Archaeologists In India Unearthed 4,500-Year-Old Skeletal Remains That Reveal Ancient Secrets

At a burial site once used by people from the Harappan era, archaeologists in India are busying themselves with important work. Given that the team of researchers are excavating a cemetery, though, the fact that they discover dozens of different graves hardly comes as a surprise. But then the experts suddenly do find something that can be considered genuinely astonishing.

The archaeologists – who worked at the Harappan site from 2013 to 2016 – were from India’s Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, which is based in the city of Pune. And scientists from the Institute of Forensic Science at South Korea’s Seoul National University College of Medicine helped the Indian team to analyze the finds in more detail.

Professor Vasant Shinde of the Deccan College led the dig – which took place near an area known as Rakhigarhi. And although Rakhigarhi is a rural village today, it was actually once a major part of the Harappa civilization. This culture thrived in what is now India and Pakistan between 3,900 and 4,600 years ago. The modern settlement in northern India is some 80 miles from the country’s capital, New Delhi.

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And Rakhigarhi has been a rich source of Harappan archaeology since 1963 – when excavations first started taking place there. However, there’s apparently little published information from those earliest examinations. From 1997 until the turn of millennium, though, archaeologists returned to undertake more digs. Yet this secondary round of exploration was suspended due to allegations of misappropriation of funding.

So it wouldn’t be until the year 2013 that experts were to return to Rakhigarhi once more to seek out treasure. Professor Shinde and his team were likely hoping to unearth some impressive finds, too, as the earliest form of the Harappan civilization apparently dates back to about 5,300 years ago. And some of the artifacts uncovered at the site do actually harken back to as long ago as around 5,000 years.

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There are nine mounds at Rakhigarhi in which ancient treasure was able to be buried, and within them experts have unearthed terracotta blocks, statues and jewelry. What’s more, one of these geographical formations – designated RGR-7 – was the location of the unusual grave mentioned earlier. But before we go into any further detail on that, let’s first learn more about the ancient Harappa civilization.

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With a population perhaps as high as 60,000 during the Bronze Age, Harappa – along with the settlement of Mohenjo-daro – was one of the largest cities of what’s called the Indus Valley Civilization; indeed, the Indus Valley Civilization is also alternatively known as the Harappan Civilization. And as we’ve already seen, its earliest days go back to around 5,300 years ago.

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The Harappan cities spread out from the mighty Indus River – which now runs through modern-day Tibet, India and Pakistan before flowing into the Arabian Sea. Researchers believe that, at its peak, the ancient Harappan population may have numbered somewhere in the region of one to five million. And the civilization itself is also thought to have been highly developed for its time.

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In fact, cities within the Indus Valley had many characteristics that we might now think of as having been advanced for their historical period. The settlements were systematically planned, for instance, and city builders created structured water supplies and drainage schemes. The houses themselves were quite impressive, too, as they were commonly constructed out of fired blocks. And the Harappan people of the Indus Valley were also skilled in producing craftwork such as jewelry. They worked with copper, bronze, tin and semi-precious stones such as carnelian.

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Intriguingly, it has also been suggested that the Harappans boasted their own writing system. Archaeologists have discovered evidence for this in the form of up to 600 different symbols carved into artifacts. These characters have been found on items including ceramic vessels, seals and even what appears to be a signboard. Unfortunately, though, no one has yet managed to decipher these etchings.

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At its height, the Harappan civilization stretched from contemporary Balochistan in the south-west of Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh in the north of India. There were even Harappan outposts as far as the northern tip of modern Afghanistan and the western Indian state of Gujarat. And as well as settling along the Indus River and other waterways, the Harappans also created many settlements along the coast.

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But where had this sophisticated civilization appeared from? Well, looking back through the mists of time, it seems that the ancient society originated as a result of people adopting agriculture and a more settled way of life in what is now Pakistan’s Balochistan. And this change apparently began some 8,500 years ago, when settlers cropped up on the edge of the Indus River’s flow.

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As the centuries rolled by, then, these early farmers spread along the Indus until cities began to appear. These included two of the largest settlements: Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Adopting agriculture also allowed the Indus Valley people to increase their food supply – and thus the population. And it’s believed that at the Indus Valley Civilization’s highest point, there may have been as many as five million people who counted themselves part of the culture.

