DNA of a civilisation

Skeletal remains excavated from Rakhigarhi in Haryana will prove useful in understanding the Harappans’ features, lifestyle and culture.

Published : May 13, 2015 12:30 IST

Archaeologists and scientists of Deccan College, Pune, examining a full-length skeleton of a male excavated from a Harappan burial site in Rakhigarhi in March.

Archaeologists and scientists of Deccan College, Pune, examining a full-length skeleton of a male excavated from a Harappan burial site in Rakhigarhi in March.

WHAT did the Harappan man look like? Was he well built? How tall was he? What were his facial features? What was the colour of his skin, eyes and hair? What were the dietary habits of the Harappans?

The answers to these questions, which have been puzzling archaeologists for several decades, lie in the DNA test results of four skeletons excavated from Rakhigarhi, a Harappan site in Haryana. The results are expected in July. The tests are jointly conducted by archaeologists of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Pune and forensic scientists from Seoul National University, South Korea. Two of the skeletons, belonging to the Mature Harappan period (2600-1900 BCE), are of adult males, one is of an adult female, and the fourth is of a child.

The growth and development of the Harappan civilisation can be divided into Early Harappan (3000-2600 BCE), Mature Harappan (2600-1900 BCE) and Late Harappan (1900-1500 BCE) phases. “For the first time, we are going to show the world what the Harappan man looked like. It will be a breakthrough in Harappan studies,” said Vasant Shinde, director of the excavation at Rakhigarhi and a specialist on Harappan civilisation. He is the Vice-Chancellor of Deccan College, a deemed university.

The excavation at Rakhigarhi, 25 kilometres from Jind town in Haryana’s Hisar district, is conducted jointly by Deccan College and the Haryana Department of Archaeology. Twenty-one trenches, besides the four burials, were dug during the excavation which began on January 23 and ended in the third week of April.

“We excavated the burials scientifically at Rakhigarhi. If you want to study the DNA, you have to avoid contamination. So we took precautions. We wore suits, gloves and masks. All four skeletons were in good condition,” said Shinde.

The facial bones of two skeletons are intact. Shinde said software developed by forensic scientists of Seoul National University to reconstruct facial features from skeletons would come in handy to reconstruct the Harappan man. “With the help of this software, we can analyse the height of the Harappan person, his facial and body features, and the colour of his skin, eyes and hair. The skeletal remains will be subjected to chemical tests to find the health status of the Harappan people and the diet they had,” he said. It will give insights into whether they preferred a vegetarian diet or not and whether malnutrition was a cause of death among them.

The six months of excavation from November 2014 in Rakhigarhi, the 4MSR site in Rajasthan and Chandayan in Uttar Pradesh revealed a lot of burials with Harappan skeletons. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavated one skeleton at 4MSR in March (“Harappan surprise”, Frontline , April 17). Its archaeologists, led by A.K. Pandey, found a copper crown on the skull of a skeleton at Chandayan in Baghpat district in November. This belongs to the Late Harappan period.

However, what was astounding was the discovery of a cemetery with 70 burials, most of them with skeletons, at the site at Farmana in Haryana. Spread over 3.5 hectares, it is the largest cemetery found in any of the Harappan sites in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Most of the skeletons in the 70 burials were found adjacent to one another. Some were found below others, signifying that they belonged to an earlier period. Archaeologists belonging to Deccan College, the Research Institute of Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan, and Maharshi Dayanad University, Rohtak, Haryana, discovered the Farmana cemetery in 2007-08 in their second field season of excavation.

The aim of the excavation at Rakhigarhi was not merely to understand the burial customs of the time, which earlier excavations at Farmana had revealed, but “to study the socio-economic conditions of the Harappans from the size of the burial pits, and the quality and quantity of the burial goods kept along with the dead body,” said Shinde. “Secondly, and more importantly, we want to find out from the DNA testing of the skeletons who the Harappans were, how they looked, what their build was, and so on.”

A lot of broken pottery and charred animal bones were found outside the burial pits at Rakhigarhi. This points to some rituals that had taken place before a body was placed inside the pit. The pots were perhaps broken after the body was placed inside it. Evidence of this kind of ritual was not available at other Harappan sites. Burial customs would have differed from one Harappan site to another.

There are about 2,000 Harappan sites in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In India, they are situated in Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana. The civilisation’s southern-most outpost was at Daimabad in Maharashtra. In Haryana alone, there are more than 100 Harappan sites. They include Adi-Badri, Balu, Banawali, Bhagwanpura, Daulatpur, Farmana, Girawad, Mirzapur, Rakhigarhi and Shamlo Kalan, all situated on the banks of the Ghaggar, which is the modern name for the Saraswati river.

Rakhigarhi is situated in the valley falling between the Ghaggar and Drishadvati rivers, a fertile region with large expanses of wheat fields. Excavation at Rakhigarhi is challenging because the ancient Harappan site lies buried under several hundred houses and lanes and alleys teeming with life.

However, there are seven mounds, numbered RGR-1 to RGR-7, that lend themselves to excavation. While the first six have hidden in their innards Harappan habitational sites, RGR-7 is a burial mound belonging to the Mature Harappan phase. R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General of the ASI, had identified two mounds besides these seven in the late 1970s. They are locally called Arada mounds and are reportedly older than the Harappan civilisation.

