Friday, January 11, 2008

A Landmark: 2500-year-old Canoe Found in Makotai

The Iron Age canoe brings first proof of Kodungallur as the centre of global trade 2500 years ago.

By N P Chekkutty

Yaleglobal, the online magazine of the Yale University Centre for the Study of Globalization, describes globalization as an historical process that began with the first movement of people out of Africa into other parts of the world. Traveling short, then longer distances, migrants, merchants, and others have always taken their ideas, customs, and products into new lands. The melding, borrowing, and adaptation of outside influences can be found in many areas of human life.

The movement of technology, food and plants and ideas are three major areas where this process made its impact right from the early days of history. New historical and archaeological studies have proved how this process developed through centuries and how mankind was going through a process of integration ever since they came to know how to travel around.

In the past week, two major archaeological findings, from the two hemispheres of the planet, brought back into focus the ancient roots of this process. The first report came from Yucatan in Mexico, where scholars unearthed evidence of a 1500-year-old market in an ancient Mayan city. The market place was a thriving place dealing with food articles and other essential items as any other market in these days of post-modern globalization, reminding us how ancient are most of the modern trends that we speak of.(See report, Ancient Yucatan Soils Point to Maya Market, and Market Economy, New York Times, Jan.8.,2008,

On the other side of the planet, in Kodungallur near Kochi, Kerala, archaeologists reported finding of the remains of an ancient ship. The Hindu on Wednesday, January 9, reported that the radiocarbon dating of the remains unearthed at Pattanam, seven kilometers south of the present town of Kodungallur, has proved that these remains date back to around 5th century BC.(See report, Study Points to 500 BC Kerala Maritime Activity, The Hindu, Jan.9,2008;

These are exciting findings: The Iron Age remains unearthed in Kodungallur including part of a wooden canoe and bollards (stakes used to secure canoes and boats) give the first archaeological evidence that trade was indeed part of human activity even in those Iron Age days.

It was the Kerala Council for Historical Studies (KCHR) which conducted these studies at Kodungallur in February-April 2007 and the findings were tested for dating at the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar. The analysis was done making use of the method known as Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Radiocarbon 14C, a well known process for dating historical artifacts.

The KCHR director, Dr. P J Cheriyan, describes the findings as evidence for the maritime activities in these parts as early as the fifth century BC. “The artifacts received from the excavation site suggest that Pattanam, a hinterland port and a multicultural settlement, may have had links with the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea rims since the early historical period of South India,” he says.

Archeologists and historians are excited about the new findings. T Satyamurthy, eminent archaeologist, Chennai, has expressed the view that the new findings were very encouraging. It is necessary to conduct more excavations of a horizontal nature to find further validation for these initial findings, he says.

Dr. M G S Narayanan, eminent historian and former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), also feels these are very important findings. This is the first time archaeological evidence has come up that points to the existence of maritime trade in these areas as early as the fifth century BC, he said in an interview.

Dr. Narayanan said that the ancient Sangham literature referred to the booming city of Makotai, which was known as Muciri in Tamil and Muziris in Greek. There were a number of songs in the Sangham literature that spoke about the town. There were inscriptions and other epigraphic evidences that proved the importance of the town of Makotai which later became Mahodayapuram during the second Cera’s who ruled from the ninth to 12th centuries.

Dr Narayanan said the present day Pattanam was most likely the ancient Muciri Pattanam, described in the ancient Tamil literature. Many interesting findings had been made here, like the ancient Roman pottery and coins that date back to the first and second centuries AD. Large broken pieces of amphora, the long beaked Roman wine glass, were also among them.

But the present findings take the history of Makotai to even before the Roman age, much deep into the Iron Age. The KCHR plans to continue their digging in the area, including an under-water exploration, later this year in search of more detailed information about the ancient trade that linked this port to other parts of the world.



Unknown said...

PJ Cherian,director,KCHR, writes in an email:

Yes, those early globalization tendencies had a definite role in the making of our composite culture.
It was interesting to read MGS comments - he was positive about the work we were doing there. What he said about Roman amphora pottery is yet to be clarified by experts. Preliminary observation is that it could be from south Italy and could belong even to 2 BC, the beginnings of the great Roman Empire. An archeologist from Israel said some of the sherds could be of the Nebatian culture, of the present day Jordan region, which florished before 2 BC. Authentication is awaited.

Unknown said...

James Stanhope says:

A few quick thoughts regarding N. P. Chekkutty’s article on the port of Makotai as a site for evidence of ancient globalization:

To YaleGlobal’s mention of voluntary migration/trade as the impetus for ancient globalization, could be added involuntary exile and diaspora, especially of the ancient Jews from Palestine to Babylonia (now Iraq) in the 6th century B.C.E. I assume this 6th-century “Babylonian Captivity” of the Jews is what Mr. Chekkutty is referring to when he mentions the Jewish “Exodus” as the source for the ancient Jewish presence in Makotai. Jewish exiles who had been settled in Babylonia could well have engaged in trade with the south Indian coast. Thus, when the Persians annexed Babylonia in 539 B.C.E. and also favored the Jewish community there, an already-established Jewish trade with India might have been supported by the Persian government, especially as the Persian Empire moved eastward and annexed territory on both banks (I think) of the Indus River. At any rate, by 51-52 C.E., there was a well-established Jewish community in Kerala which St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples, visited and made conversions to the cult of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, creating the Indian Christian sect called “Nazrani” or ‘Nazarenes,’ according to ancient Nazrani tradition in Kerala.

These are just some thoughts on how not only voluntary but also involuntary migration can contribute to globalization, as it might have in 6th-century B.C.E. southwest Asia.

Unknown said...

Banta Singh Says:

i must congratulate the author for writing such a nice article. i have my doubts, is it the same Dr Narayanan who was involved in the corruption charges and misappropration of funds and was removed from the post of chairman ichr. if yes then what he is trying to teach us first he should clean his own image.