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Historians commonly divide the Harappan era into three periods: early, mature and late. The earliest stage lasted from around 5,300 to 4,800 years ago. Towards the end of this chapter, the Harappans began to construct walled towns and expand their flourishing trade routes. Farmers grew crops such as cotton and dates, and they raised water buffalo.

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By the beginning of the mature period, then, agriculture – supported by prolific monsoon rains – had led to a population increase. Indeed, around 4,600 years ago some substantial cities had started to emerge across the civilization. And we know this because archaeologists have uncovered evidence of no less than 1,000 of these urban communities of various sizes.

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Perhaps one of the most significant developments in these Harappan cities was the implementation of a particularly adept system for handling sewage. You see, houses were connected to concealed drains that ran along the course of city streets. And the Harappans also built impressive fortifications around their cities. These may have had a defensive purpose as well as offering protection against flooding.

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Historians date the start of the late Harappan period to around 3,900 years ago. The beginning of this stage was marked by an identifiable decline in the Indus Valley Civilization. Judging by injuries evident on skeletons from this period, violence seems to have increased. And diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy seem to have become more prevalent.

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This decline appears to have accelerated over the next two centuries. In fact, it has been suggested that by around 3,700 years ago the Harappans had actually deserted their largest cities. People apparently moved into smaller settlements, but in subsequent years the Harappans abandoned even those. So what had caused the decline of the highly sophisticated Indus Valley Civilization?

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Well, archaeologists and historians have spent years searching for an answer to this puzzling conundrum. But the experts have reached no firm consensus as to the cause of this degeneration. One theory from the 1950s held that Aryan tribes may have invaded from Central Asia. And these invaders, it was posited, overwhelmed the Harappans by force.

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But this theory – first put forward by British army officer Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler in 1953 – has been rejected by many experts. For one, Wheeler had interpreted the discovery of human remains that hadn’t been properly buried at Mohenjo-daro as evidence of a massacre. But later researchers believed that the skeletons had simply been interred in a hurry – not necessarily after bloodshed.

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Even Wheeler himself later found a hole in his own hypothesis. In the years following the officer’s initial assertion, you see, he admitted that the corpses could simply be evidence of the final decline of Mohenjo-daro as a city. So academics still had to look for a possible explanation for the end of the Indus River Civilization.

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Another theory has suggested that a change in the course of the Indus River might have had a drastic effect on Harappan civilization. Conversely, others have offered the explanation that climate change led to a devastating drought that would have seriously impacted agriculture in the region. And this, in turn, would have resulted in food shortages.

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Researchers have noted, too, that there was a marked lowering of temperatures around 3,800 years ago – and this has been connected to a decrease in monsoon rains. As Harappan agricultural methods depended on regular flooding, this meteorological development would have had a serious impact on farming productivity. And then there were earthquakes.

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Archaeologists have found evidence of large-scale earthquakes that occurred in the Indus Valley region around 4,200 years ago, and it seems that those massive tremors lasted for as long as 700 years. These earthquakes may have destroyed city structures and altered river systems. And on top of these meteorological disasters, there may have also been a drop in trading with other centers of civilization such as Egypt and Mesopotamia.

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But whatever event acted as the catalyst for the Harappans’ demise, knowledge of the civilization’s very existence was lost for many millennia. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that people began to find clues indicating that a thriving society had existed in the Indus Valley for some 2,000 years.

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The first European to note evidence of the Harappan civilization was a British man called James Lewis. In 1827 – after five years of service – Lewis deserted the Bengal European Artillery regiment and changed his name to Charles Masson. He then spent five years touring northern India and Afghanistan – before his travels led him to discover the ruins of Harappa.

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In 1842 Masson published a book describing his finds in which he got Harappa’s dates hopelessly wrong. He believed the ruins dated from much later than they actually did, you see. But within the same decade, another group would come to learn of Harappa’s existence; in 1849 the British East India Company took over the Punjab – where the Harappa ruins are located. And then, the British began to build a railroad, putting them squarely on top of Harappa.

