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The Harappan Civilisation – Oldest in the world?

Photo Courtesy: Archaeological Survey of India

The Harappan civilisation, childhood lessons notwithstanding, builds a sense of awe. Back again in news – the civilisation makes us proud once again. Reportedly, a major breakthrough of recent times, the mighty civilisation that was earlier computed to be 5,000 years old, is now being estimated to date back at least 8,000. The recent research by a team from IIT Kharagpur, Institute of Archaeology, Deccan College Pune, Physical Research Laboratory and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) shows that the civilisation was much older than previously thought. In the Indian subcontinent the major centers of this civilization include Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan and Lothal, Dholavira and Kalibangan in India. In recent years excavation at Rakhigarhi and few other places indicate that the civilisation probably was more expansive.

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The research has been conducted by archaeologically dating pottery and artefacts, which have been found to be ancient. According to Dr Anindya Sarkar, lead investigator of the research and the Head of Department, Geology Department, IIT Kharagpur, “our chief aim was to solve mysteries relating to the question of age and the reason for disappearance of the civilization. We dated one piece of pottery to be 4,800 years old and the other one nearly 6,000 years old.”

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According to Dr S. K. Manjul, Director General, Institute of Archaeology, who recently excavated one of the prime Harappan sites in Rajasthan, Bhinjor, “it is too early to say that the civilization is 8,000 years old. There are still no proven dates. We need collaborative efforts to estimate them.”

As stated in the press release of the study, the oxygen isotope composition of the remains of tooth and bones of animals were carefully analysed to unravel the climatic pattern prevailing in those times. This presence of these isotopes in mammal bones and teeth preserve the ancient meteoric water and in turn the intensity of monsoon rainfall. The monsoon was much stronger from 9000 years ago to 7000 years ago before present and probably fed the rivers making them mightier with vast floodplains.

The study also reveals that the monsoon became progressively weaker, starting from 7000 years ago onwards, but surprisingly the civilisation did not disappear, rather it continued to live even in the face of declining monsoon condition. “There have been former speculations of climate related disappearance theories ranging from droughts to earthquakes, but most of them are without any scientific basis. What is noteworthy is that most research has been conducted away from the archaeological sites. Therefore, whether there was a climate change in those sites or not is a mystery. In order to address this issue, we tried to undertake climate studies at the archaeological trench itself”, said Sarkar.

So the question that now emerges is whether climate change can be associated with the disappearance of Harappan civilisation? “Yes, there was a definite change of climate but despite the declining monsoons, the civilisation did not disappear”, points out Sarkar. “Climate is an imperative element to understand the settlement, evolution, and disappearance of any culture. A multi-disciplinary approach is needed to verify and corroborate information from other sites so as to understand the cultural process and the evolution of Harappan civilisation,” says Manjul.

“The Harappan people tried to cope with the changing climate by modifying their agricultural patterns, and switching over from water-intensive crops during monsoons to drought-resistant ones. They started growing crops like millets. But with lower productivity and dwindling food supplies, large towns could not be sustained any longer and cities started fragmenting, leading to migration,” cites Sarkar. However, despite Manjul pointing out that “we can consider and rethink of the dates in the light of the new findings and there is still a long way to go”, the new research instils a sense of pride in fellow inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent.

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