC
- S. Africa: 3,000-800 BC
- Australia: No Neolithic
As you can see, the the agricultural revolution took hold almost everywhere.
Although first seen in Iraq (Mesopotamia) in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, where farmers began sowing wheat and raising sheep and cattle, it soon spread to Asia, where people began to grow rice and millet, and domesticate water buffalo and yak.
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What Happened During the Neolithic?
During the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer bands spent all their energy on hunting for food, and procreation - as illustrated perhaps, by the cave painting at Chauvet and Lascaux, and by the nude sculptures known as Venus figurines.
But Neolithic farming communities discovered that the cultivation of crops and the raising of livestock made life more predictable and the future more secure.
As they gained control of their food supply and laid down food surpluses for the winter and other times of need, four things happened.
- Within 5,000 years, the population grew by a factor of 14, from 2 million to 28 million. By comparison, over 190,000 years during the Paleolithic era, the population grew by a factor of 6.6, from 300,000 (in 200,000 BC) to 2 million (in 10,000 BC).
- As numbers rose, communities became more protective of their 'territory'. At the same time, they often merged with other groups, thus creating larger settlements and (eventually) cities.
- The new enlarged settlements became more organized and more hierarchical. A tiered society soon emerged.
- Increased security, coupled with a need for legitimacy and greater formality, led to a belief in supernatural deities.
The new farming culture needed new stone tools, which were produced not by knapping and flaking but by grinding and polishing, which has become the diagnostic tool manufacturing technique of the New Stone Age.
The two most valuable Neolithic tools were the polished stone axe for land clearance and the adze for wood working, as well as multi-purpose chisels and gouges (cutting chisels).
At the end of the period, around 3,500 BC, the smelting of copper and later bronze, led to the use of metal as the primary material for tools and weapons.
Eventually, around 1,100 BC, bronze was replaced by iron which reigned supreme until the late 19th century AD. For more, see: History of Stone Tools.
There were four main types of art produced during the period:
- Sculpture & Carvings
- Megalithic art & architecture
- Rock art
Ancient pottery remains the diagnostic artifact of the Neolithic, despite the fact that the earliest Chinese, Croatian, Japanese and Russian pottery predates the Neolithic by at least 5,000 years.
The key point is that pottery only became a universal product during the Neolithic. Why? Because of two important inventions:
- The Pottery Kiln (c.6,000 BC)
- The Potter's Wheel (c.3,129 BC)
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Pottery production in the Near East is usually categorized into four main periods:
- Hassuna period (7,000-6,500 BC)
Undecorated low-fired pots produced from reddish-brown clays.
- Halaf period (6,500-5,500 BC)
Pots painted with intricate designs, and burnished.
- Ubaid period (5,500-4,000 BC)
New kilns and the potter's wheel enabled new materials, shapes and vessels.
- Uruk period (4,000-3,100 BC)
Noted for its beveled rim bowls.
Pottery arrived in Europe from the Near East during the early seventh millennium BC. Thessalia in Greece was the first region to make pottery, around 6300 BC.
From here, it spread to central Europe, after which it fragmented into three separate traditions: (1) one ceramic tradition spread north to Poland and then west into Germany, France, Belgium and the Low Countries; (2) a second spread along the Black Sea coast to Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukraine; (3) while a third moved along the Adriatic/Mediterranean coastline, into the Balkans, Italy, and the French Rhone Valley.
Early Neolithic Chinese earthenware (7,500-5,000 BC) consisted of red-coloured pots, hand-coiled and fired in bonfires.
Decoration was confined to simple patterns applied by stamping and impressing techniques.
Decorative patterns were typically abstract or geometric in nature, although in southern China, it appears that Chinese potters soon started to produce a range of delicate, polished vessels for more ceremonial purposes.
These first appeared in several Neolithic cultures which flourished along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys.
They included: the Dadiwan (6,000 BC), Pan-po (5,000 BC), Yangshao (5,000-3,000 BC) and Miao-ti-kou (4,000-3,000 BC) cultures, as well as the more advanced Longshan (3,000-1,900 BC) and Dawenkou traditions (4,500-3,500 BC).
