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Tag Archives | Archaeology

UCLA 9A: The Gangetic Plain

If you listen to Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India, a course taught at UCLA and which has Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India as mandatory reading, you will get a good introduction to the Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory. Unlike Matthew Herbst or Tara Carter of the MMW courses at UCSD, the UCLA instructor teaches in a very confusing manner and hence it is hard to figure out if he is touting the Aryan Invasion Theory or the Aryan Migration Theory or if he knows the difference between the two. In one part he mentions Aryans arriving on their horses in 2000 B.C.E and subduing the snub-nosed Dasas and later mentions the migration of Aryans.

This is at a time when even Marxist historians have written off the AIT. According to Romila Thapar:

There is virtually no evidence of the invasion and the conquest of northwestern India by a dominant culture coming from across the border. Most sites register a gradual change of archaeological cultures. Where there is evidence of destruction and burning it could as easily have been a local activity and is not indicative of a large-scale invasion. The borderlands of the northwest were in communication with Iran and Central Asia even before the Harappa culture with evidence of the passage of goods and ideas across the region. This situation continued into later times and if seen in this light when the intermittent arrival of groups of Indo-European speakers in the northwest, perhaps as pastoralists or farmers or itinerant traders, would pose little problem. It is equally possible that in some cases local languages became Indo-Europeanized through contact.[From Aryan Invasions to Aryan Migrations]

But this post is not about AIT or AMT or OIT. It is about the developments in the Gangetic plain.  According to the instructor, incoming Aryans hit the Harappans like a cue ball on a pool table dispersing Harappans to places like South India and the Gangetic plain. According to him, it is around this time we see civilized living in the Gangetic plain.

Our understanding of that region has changed a lot in the last decade. Archaeology at Jhusi, near the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, has revealed evidence of a Neolithic settlement dating to the 7th-6th millennium B.C.E[2]. This is the time frame associated with the Mehrgarh culture in Baluchistan, considered to be the predecessor of the Harappan civilization.

The people of Jhusi, who lived in grassy land with occasional trees, bamboo groves and lakes,  had pottery, arrowheads, and semi-precious stone beads.  They built houses with bamboo walls smeared with mud plaster[1].  The people of Jhusi had domesticated plants and animals and they spent their time farming, herding and foraging[2].

We now know what the people of Jhusi cultivated: they had rice, barley, bread-wheat, dwarf-wheat, lentil, green-gram, grass-pea, field-pea, horse-gram, sesame, linseed, anwala among other crops.  Among these rice and sesame were summer crops; the rest, winter. The important point is that rice was cultivated in India as far back as the 7-6th millenia B.C.E[2].

Another surprising find is grape cultivation. Susruta and Charaka knew about grapes, but they never mentioned the cultivation; the mention of grape cultivation comes after the Muslim invasion. Even though the Sanchi stupas depict the grape-vine, it was attributed to Hellenistic influence. But now we know that grape was cultivated in Jhusi since the Neolithic times[2].

What is more fascinating is that there was cultural contact between the people of North-West region of the Indian subcontinent and Jhusi: There is evidence of rice in Kunal, Haryana dating to 3000 – 2500 B.C.E and Swat in 2970 – 2920 B.C.E. and various winter crops from moving from Baluchistan  into Jhusi. All this is before the migration of Harappans to the Gangetic plain. Also with this find, we see a cultural continuity in Jhusi which starts in the Mesolithic period, continues through the Neolithic and Chalcolithic age to modern times[2].

When will this information make it to UCLA’s History of India course?

References & Notes:

  1. Lallanji Gopal et al., History of agriculture in India, up to c. 1200 A.D. (Concept Publishing Company, 2008). 
  2. J. Anil K. Pokharia, JN Pal and Alka Srivastava, Plant macro-remains from Neolithic Jhusi in Ganga Plain: evidence for grain-based agricultureCURRENT SCIENCE 97, no. 4 (2009): 564-572.
  3. Image via Wikipedia
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Archaeology Magazine's Top 10

The Archaeology Magazine has published a list of the top 10 discoveries of 2009 and as usual there is nothing from India. But atleast it does not have vampires and pirate relics as major stories. Among the stories two are interesting: the domesticated horses of Botai and the palace of Palace of Mithradates in Kuban, Russia.

Horses were domesticated for the first time sometime between 3700 and 3100 B.C.E in Kazakhstan. The fact that horse is not native to India and was domesticated elsewhere has a profound impact on ancient Indian history. The spread of Indo-European around the world, the arrival of Indo-Aryans in North-West India and the composition of Rg Veda has always been tied to the arrival of horse riding people, though the history is much more complicated.

Mithridates VI who ruled the kingdom of Pontus from 119 to 63 B.C.E, was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, but he troubled Rome to no end. Between 89 B.C.E and 63 B.C.E, three Mithridatic wars were fought between Roman legions and Mithridates VI. He feared death by poisoning and hence poisoned himself in small doses to develop immunity. He developed his knowledge by reading Indian texts, among others. More details at The Poisons of Mithridates.

