What They Ate in the Indus Valley

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A civilisational menu

A FEW YEARS AGO, Steven Alec Weber and Arunima Kashyap, two US-based archaeologists who have dedicated their careers studying the Indus Valley Civilisation, found themselves turning to what might appear an unusual method of inquiry. In the stark and clinical environs of their laboratories in Portland, they began cooking the most colourful of vegetables. They were preparing chutneys. They were roasting and boiling roots and tubers, and making Indian curries in clay pots.

During their field visits earlier, the duo had collected broken pots and vessels and human dental remains excavated in Farmana in modern-day Haryana. They had observed and gathered recipes from locals who worked at the sites and with whom they shared lunch. And now, away from those sites, training powerful microscopes on broken vessels and ancient human teeth, they found the clues to the earliest foods of the Indian subcontinent—plant starch residues. Cooking, as Weber explains, causes structural and morphological changes in the starch granules of plants. So if you cook the same ingredients in a similar cooking environment, you could technically arrive at the same shape and structure you had discovered on the dental and pot remains. Using the recipes they had gathered, replicating clay pots and raiding the few Indian grocery stores that exist in Portland, they began to put together—perhaps for the first time in the history of Indus Valley archaeology—a more complete picture of an ancient diet.

They made old and new discoveries. They found cereals, pulses, millets, vegetables, fruits and tubers, among other things. And then occurred their most remarkable find: they found starch residues with ginger and turmeric in them. They also found an ancient clove. “The Harappans were making curry so many years ago,” Weber says, his voice still unable to conceal his excitement. “They were making a proto-curry.”

Who were the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation, these ancient people who lived along the Indus River sometime between 3,300 and 1,300 BCE and built one of the greatest ancient civilisations? Were they wiped out by a flood or did they just abandon the northwest part of the subcontinent because the river they depended upon dried up or changed its course? Or were they wiped out or driven to the southern parts of the Indian peninsula by a superior military force, a group of people called the Indo-Iranians or Aryans who came from the Caspian Sea area with their Vedic culture, as some have proposed? Or, as an alternate bunch of researchers claim, there was no Aryan invasion. The Vedic culture of early Hinduism did not originate elsewhere but within the Indus Valley.

These are questions that have puzzled archaeologists and researchers ever since the civilisation was first discovered in the early 20th century. Most researchers have turned to the tiny symbols and inscriptions on the seals and tablets found at Indus Valley sites for clues to these questions. But so far, the research on the 417 identified symbols that have been found on over 4,000 objects, has yielded little and the script is yet to be deciphered. Objects bearing it have been found all over, from the Indus Valley sites of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa to far-off places in western Asia. Some researchers have simply thrown up their hands in frustration and claimed that the symbols do not represent a language at all. A few years ago, however, some researchers from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the University of Washington found that the Indus inscriptions are indeed linguistic in nature, displaying the same level of randomness and patterns as the languages used for comparison, and differing from Fortran—a computer programming language—and other non-linguistic systems. They were analysing the statistical pattern of the script, calculating the degree of randomness in successive symbols of a sequence, and comparing them to non-linguistic systems such as human DNA, protein sequences and four linguistic scripts—English, old Tamil, Rig Vedic Sanskrit and Sumerian—along with Fortran.

Other researchers have turned to burial mounds instead, excavating them and looking for things like DNA from skeletons and parasite eggs that might have once existed in the stomachs of Indus Valley people.

“We haven’t quite appreciated this finding. That so many years ago, cows and other cattle were roaming the cities. Just imagine, digging into the trash, eating what humans were eating” - Steven Alec Weber

But archaeological research now is also throwing up interesting discoveries about questions of a more intimate nature. What did they eat, for instance? Did they like meat? Did they like their food bland or spicy? Could it be that the builders of this great ancient civilisation—who erected sophisticated urban centres and excellent drainage networks, and developed new technologies in metallurgy, a vibrant arts and craft scene, and were among the first to devise a uniform system of weights and measures—could it be that when it came to food, their abilities were inadequate?

Steven Alec Weber has been visiting Indus Valley sites in India and Pakistan since the 1990s. As he puts it, “For a very long period, our knowledge of the agricultural practices of the Indus people relied primarily on macrobotanical findings.” Macrobotanical items are things like recovered seeds, nuts, bones and plant parts that are visible with the naked eye. “This over-reliance on macrobotanical finds has limited our understanding of the histories of plants like vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots and tubers whose remains might not survive the carbonisation process. Direct evidence of plant use from items such as ceramic vessels used for storing, cooking and serving plant foods is also significantly limited or missing from Harappan archaeology.”

A few years ago, Weber, along with Kashyap, wrote in a paper, “The focus of this limited and biased study (on agricultural practices and food habits) has been largely on cereal grains and pulses from Southwest Asia. Further skewing our understanding of Harappan plant use strategies is the fact that only a few of the many ecologically distinct regions of this civilisation have been adequately studied.”

We thus know from old discoveries that the Indus people grew and perhaps ate things like wheat, pulses, barley, millet, rice, sesame and mustard. Other than that, for a long period, we knew little else.

But apart from things like seeds and nuts, even the most perishable of items like cooked food can leave behind their footmarks. All you need to do thousands of years later, as Kashyap and Weber discovered, is know how to look for them. Plants store energy in starch, for instance, and even small amounts of starch can remain after the plant itself has deteriorated, heated or cooked. Using starch grain analysis, researchers can now look for starch remains on things like plates, cooking vessels and human dental remains and identify them since each plant species has its own specific molecular signature. “In the past, people would just wash away the bits of vessels and pots they found. But then that would be useless for us,” Weber says.