By 3,000 BC, Neolithic pottery in China had attained a craftsmanship and elegance which was quite exceptional for the time.
As a result, it soon became associated with social status.
The burial mounds of wealthy individuals typically contained fine pottery, as well as jade carvings and other precious items.
This growing form of Chinese Neolithic art was further enhanced by the early development of bronze metallurgy, and lacquering techniques.
Japanese Early Pottery
Ancient Japanese earthenware began around 14,500 BC with the Jōmon pottery tradition.
Early Jōmon pots (Jōmon means 'rope-patterned') were hand-made, without the aid of a wheel.
The potter built up the vessel from the bottom with successive coils of soft clay.
The clay was combined with various adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibres, and crushed shells.
Once the vessel was shaped, the outer and interior surfaces were made smooth. When dry, it was fired in an outdoor bonfire to approximately 600–900 degrees Celsius.
Most Jōmon pots are small and have rounded bottoms. Typically, they would be used to boil food.
Later Jōmon pieces are more complex with decorated rims, especially those produced during the Middle Jōmon period.
Neolithic Jōmon cultures include:
- Initial Jomon
- Early Jomon
- Middle Jomon
- Late Jomon
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India: Neolithic Pottery
India had 4 main pottery cultures:
- Lahuradewa Culture
7,000-5,500 BC: Uttar Pradesh
- Mehrgarh Period II
5,500-4,800 BC: Kachi Plain, Pakistan
- Merhgarh Period III
4,800-3,500 BC: Kachi Plain, Pakistan
- Indus Civilization
3,300-1,300 BC: Indus Valley, India
Africa: Neolithic Pottery
The earliest pottery in Africa, dating back to at least 9,400 BC, was discovered at the Ounjougou archaeological site, in the Yamé valley, Central Mali in 2007.
In addition, pottery decorated with channelling and other patterns, dating from around 9,100 BC was recovered from the Bosumpra Cave in southeastern Ghana.
Pottery making begins in Ancient Egypt after 5,000 BC, having spread from Iran. There were several phases of development in Egyptian pottery, with very sophisticated earthenware being produced during the Naqada III period, around 3,200 BC.
The more sedentary lifestyle triggered a rising demand for domestic decoration and ornamentation.
New art forms evolved to meet this demand, including a range of prehistoric sculpture, notably in stone and terracotta.
Specialist crafts emerged, such as jade carving (from 4900 BC) and Chinese lacquerware (from 4,500 BC). Some examples include:
- Fish God of Lepenski Vir
Serbia: from 7,000-5,000 BC
Therianthropic sculptures carved out of sandstone cobbles, characterized by their wide, fish-like mouths, discovered in the Danubian settlement of Lepenski Vir, an important archaeological site of the Balkan Iron Gates culture. The two best known carvings are known as 'Praroditeljka' (foremother) and 'Rodonacelnik' (family founder). Now in the Serbian National Museum, Belgrade.
- Jiahu Flutes & Carvings
Yellow River basin, China: 6,000 BC
Six complete ancient Chinese flutes (gǔdí), plus fragments of 30 other flutes, carved from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes. The flutes were cut, smoothed at each end, polished and then drilled with a series of holes. Discovered in a burial site, they are among the oldest playable musical instruments. Also found were a set of pictograms carved into tortoise shells.
- Enthroned Goddess of Çatalhöyük
Anatolia: 6,000 BC
Terracotta sculpture of a seated (mother) goddess giving birth with each hand on the head of a leopard, or lioness. Located in south-central Turkey, Çatalhöyük was a large proto-city built entirely of mud-bricks, with a peak population of 8,000. No temples have yet been identified, although certain domestic chambers may have served as shrines or places of worship. Among many treasures of Neolithic art found at the site, are 2,000 figurines - including the famous 'Enthroned Goddess of Çatalhöyük' - which were sculpted in marble, limestone, alabaster, calcite, basalt and terracotta. Çatalhöyük was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
- Vidovdanka Figurine
Vinca-Belo Brdo, Belgrade: 5,500 BC
Anthropomorphic female figurine some 30 cms in height, with pronounced eyes and nose, made from polished clay. Now in National Museum of Serbia.