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The Harappan Volumetric System

One of the functions of ancient scribes was to record economic activity, which would mean keeping count of various trade items; for example, 5 cows, 17 bangles. Hence one of the obvious things to look for in Indus seals are signs which represent numbers.

According to one study based on statistical analysis, “U” is the symbol for 5. The number 6 was written either as “UI” or with six vertical strokes; ten was “UU”. What is interesting is that in Nagari, the sign for 5 is “U” with a tail added to it; “U” in Brahmi denotes pa, the first syllable of panca[1]. The fish symbol, it is proposed, represents a higher number – 10 – and the trident sign, a multiplicative higher number[2].

That was a decade back. Now, based on an analysis of inscriptions on bas-relief tablets, incised tablet texts, and ceramics (pic), there are new proposals.

… indicating that the sign ‘V’ stood for a measure, a long linear stroke equalled 10, two long strokes stood for 20 and a short stroke represented one, according to Bryan Wells, who has been researching the Indus script for more than 20 years.Dr. Wells has proposed that “these sign sequences [sign ‘V’ plus numerals] are various values in the Indus volumetric system. The bas-relief tablets might have been used as ration chits or a form of pseudo-money with the repetitive use of ‘V’ paired with ||, |||, |||| relating to various values in the Indus volumetric system. The larger the ceramic vessel, the more strokes it has. This postulation can be tested by detailed measurements of whole ceramic vessels with clear inscriptions.” [Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

So what is the basic measure here represented by “V” ?

When he measured their volumes, Dr. Wells found that the pot with three long strokes had an estimated volume of 27.30 litres, the vessel with six long strokes 55.56 litres and the one with seven 65.89 litres. Thus, the calculated value of one long stroke was 9.24 or approximately 10 litres.[Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

This means that “V” stands for a specific volume and  one though n long strokes are used to specify the exact values. The most common combinations are VII, VIII and VIIII making it a three tiered system, like the Tall, Grande and Venti at Starbucks. One theory is that this was a measure of grain paid as wages from the granary.

Besides this volumetric system, there is a unit of counting as well. When one long stroke is combined with seven short strokes, it represents 17 (10 + 7) as in 17 bangles. There is a rake sign which is read as 100 and a double rake as 200. Another important point is that, this system is used only in Harappa; bas-relief tablets are common in Harappa than other locations.

Since there are clues that some Indus seals were used in economic activity —  seals found in Lothal warehouse had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse  — this find that the tablets were used as ration chits or pseudo-money is not surprising. It would be interesting if this discovery is a key which can unlock other secrets held in the seals and tablets.


  1. Subhash C. Kak, “A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  2. Subhash C. Kak, “INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.
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Deforestation in India: 73,000 years back

(Image from Journey of Man)

A new study reveals that the volcanic eruption of Mt. Toba in Sumatra, 74,000 years back, deforested Central India.

The volcano ejected an estimated 800 cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere, leaving a crater (now the world’s largest volcanic lake) that is 100 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. Ash from the event has been found in India, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.

The bright ash reflected sunlight off the landscape, and volcanic sulfur aerosols impeded solar radiation for six years, initiating an “Instant Ice Age” that — according to evidence in ice cores taken in Greenland — lasted about 1,800 years. [Supervolcano Eruption In Sumatra Deforested India 73,000 Years Ago]

Temperature dropped by 16 degrees; there was an Ice Age; there was population reduction among the earliest arrivals in India from Africa. The deforestation in turn caused a behavior change in human beings.

But did it exterminate Indians or the entire humanity? According to a paper published two years back, we know that few people of Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh survived. Stone blades and other tools  as well red ochre used in cave paintings were found both above and below the ash layer indicating that whoever lived at that time survived and there was technological continuity. Following Mt. Toba the Indian subcontinent was repopulated again by new migrants from the North-West as well as from the North East.

See Also: Environmental Impact of the 73 ka Toba Super-eruption in South Asia

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The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 2

(Ziggurat at Ur)

Read Part 1

Even though direct trade declined, a large number of foreigners stayed back, adopted local customs, and played an important role in Sumerian economy. These foreigners stayed in a village — a Meluhhan village — from 2062 B.C.E; we have documents from this period. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba which had the temple of Nin-mar[5]. The Meluhhan village in Guabba and was associated with this temple.

Guabba was probably a harbor town under the jurisdiction of the Girsu/Lagas but by the time of Ur III, it was not near the sea,  but could only be reached by inland waterways.A large number of granaries existed in Guabba where the temple was located. The granaries had to deliver barley and the Meluhhan village granary was one of them[10][11].

Thanks to the meticulous record keeping by the Sumerians we get a good picture of what these Meluhhans did. In 2062 B.C.E, a scribe of the builders received barley from the Meluhhan village. In 2057 B.C.E, there is account of grain delivery, the details of which is mentioned against a tablet of one Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha; the inventory of barley deposits in 2047 B.C.E mentions the quantity from the Meluhhan village. By 2046 B.C.E, there is a debt note:Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha has to recompense some wool. In 2045 B.C.E, the list of grain rations mentions the son of Meluhha, who was the serf of the Nanse temple from the delta[10][11].