Not only did Kashyap and Weber discover the earliest records of curry, they found that eggplant—or the vegetable without any goon or positive qualities, baigan—had been cooked. They discovered from their study of 10 different human remains that Harappans had a broad diet which included small-grained cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables and roots and tubers, along with wheat and barley. Their starch analysis found the remains of the usual wheat, barley, the indigenous Panicum and Setaria breeds of millets, and the south-west Asian and tropical breed of Macrotyloma pulse, but they also discovered newer ingredients like vegetables such as cucurbits and eggplants, fruits like mango and date, roots and tubers, and tropical pulses’ species like vigna, and millets of African origin.

“Starch grain analysis is still at an early stage of development, especially in South Asia,” Weber says. “And going ahead, it is going to answer many more queries.”

A few weeks ago, archaeologists affiliated with the Haryana Archaeology and Museums department discovered charred animal bones from an Indus Valley site in Kunal in Haryana. According to them, these bones—possibly belonging to the Nilgai species or some breed of cattle—appear to be leftovers of cooked meat. According to VS Shinde, the vice chancellor at Deccan College, Pune, and a well-known Indus Valley archaeologist who overlooks the excavations in Rakhigarhi in Haryana and several other sites, although recent discoveries haven’t yet been made public, these could very well turn out to be true. Shinde and his colleagues have been digging up several bones—from all types of animals, like chicken, cattle and possibly even some wild animals like boars—from nearby sites. Many of these bones, the manner in which they are dented or cut, or how some of them appear charred, show evidence of being cooked as food. The researchers have also discovered plates and ovens that resemble modern-day tandoors. According to Shinde, a lot of modern-day Indian cuisine, especially those found locally in Haryana, like tandoori chicken or rotis, were being prepared back then in the Indus Valley. “Everything we eat now in modern times was also being eaten back then,” says the archaeologist. “Everything except maybe the consumption of cattle has disappeared.” It is not just the remains of food that tell us what they consumed, Shinde says, but also the types of crockery that were used. “We have found remains of plates in Punjab and Haryana for instance. But for that same period, we find bowls in Gujarat. It indicates that more rotis were eaten in the northern region, while in Gujarat, liquid (or porridge-like) food consisting of sorghum and millets (discovered at these sites) were being consumed.”

“Everything we eat now in modern times was also being eaten back then. Everything except maybe the consumption of cattle has disappeared” VS Shinde, archaeologist and vice-chancellor, Deccan College, Pune

A big debate regarding food habits in the Indus Valley have centred around rice. When exactly did this modern-day Indian staple appear on our plates? Was it during the Indus Valley period or much after?

Some evidence for the presence of rice cultivation and consumption during the Harappan period has been present. For instance impressions of rice grains have been observed in pottery at sites in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Rice grains have even been recovered from several sites in north-west India. But these have not been securely dated, and the chronology presented in the reports, as some researchers point out, is opaque. As a result, the consensus has been that rice, or more accurately wetland rice, showed up in India only towards the end of the civilisation, sometime around 2000 BC from China.

A team of India and UK researchers discovered that rice domestication had occurred in South Asia much earlier. Among other things, the researchers discovered rice grains and rice spikelet bases from several sites. When the dating of rice grains was carried out, it was found that rice had been domesticated 430 years before wetland rice arrived from China. The researchers published their findings late last year in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

One of the researchers, Dr Jennifer Bates, told the website of the University of Cambridge, ‘We found evidence for an entirely separate domestication process in ancient South Asia, likely based around the wild species Oryza nivara. This led to the local development of a mix of ‘wetland’ and ‘dryland’ agriculture of local Oryza sativa indica rice agriculture before the truly ‘wetland’ Chinese rice, Oryza sativa japonica, arrived around 2000 BC. While wetland rice is more productive, and took over to a large extent when introduced from China, our findings... show there was already a long-held and sustainable culture of rice production.’

The research also confirmed that the Indus population was the earliest to use complex multi-cropping strategies across both seasons, growing foods during summer (rice, millets and beans) and winter (wheat, barley and pulses), which required different watering regimes. Such a seasonal crop rotation system is among the oldest, preceding even other civilisations like the ancient Egyptians or the Shang Dynasty who utilised either winter crops or summer crops with the aim of stockpiling surplus. As the researchers increasingly believe, given the geographic largeness of the civilisation and the varying environmental conditions, people grew crops and had food habits that were dictated by their regions. The large cities, much like today, served as a melting pot of produce from different regions, and possibly even food habits and cuisines. Shinde believes that as more research on food habits appear, it will be able to answer other queries about what happened to the people of the Indus Valley. He claims that it is possible that climate change may not be responsible for the abrupt collapse of their civilisation, as some like to believe. Instead, Harappans might have managed to shift their crop patterns in the face of changing climate or less water, moving from certain crops like wheat and barley to drought-resistant species like small millets. Since crops like millet have a lower yield, the large storage system of the mature Harappan period might have been abandoned, giving rise to smaller, more individual household-based crop processing and storage system. “And something like this will of course have had an impact on their political and societal system,” Shinde says. “Who knows what happened.”

Weber is caught up with another image. During his research with Kashyap, while they began exploring plant residues in vessels and human dental remains, Weber had another idea. He had spent several years studying cattle and human food in the Indus Valley. And he suggested why they didn’t scrape for plant starches in the dental remains of cattle. Just as suspected, they found similar results to what they had discovered on human teeth, ginger and turmeric, among other things.

“We haven’t quite appreciated this finding, I feel,” Weber points out that image in his mind. “That so many years ago, cows and other cattle were roaming the cities. Just imagine, digging into the trash, eating what humans were eating.” An image quite like today.