- Thinker of Cernavoda
Lower Danube, Romania: 5,000 BC
This unique terracotta sculpture of the Neolithic Hamangia culture - depicting a man seated on a stool with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands - was found with its sister - the Sitting Woman of Cernavoda in a necropolis near Cernavoda. During the Hamangia culture, people buried their dead along with funerary goods like jars and statuettes. Now in the National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest.
- Sleeping Lady of Malta
Valetta: 3,100 BC
Terracotta figure of a reclining Mother-Goddess - is an iconic symbol of the prehistoric Temple Period (4100-2500 BC) on Malta. Found in one of the burial pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni. May represent death or eternal sleep. Now in the National Museum of Malta.
- Kneeling Bull with Vessel
Mesopotamia: 3,000 BC
This 16 cm silver bull from the Proto-Elamite culture, is clad in a robe decorated with a lined pattern and holds a spouted vessel. It displays an unusual blend of human and animal traits. Many ancient deities in the Middle East were hybrids - part-human, part-animal. The image expresses the Mesopotamian belief in attaining power over the physical world by combining powerful physical attributes of different species. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Guennol Lioness
Mesopotamia: 3,000 BC
Lioness figure (8 cm tall) also from the Proto-Elamite Period. Discovered in Ur, scholars think the animal was carved in Elam (southwestern Iran) and may represent the mythological Inanna, Goddess of Love and War. The figure is carved out of white magnesite or crystalline limestone. When made, it was embellished with lapis lazuli. Now in a private collection.
- Ram in a Thicket
Mesopotamia: 2,500 BC
Actually a pair of similar figures, made out of limestone and shell, ornamented with gold-leaf, silver plate, copper and lapis lazuli. One version resides in the British Museum, London; the other in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Although named after the Biblical passage involving Abraham about to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:13), these figures are goats not sheep, and instead illustrate the ancient Mesopotamian myth that a goat on its hind legs signifies the fertility of the land. The two figures were recovered from the Great Death Pit at Ur in 1929 by archaeologist Leonard Woolley. One of the greatest examples of Mesopotamian art of the ancient world.
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Megalithic Art & Architecture
Neolithic settlements along with growing religious beliefs spawned a new form of megalithic architecture involving large stone structures used as holy places, shrines or tombs.
Once erected, many megalithic structures were then decorated with a variety of mostly abstract rock engravings and relief sculpture - collectively known as megalithic art: a term coined by Elizabeth Shee Twohig.
The most famous sites of megalithic architecture from the Neolithic, include:
- Göbekli Tepe
Founded 9,500 BC; abandoned 8,000 BC
Located in Şanlıurfa Province in southeastern Turkey, Göbekli Tepe is the most important Neolithic structure of the Stone Age. According to German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, leader of all archaeological excavations at the site, it was first used as a holy place, cult centre or sanctuary. During its early construction, some two hundred pillars, each weighing up to 20 tons, were erected in a circular pattern, and topped with huge limestone slabs. No other hunter-gatherer community has succeeded in matching this feat. Afterwards, the huge megaliths were decorated with a large quantity of stone sculpture, including reliefs of bulls, wild boars, lions, foxes, gazelles, reptiles and vultures, as well as abstract pictograms.
Using ground-penetrating radar and geomagnetic surveys, Schmidt has mapped the entire complex finding at least 16 other megalith rings which remain buried over the 22 acre-site. Since the 1990s, less than 5 percent of the site has been examined. Göbekli Tepe was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018.
- Nevalı Çori
Founded 8,600 BC or earlier; abandoned 7,500 BC
A similar sanctuary was found at Nevalı Çori, also located in Sanliurfa Province. This megalithic temple and shrine complex also has a wealth of stone sculpture, including numerous statues, as well as hundreds of 5cm-high human terracotta figurines used as votive offerings, along with a number of life-size freestanding anthropomorphic limestone figures.
Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe have revolutionised our understanding of Neolithic culture. They show that the building of a monumental stone complex was well within the capability of an early Neolithic community, although archaeologists still don't know exactly how the builders were able to recruit and feed a workforce large enough to do the job.
