The young woman looked out of the narrow slit in the wall that served as a window in her house. She saw the sun rising over the brick city and the far off fields of wheat and barley, signaling to her to start her day. She stepped out of her brick house and used her favourite earthenware jar to get some water out of the well. The jar had been made by her sister, who had painted pictures of animals and geometrical designs on it. She washed her face and hands, not paying attention to the dirty water flowing into the drain outside the living area. Later, she will go down to the Great Bath before heading towards the temple for the evening prayers.
According to our current calendar, the year is 2600 BC. The name of the city has been lost to time but centuries later, denizens of the same area will call it Mohen Jo Daro — City of the Dead. The young woman knows that she has to help her household harvest wheat and barley and store it in the large central granary, like the other families do. They will trade with other, similar cities, in the north and east. People, who will live there much later, will call all of these cities Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilization.
The citizens of this urban economic center have come a long way from their pastoral lives 500 to a 1000 years ago. The young woman has heard stories of how her ancestors planted crops; formed early villages in the area; and how some of them spread out to the north and east, settling there in similar urban centers. There are other rivers there but for her and her people, the Sindhu River will forever remain the source of life.
People come here from the west also and she has heard stories of great civilizations there too. She wonders what their cities are like. She does not know that hers is the largest of what will eventually be known as the ancient world and that this city will share mention in history along with Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.
As she continues with her daily rituals, she is blissfully unaware of the fact that in a few centuries her city will no longer be the urban hub it is. Ruins of the brick walls and roads will be all that remain and it will become what it would eventually be known as — Mohen Jo Daro, City of the Dead.
Read on for new data and latest DNA research. (Check out the blog Who Are the South Asians?)
The Indus Valley Civilization
Mohen Jo Daro, a thriving city and economic hub, formed a part of the Harappan Civilization (or Indus Valley Civilization) from 2600 BC to 1800 BC. Harappa, its twin in Punjab, Pakistan and other cities traversing western India, together formed the Indus Valley Civilization, covering the size of Western Europe. The period from 1800 BC to 1300 BC saw the decline of the cities
The Indus Valley Civilization was the largest of the four ancient civilizations, which included Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Research from India in 2016 showed that the civilization was probably 8000 years old, 2500 older than previously thought, predating Mesopotamia and Egypt. At this time, they probably formed early farming village communities. They were widely dispersed, spreading from Balochistan, Afghanistan, Sindh, Punjab through to Western India.
The round structure at the top of the mound in the picture above is a later addition. A Buddhist Stupa built over the original temple, where Shiva or Agni were probably worshiped.
Tragically, while we have extensive information about the other civilizations because we were able to decipher the languages, we have had no such luck here, even though we have found scripts written on pottery, seals and amulets. Only 10% of Mohen Jo Daro has been excavated. A lot more still waits to be discovered, like underneath the mound in the above picture.
Discovered in 1911, excavations began in Mohen Jo Daro in 1922 and a treasure trove of pottery, seals and other artifacts were discovered, which point to craft technology, trade and economic expansion. Evidence suggests that the city was ruled through trade and religion because there is no evidence of warfare or conquests. The rulers may very well have been merchants, property owners or religious leaders.
The brick houses, wells, drains, granaries and baths indicate that people from many different classes and occupations lived together in a grid like city, whose architecture and urban planning was not seen anywhere else in the ancient world.
What does the DNA tell us?
Our history books told us that the Aryans descended from the Central Asian mountains and decimated the earlier civilization in around 1500 BC but new evidence suggests that the story is much more complicated.
Lack of DNA evidence has meant that we have little understanding of how South Asian populations were formed. Mitochondrial DNA evidence (passed only from female to female) further confused the situation because it suggested that the inhabitants of India had been indigenous for thousands of years. However, Y-chromosome evidence which was analysed subsequently, showed connections to Western Eurasians (Iranian or Central Asian). This indicates that men from there migrated into the sub-continent, while women remained local.
Finally, an extensive new study published in 2018, analyzing the complete genome, threw some light on the issue. It built on the genetic understanding that there were two separate groups in ancient India: the Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians, who according to David Reich, a geneticist from Harvard Medical School, are as different from each other as Europeans and East Asians today.
The study looked at the genome of 612 ancient individuals, including samples from eastern Iran, an area called Turan that now covers Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and South Asia.This data was compared with that taken from present-day individuals, including 246 distinct groups in South Asia.
According to this study, various groups mixed with each other to form South Asian populations. Firstly, there were the South Asian hunter-gatherers (called Ancient Ancestral South Indians in the study), related to modern day populations of the Andaman Islands. These were the original inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent, descending from the “out of Africa” migration around 50,000 years ago.
Around 7000 BCE, Iranian agriculturists entered the sub-continent and probably introduced agriculture (wheat and barley) to the region. They mixed with the South Asian hunter-gatherers and created the Indus Valley population.
Then around 2000 BCE, steppe pastoralists (known previously as “Aryan” but generally as Indo-Iranian) moved south into the sub-continent, encountered the Indus Valley population, perhaps causing some upheaval but mainly mixing with them. This resulted in some of the Indus Valley population moving south, mixing even more with the Ancient Ancestral South Indians (or South Asian hunter-gatherers) to form the Ancestral South Indian population. Meanwhile, in the north the steppe pastoralists mixed much more with the Indus Valley population that remained there, creating the Ancestral North Indian group. Subsequently, most South Asian populations are a result of further mixing between Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.
But most importantly, what this diverse DNA analysis has shown is that Indus Valley people are the single most important source of ancestry in South Asia (note: in the study they are called Indus Periphery people due to lack of access to DNA from Indian and Pakistani Indus Valley sites but authors consider them reasonable proxies).
Why were the the Harrapan cities abandoned?
It is probable that climate change caused droughts due to drying up of rivers and hiatus in monsoon, which led to Mohen Jo Daro’s abandonment and a migration towards the west. Other evidence (from India) shows that people continued to survive even after the climate changed because they used shifting crop patterns, planting wheat and barley during heavy monsoons and millet and rice in the declining phase. This resulted in de-urbanization because large storage spaces were no longer needed and smaller home based crop processing and storage systems were used.
Sadly, Mohen Jo Daro has been neglected for decades. No excavation has taken place and certainly, no concrete preservation has been authorized. Most of the recent information we have about the Harappans, is from excavation and research being done in India or from samples from Central Asia.
Hopefully, more ancient DNA samples will be found and analyzed to provide further concrete evidence of this: one of our most important ancient civilizations.
All images credit: Saima Baig