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Unfortunately, the rail workers turned to the bricks of Harappa’s ruins as a ready source of ballast for the tracks. Around 100 miles of railroad were built atop Harappan bricks, in fact. But more happily, though, in 1861 the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) was established. And some work was carried out on the Harappa site.

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The director of the A.S.I. – Alexander Cunningham – published the findings from his Harappa survey in 1875. Yet after this burst of activity, Harappa lay untroubled by archaeologists for years – until the start of the 20th century, that is. In the 1920s, you see, A.S.I. archaeologists began exploring the remains of Mohenjo-daro and noticed similarities between that city and Harappa.

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As we saw earlier, though, the A.S.I. didn’t start work on the Harappan site at Rakhigarhi until 1963. By this time, of course, India was an independent country, having officially been released from British rule in 1947. But unfortunately, the findings of that 1963 dig were never fully published.

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And so it was another 34 years before the A.S.I. returned to the Rakhigarhi site in 1997 – this time under the leadership of Amarendra Nath. This survey showed that the city had existed during the early Harappan period. The archaeologists also discovered jewelry – including golden and stone bangles – as well as evidence of roads and drains.

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But work at Rakhigarhi hit an obstacle yet again; the project was suspended when evidence of financial corruption came to light. And in 2015 Nath was found guilty of fashioning false invoices while working at Rakhigarhi. He received a sentence of two and a half years of what a report in the Hindustan Times described as “rigorous imprisonment.”

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This episode caused another delay in efforts to uncover the secrets of Rakhigarhi. Eventually, though, work did get under way again in 2013. In this year, you see, Vasant Shinde and his team started to excavate a burial ground at Rakhigarhi – revealing a number of skeletons in the process. Many of them were buried with ceramic vessels containing grain as well as bangles wrought from seashells. And these graves were dated back to approximately 4,500 years ago.

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Shinde and his team uncovered various graves throughout the course of their work. But one burial place was particularly noteworthy, for it contained the remains of a couple. Forensic analysis showed that the pair had comprised of a man and woman. And since they were interred facing one another and lying closely together, it’s been suggested that they had been lovers when they were alive.

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Scientists have estimated that the both individuals had been between the ages of 21 and 35 when they’d died. Neither skeleton displayed any visible signs of previous physical injury or disease. The man would have stood at five feet and eight inches tall, with the woman measuring five foot six. And both skeletons had quite worn teeth – likely due to the individuals’ diet or perhaps their occupations.

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The couple’s grave held various red containers typical of the mature Harappan period, too. And at least one of the cadavers may have also been originally buried with a necklace; an agate bead found in the burial pit could have been from such a piece of jewelry. But why were the couple interred together? Well, it has been posited that they may have died together – as this would perhaps explain their joint grave. Elaborating on the discovery, Shinde spoke to The Times of India in January 2019.

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Shinde told the newspaper that Harappans held a certain set of beliefs about an afterlife that may account for the ceramic pots that were buried with the couple. “The pots may have contained food and water for the dead – a custom probably fueled by the belief that the dead may need them after death,” Shinde said. “Hence, the contemporary view of life after death may actually be as old as 5,000 years.”

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Shinde also offered his opinion on the specific way in which the couple had been laid to rest. “We can only infer,” he began, “but those who buried the two individuals may have wanted to imply that the love between the two would continue even after death.” And looking at the photos of the pair lying together, we might be inclined to agree with his assessment.

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This type of joint burial site is thought to be unusual within Harappan civilization, but archaeologists have uncovered examples of other such graves from different cultures. In 2007, for instance, researchers unearthed a Stone Age grave in San Giorgio, Italy. And the occupants – believed to have died some 6,000 years ago – were found clasped together in an embrace. This couple has come to be known as the Valdaro Lovers.

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But despite the reported rarity of joint graves in Harappan culture, one other couple burial has been uncovered at a Harappan site. In the city of Lothal, archaeologists discovered another grave with two sets of human remains inside – but it was very different to the Rakhigarhi grave. At Lothal, you see, the bodies were laid on top of each other, and the set of remains believed to have belonged to a female featured apparent head injuries. Furthermore, some scientists have even doubted that the couple were actually of different genders. So, for now at least, the Rakhigarhi couple remain the only certain man and woman buried together – but who knows what else archaeologists will unearth?

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