Founded 7,000 BC; abandoned 2,600 BC
Located on the Kacchi Plain of Balochistan, in present-day Pakistan, this 500-acre site is one of the earliest Neolithic farming centres in South Asia, as well as a major producer of Neolithic pottery. Scientists have divided human occupation of the site into six consecutive periods.
Mehrgarh Period I (7000-5500 BC)
No pottery made during this phase. Instead, ornamental objects were carved out of limestone, lapis lazuli, sandstone, turquoise and sea shells. Also noted for its terracotta cult figurines of women and animals.
Mehrgarh Period II (5500-4800 BC)
Pottery begins, helped by an early potter's wheel. Mehrgarh ceramicists also produced glazed faience beads and decorated terracotta figurines. Button seals in bone and terracotta, decorated with geometric patterns were also popular.
Mehrgarh Period III (4800-3500 BC)
Noted for the introduction of Togau ceramics, decorated with geometric designs, as well as Kili Ghul Mohammad (II−III) pottery.
Period IV (3500-3250 BC), Period V (3250-3000 BC) and Period VI (3000-2600 BC) also witnessed a number of ceramic developments but by 2,000 BC, the popularity of Mehrgarh's pottery nosedived due to mass production, and a growing interest in copper and bronze. However, at least one Mehrgarh expert believes the culture spread into the Indus Valley to become the Indus Valley Civilization of the Bronze Age.
- Gavrinis Passage Tomb
Brittany: 4,200-4,000 BC
Noted for its megalithic art forms, featuring slabs with multiple decorations including spiral motifs and zoomorphic imagery.
- Ggantija Temple Complex
Gozo: 3,600-2,500 BC
Ġgantija is a megalithic temple complex on the Mediterranean island of Gozo. The Ġgantija temples - believed to be a fertility cult centre - are the earliest of the Megalithic Temples of Malta and the world's second oldest religious structures after Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. The complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
- Newgrange Passage Tomb
Boyne Valley, Ireland: 3,200 BC
Newgrange is an extensive necropolis and ceremonial centre, aligned on the winter solstice sunrise. The 12-metre high mound occupies an area of about one acre. It is the main structure within the Brú na Bóinne complex, a World Heritage Site which includes the passage tombs of Knowth and Dowth, as well as other burial mounds, henges, and standing stones. Newgrange is famous for its megalithic art forms, notably spirals and rhombus-shaped motifs incised on the entrance slab, notably the triple spiral motif, which is unique to Newgrange, as well as concentric circles, herring bone patterns, bows and arrows, axes and zig-zags. A number of these motifs became regular features of Celtic culture during the era of Iron Age art in Europe.
Newgrange's cultural significance stems from the light it sheds on the values and capabilities of Neolithic Irish society, while its engravings mark the first major step in the history of Irish art.
- Knowth Passage Tomb
Boyne Valley, Ireland: 3,200 BC
The richest source of megalithic art in the Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is the Knowth Passage Tomb, which is estimated to contain one quarter of all the megalithic art produced in Europe. It features a total of 250 decorated stones, including sills, capstones, internal orthostats and external kerbstones. This unique assemblage consists mostly of abstract signs, created by burins, chisels and other stone tools. In addition, Knowth has a quantity of low relief figurative sculpture.
The Boyne Valley enjoyed a prosperous culture due to its abundant food supply, which experts believe gave its inhabitants the opportunity to consider deeper questions than mere survival. Some archaeologists believe the rock art at Knowth has a lunar or astronomical basis. There are numerous associations between Knowth's megaliths and astronomy, including maps of the moon, as well as calendars based on the positions of the sun, moon, and stars. Other experts think that Knowth's geometric images were created by artists during altered states of consciousness.
- Stonehenge Stone Circle
Salisbury Plain, UK: 3,000-2,000 BC
Stonehenge - arguably the world's most famous example of megalithic architecture - stands at the centre of a dense web of other Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, including hundreds of ancient burial mounds. It contains an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones (each weighing 25 tons), overlain by connecting horizontal lintels. There is also an inner ring of smaller bluestones, which encircles the remains of five free-standing trilithons, each measuring over 24 feet in height. Originally, it was aligned towards the sunrise on the summer solstice.