The ASI began excavation at Rakhigarhi in 1998 and continued it in the next two years; Amarendra Nath was the director of excavations for all the three years. Teachers and students of Deccan College and the Haryana State Department of Archaeology came together to dig RGR-4 and RGR-6 and the burial site near Arada mounds from January to April this year. Nilesh P. Jadhav, Research Assistant at Deccan College, and Ranvir Shastry of the Haryana State Department of Archaeology, were the co-directors of the excavation. While A. Deshpande and Pankaj Goyal did specialised scientific studies of the artefacts and the animal bones found in the trenches, Satish Nayak investigated the botanical remains. Others who took part in the excavation were Deccan College’s Yogesh Yadhav, Shalmali Mali, Malvika Chatterjee and Nagaraja Rao.

Mature Harappan deposits

RGR-4 is the biggest mound at Rakhigarhi. “The aim of our work here was to go down to the natural soil level from the top of the mound. We have gone to a depth of 18 metres. It is going deeper,” said Shinde. The Mature Harappan deposits were found above 7.5 metres, which indicates a very long period of habitation at the same site. Typical Mature Harappan pottery of different kinds was found at the site. What surprised excavators was a large number of goblets of various varieties. An extension of the granary, which had been uncovered last year in RGR-4, was found this year.

Along with the Early Harappan pottery was found pottery used by local people, indicating “the assemblage or regional cultures”.

Significantly, Harappan pottery found in the Ghaggar basin was not profusely painted. “But at Rakhigarhi,” Shinde said, “we do get a large amount of profusely painted Harappan pottery. This indicates the status of the site in the Saraswati basin. Perhaps, important people were living there. This site obviously controlled small and medium-sized sites in the Saraswati basin. So Rakhigarhi can be called a type site in the entire basin. That is why we are getting so much of classical pottery of the Mature Harappan phase,” he said.

Surprisingly, hundreds of perfectly turned-out idli-shaped terracotta cakes were found in the trenches at Rakhigarhi. (A similar cache of pottery was found during the excavation at 4MSR from January to April.) In comparison, not so many idli-shaped terracotta cakes were found at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, both in Pakistan now. It is surmised that these cakes could have gone from Rakhigarhi to Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.

An unfinished seal found in the current excavation features the carving of a tiger, but it has no Harappan script. A sealing has the impression of a unicorn. Hearths, furnaces, broken bangles and burnt bangles, all made of faience, found in the trenches at RGR-4 indicate the presence of an industrial unit there. Bangles made of shell point to the Harappans’ trade contacts with the Saurashtra region in present-day Gujarat. The shells could have come only from Saurashtra. There were beads made of lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan.

A lot of terracotta animal figurines were found at the site, important among them being those of the wild boar. This is reportedly the only site where terracotta figurines of wild boar have been found. There were representations of the deer. Figurines of dogs with a belt around the neck show that the Harappans kept dogs.

RGR-6, with a four-metre-deep deposit, belonged to the Early Harappan period. “You don’t find such a thick deposit in other Early Harappan sites. So we know that the excavation here will yield sufficient evidence to understand the gradual development from the Early Harappan to the Mature Harappan phase,” Shinde said. In most of the sites, archaeologists stopped short of excavating the Early Harappan deposits as they were found below the Mature Harappan level.

However, as the Early Harappan (RGR-6) and Mature Harappan deposits were available in two different mounds at Rakhigarhi, it was possible to understand the lifestyle of the people who belonged to the Early Harappan period. Besides, it helped archaeologists understand the shift in the cultural phase from the Early Harappan to the Mature Harappan phase, that is, the changes that had occurred in the style of structures, pottery, bead-making, and so on.

“Rakhigarhi was the place to understand how these changes had taken place. So we excavated 16 trenches in mound six. It was a big excavation,” Shinde said. (Rakhigarhi did not boast of a Late Harappan culture.)

Nilesh Jadhav said pottery typical of the Early Harappan period was found in the trenches at RGR-6. They included ceramics painted with peepal leaves; painted pottery resembling the Periano Gundai slipped ware from the Zhop valley in present-day Pakistan; ceramics with appliqué designs; chocolate ware; and bichrome ware. Also found were portable ovens, the types of which are still in use at Rakhigarhi; mud bricks in the ratio of 1:2:3; terracotta beads; steatite micro beads with a diameter of a couple of millimetres; copper objects such as fish hooks; a copper bangle; and so on. No terracotta animal figurines were available at the Early Harappan level.

Shinde said: “Since no evidence has been found so far of a Late Harappan phase having existed at Rakhigarhi, my hypothesis is that the rivers Saraswati and Drishadvati were not active as they were during the Early and Mature Harappan phases. The Saraswati could have gone dry around 2000 BCE and so the Late Harappan people moved away from the Saraswati river banks. So we have sites where the Early and the Mature Harappan phases flourished, mostly on the banks of the Saraswati and the Drishadvati. And there are other Late Harappan sites away from the riverbanks in this region and these sites include Bhagwanpura, Rupar and Barar.”

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