During the Akkadian times, the Meluhhans were considered as foreigners, but by Ur III period they became part of society – paying tax and distributing grain — like other Sumerian villages. Compared to other towns and villages, the amount of grain delivered by the Meluhhan village was quite high. Between 1981-1973 BC, Ur was ruled by Amar-Sin and between 1972-1964 BC by his brother Shu-Sin. During the sixth year of the former and eighth year of the latter, barley was delivered only by the Meluhhan granary. Maybe the Meluhhan granaries were bigger or there was a third millennium jaziya[11].

Besides the granary, few people of Guabba — 4272 women and 1800 children — worked in the weaving sector. The Indus region was famous for cotton since 4000 B.C.E: one of the earliest evidence for exports from the subcontinent is Baluchistan cotton which was found in Jordan. So probably the residents of Guabba were skilled weavers from the Indus region[11].

Besides weavers, the village also had shepherds; the Ur III texts also mention a Meluhhan goat. The temple of Ninmar had two gardens out of which one was Meluhhan. This was probably a garden planted with fruit trees from Meluhha and provided fruits for the goddess. Also by the Ur III period, the Meluhhans had adopted Sumerian names. It seems the overseer of the Nanshe temple was a Meluhhan and there was a Meluhhan worker in the temple. Thus instead of following their religious traditions, the Meluhhans adopted the Sumerian ones[11].

Even though we have a better idea of the Meluhhans in Mesopotamia, these texts don’t help us in identifying Meluhha; We don’t know how far it was from Ur. Also no where in the texts the Meluhhans are mentioned in being in touch with their homeland. There is a mention of a Meluhhan skipper, but he was involved in domestic trade.

The Language Turner

(Cuneiform letter to King of Lagash)

Few years back, Gregory L. Possehl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, was reading Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, when he discovered a reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia. Possehl tracked down a photograph of the seal as well as got a fresh impression from the original seal (pic). The seal was dated from Late Akkadian (2200 – 2113 B.C.E) to Ur III (2113–2004 B.C.E)[3].

Think about this: Around 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages.

This suggests that there is probably a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever. We will know if the Indus people were literate or illiterate, spoke some variant of Indo-Aryan or proto-Dravidian or Klingon. This find could end the dispute over the indentity of the Harappans.

While no bi-lingual seal has been found so far, various Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. G.R. Hunter, who in 1934 concluded that Brahmi was derived from Indus script, observed that square Indus seals could be in Indus language while the circular ones, though in Indus script, could be encoding a non-Indus language. He has a reason for suggesting this: there is one particular circular Mesopotamian seal which has five Indus signs in a sequence not seen before; a square seal found in Kish was similar to the Indus ones[10].

That has not helped in decipherment. The number of Indus seals found in Mesopotamia are not too many. About thirty seals have been found of which only ten can be dated with certanity. With trade relations lasting centuries this is a disappointing count. So our hope of finding a bi-lingual tablet depends on finding a Sumerian cuneiform tablet.

Another clue could come from the translations of Ur III texts. Mesopotamians were prolific writers: We know what Sargon of Akkad wrote; we can read the seal of Queen Puabi; there are numerous texts which describe in detail how much tax was paid, debt was kept and who broke whose tooth. Due to this meticulous record keeping we can reconstruct the history of people from the Indian subcontinent in Mesopotamia during the period when Khufu was building the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The news about the Meluhhan village came in a paper published in 1977 based on ten Ur III texts from Lagash/Girsu[10]. Last year there was another update based on the translations of 44 texts which has 48 references to Meluhha. The text which connects the Meluhhan village with Guabba is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and was first published in 1912; no one noticed the connection till recently. Hopefully with revived interest in this topic, scholars will keep an eye for such clues which will help us solve this puzzle.


  1. The place Ur is important in the Abrahamic religions since it is  the birth place of Abraham. According to tradition Abraham lived from 1812 B.C.E to 1637 B.C.E. Since there is evidence for the granary delivering grain between 1981-1973 B.C.E and also between 1972-1964 B.C.E, it is possible that Meluhhans were around during Abraham’s time as well. That is if Abraham is a real historical character. According to Bible’s Buried Secrets — a historical analysis of the Hebrew Bible — the Babylonians exiled the Caananites in 586 B.C.E. It was while living in Babylon, near Ur, that a scribe, named “P” created the Abraham story to enforce the concept of the covenant.
  2. Many thanks to Hari and Ranjith P for their help in this research.
  3. Images from Wikipedia.


  1. Iraq’s ancient past at University of Pennysylvania
  2. The Middle Asian Interaction Sphere by Gregory L. Possehl
  3. Shu-ilishu’s Cylinder Seal by Gregory L. Possehl
  4. Dionisius A. Agius, Classic ships of Islam(BRILL, 2008).
  5. Charles Keith Maisels, The emergence of civilization (Taylor & Francis, 1990).
  6. Hammurabi (King of Babylonia.), (University of Chicago Press, 1904).
  7. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  8. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  9. Michael Roaf, The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (Facts on File, 1990).
  10. Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165.
  11. P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.
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