Archaeologists believe that Stonehenge served as a multifunctional site of Neolithic tomb culture, involved in ancestor worship and healing as well as burial, and possibly a destination for pilgrims. At any rate, by 2,000 BC, the site was the most important ceremonial centre in southern England. Sadly, this wonderful megalithic structure has fallen into a delapidated state. Along with the Avebury Henge monument, the complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
- Carnac Standing Stones
Carnac, Brittany: 4,500-3,300 BC
An arrangement of stone alignments, dolmens and tumuli, consisting of 4,000 prehistoric standing stones (menhirs) of weathered granite. The world's largest megalithic site.
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In less populated regions, the Neolithic is characterized by a diverse range of rock art, including rock engravings, as well as a diminishing amount of cave painting, typically hand stencils and abstract symbols.
Here is a short chronological list of the most famous examples.
- Burrup Peninsula Rock Art
Western Australia: 30,000-500 BC.
Home to the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the world and the largest collection of megalithic art in Australia. The latter includes standing stones (like European menhirs), as well as stone circles (like Stonehenge).
- Kimberley Rock Art
NW Australia: 30,000-500 BC
The Kimberley region features two types of Neolithic rock painting: (1) Crude animal drawings thought to date to about 38,000 BC. (2) Gwion Gwion paintings (previously known as Bradshaw figures). They include: 'Tassel', 'Sash', 'Elegant Action figures' and later 'Clothes Peg figures', and were mostly produced between 10,000 and 3,000 BC.
- Ubirr Estuarine Rock Paintings
Arnhem Land, Australia: From 6,000 BC
This period of aboriginal rock art is characterized by three designs: (1) Paintings of saltwater crocodiles, fish and human figures with spears. (2) Bees-wax paintings. (3) X-ray style of drawing depicted the internal anatomical details of humans, animals and other objects.
- Coldstream Burial Stone
Western Cape, S. Africa: 6,000 BC
San culture Neolithic rock painting on polychrome quartzite stone, found buried with a human skeleton by the Lottering River. The painting features three figures in red, black and white. One figure appears to be armed with bow and arrows. All three have white faces and elongated ochre bodies and stride across the stone's spherical surface.
- Dabous Giraffe Engravings
Agadez, Niger: 6,000-4,000 BC
Features two huge giraffes, along with carvings of elephants, antelopes, crocodiles and cattle, from the Tuareg Culture.
- Sydney Rock Engravings
NSW Australia: 5,000 BC
Simple figurative drawings of people and animals incised into sandstone.
- Elands Bay Cave Handprints
Western Cape, S. Africa: 4,000 BC
Noted for its collages of several hundred Neolithic hand stencils.
- Niola Doa
Ennedi Plateau, Chad: 3,000 BC
'Beautiful Ladies' and other monumental engraved drawings.
- Brandberg Rock Paintings
Brandberg Massif, Namibia: 2,000 BC
White Lady and other engraved figures from the San culture.
Next: Ancient Art (including early civilizations from 3,400 BC).
(1) "The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Society". William K. Barnett and John W. Hoopes, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, p 19.
(2) Athenian Vase Construction: A Potter's Analysis Toby Schreiber, (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999): p 12-13.
(3) "Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence." Moorey, Peter Roger Stuart (1999) . Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. p. 146. ISBN 9781575060422
(4) "Göbekli Tepe. Eine Beschreibung der wichtigsten Befunde erstellt nach den Arbeiten der Grabungsteams der Jahre 1995–2007" (A description of the most important findings based on the work of the excavation teams in the years 1995-2007.). In Schmidt, Klaus (ed.). Erste Tempel – Frühe Siedlungen. 12000 Jahre Kunst und Kultur, Ausgrabungen und Forschungen zwischen Donau und Euphrat (in German). Oldenburg: Florian Isensee. ISBN 978-3-89995-563-7.
(5) "Megalithic Art of Western Europe." Shee Twohig, E. 1981. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
(6) "Early millet use in northern China". Xiaoyan Yang (2012). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (10): 3726–3730.
(7) "The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka, c. 6500 BCE – 200 CE". Coningham, Robin; Young, Ruth (2015). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139020633.