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What did Harappans eat, how did they look? Haryana has the answers

A recent dig that uncovered skeletons with intact DNA also reveals more about the lifestyle and social structure of these ancient residents. The DNA itself could shed light on their origins, diet and what they looked like.

india Updated: May 17, 2015 22:04 IST
Riddhi Doshi
Riddhi Doshi
Hindustan Times
Harappa,Harappan Civilisation,Harappans

Along the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra river lie the graves of a typical family. The woman was likely the daughter of a wealthy trader. In death, she wears her favourite shell and copper bangles. A large pot placed at her head would have been filled with foodgrain and objects meant to make her journey to the next world a comfortable one.

She is buried in the centre of a large graveyard, as are most women. This, and the large number of objects in the women's graves is believed to indicate that women had wealth and status in this society. Buried beside her is the body of a boy, most likely her son, who probably died at the same time. Close to her, his head pointing north as well, lies the grave of a man, most likely her husband. Their home would have been one of those in the 'urban' settlement outside the graveyard.

The houses here are rectangular, with three or four rooms each, made of mud and baked bricks in extra-strong layers of alternating horizontal and vertical tiers. The floor is covered in clay, decorated in a mosaic of coloured stone. A small granary attached to the home, also made of brick, kept their food safe.

Wheels of varying sizes found in the excavation. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

Scattered within the remains of the home are the child's toys - little dogs, bulls and deer made of clay. It's hard to tell exactly what the man did for a living, since he and his family were laid to rest approximately 5,000 years ago.

But the team of archaeologists working at this Harappan site of Rakhigarhi, 90 minutes east of Hisar in Haryana, have excavated skeletal remains with DNA samples intact and sent them to a special DNA and palaeontology lab in South Korea for testing - a first for a Harappan site.

Soon, the DNA could tell them approximately how old these people were, offer hints as to what killed them, even allow scientists to recreate their faces to give us an idea of what they looked like.

The three skeletons were unearthed between January and May, along with two symbolic, empty graves, believed to have been dedicated to people who disappeared or went missing.

The skeletons were found in one of three mounds excavated by a team led by archaeologist Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. Their findings, based on preliminary research, were revealed last month.

Bangles made of clay and stones belonging to the Harappan culture. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

"Professor Shinde and his team's recent excavations are phenomenal and pathbreaking for the archaeological study of Harappan sites in the country," says archaeologist Kishore Gaikwad of the Mumbai university, who specialises in the study of ancient Indian history. "It is exciting to know that we could soon have an idea of what the Harappans looked like, and know more about their socio-cultural life."

While numerous skeletons have been uncovered from Harappan sites, including this one, the advanced technology to glean DNA data from them is recent.

"We attempted to extract such data in the last few excavations on the site, between 2012 and 2014, but failed, because we didn't handle the skeletons as required and contemporary DNA got mixed up in their DNA," says Shinde. "This time around, we wore surgical masks, gloves and coats while excavating the skeletons."

In addition to the skeletal remains, soil samples in which parasite eggs could be found have been sent to the lab in South Korea. The results are expected in August.

If the DNA samples are the most exciting find, the 22-metre-deep trench unearthed at Rakhigarhi is a close second. This is one of the deepest trenches of any Harappan site, offering insight into two different eras of Harappan culture - from 4000 BC to 2600 BC, and from 2600 BC to 2000 BC.

This wall in Rakhigarhi, Hisar district created naturally over the years shows the different stages of Harappan culture. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

"After days of excavation, we reached a depth of 14 metres and I thought we were done," says Yogesh Yadav, a PhD scholar at Deccan College. "But we weren't. The trench was a phenomenal 8 metres deeper, with a whole lot more to unearth."

Through the layers, one can trace the Harappan culture's economic growth, its advancements in architecture, art and crafts, and even aspects of the structure of their society.

"Nowhere on this or any other Harappan site has there been evidence of a culture of slaves or any kind or of work done through the use of force," says Shinde. "This suggests a relatively equitable society where work was done collectively."

When it comes to trade and craft, the layers suggest that, from initially making jewellery from materials such as shell and beads imported from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the civilisation progressed to using intricate tin-glazed pottery, then lapis lazuli imported all the way from Afghanistan, and finally, trinkets made of 18-carat gold imported from the Hatti gold mines in Karnataka.

A portion of clay pottery with engravings found in the excavation. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

A rare find is a mini, unfinished seal featuring an intricately carved tiger, made of steatite or soapstone. Usually a seal features writing beneath the image. On this seal, there is just a blank space for text, suggesting that the site housed a seal-making workshop, says Shinde.

The team also found carnelian beads decorated with alkaline material, identical to beads found in ancient Mesopotamia, a region now comprising Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey.

"By 3000 BC, the Harappans were already trading far and wide and had a deep understanding of art, architecture and material use. They also had the technology to build complicated homes and made metal jewellery," Shinde says.

The Rakhigarhi excavation is part of a research project begun by Deccan College four years ago.

"The site was discovered in 1965, and was pegged at 40, 65 and 216 hectares respectively during three different surveys between 1965 and 2011," says Shinde.

Prof Vasant S Shinde, Vice Chancellor of Deccan College and head archaeologist for the excavations inspects Mound #4. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

After three years of painstaking excavation to determine its edges, Shinde's team released its findings in August 2014 - the size of the Harappan site was not 216 hectares but 350 hectares, making it 50 hectares larger than the famous Mohenjo Daro site in Sind in present-day Pakistan, which had so far been considered the biggest Harappan site on the subcontinent.

While still awaiting the results of DNA testing and analysis of the samples and artefacts collected, the team of six - Shinde, PhD scholars Nagraja Rao, Yogesh Yadav, Shalmali Mali and Malvika Chatterjee, and archaeologist Nilesh Jadhav - has already discovered enough material evidence to reveal in some cases, and confirm in others, a few vignettes of Harappan life circa 4000 BC.

These include pieces of pottery, semi-precious beads and stones, tiles, seals, ornaments, stone blades, toys and vessels.

There is now a plan for a museum here, where visitors can view some of these artefacts and perhaps tour a section of the excavated 'town'.

An agricultural field, which is a former excavation site. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

Already, the remote village of veiled women and hookah-smoking men seated on charpais - with a khap panchayat centre in the centre - has begun to open up to homestays and research scholars and students from around the world head to Rakhigarhi.

"Over the past two years, about 5,000 people have visited the site," says local Congress leader Dinesh Cheoran. "The homestays and excavation work are providing employment, so the panchayat has already sanctioned land for the museum."

In the meanwhile, it's business as usual. The villagers continue to plough their fields and scrub their cattle in the village pond and, every now and then, stumble upon human skeletons from thousands of years ago.

First Published: May 17, 2015 13:28 IST