A New Page in India’s History

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A breakthrough discovery by a study led by IIT Kharagpur has made the colourful Rann Festival of Gujarat a little more vibrant. The researchers have uncovered the earliest traces of the Old Iron Age which is older than 3000 years in the deep stretches of the Rann of Kutch and the Thar Desert. Most importantly the study reaffirmed the theories of human migration from the west to the east induced by climate change.

The region of Gujarat has been a part of many tales from the times of our mytho-history through various historical periods until modern times. Even the Harappan period can be traced to a few rocky islands in the Kutch region of Gujarat. However, till now the Rann which is a prominent geological feature of Gujarat was devoid of any sign of continued human settlement throughout the Early Iron Age to Early Historic Age (~3100 – 2300 years). The lack of evidence even led archaeologists term this period as ‘Dark Age of Gujarat’.

The recent explorations in the coastal settlement of Karim Shahi region of the Rann near Indo-Pak border, led by Prof. Anindya Sarkar from the Dept. of Geology and Geophysics at IIT Kharagpur, however, have unraveled the secrets behind this curtain of silence. The team has found the earliest evidence of human habitation dating back to 3000 years. They also found evidence of Historic to Medieval (~1500–900 years old) human settlement at Vigakot in the Thar Desert.

“We were conducting geological investigations for finding out the past climate change during and after the collapse of Harappan civilization funded by the INFOSYS foundation and IIT Kharagpur. During our explorations we came across numerous archaeological artefacts strewn over the surface of Karim Shahi and Vigakot,” said Prof. Sarkar.

The most intriguing finding is how the human habitation thrived in such water-deprived inhospitable terrain and survived from Iron Age to Medieval period although major Harappan cities were abandoned by that time, he opined. The researchers also did a total station survey to determine the landscape.

“What seems to be an arid landscape today have indications of an active river system and some amount of rainfall during that period as evidenced from the analysis of sediments, botanical remains like pollens and isotopes of oxygen in fossil molluscan shells,” said collaborator Dr. Navin Juyal from Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.

The researchers also referred to the historical travelogue of Al Beruni of 1030 AD which mentioned the presence of rivers in Kutch.

“Our study suggests that the Rann of Kutch and part of Thar desert were still a hospitable terrain for the sustenance of human settlements from the Early Iron Age till at least medieval times which led to the survival of the civilization under such climate threat situation following the Harappan decline,” he said.

It is long known that from Mature to Late Harappan period (5200 to 3300 years) the number of human settlements continuously increased from the Indus River valley in the west to the Ghaggar-Hakra in the east. This migration following the collapse of the old Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization has been attributed to the decline of monsoon or major droughts by many scientists. But what happened to the people after such collapse? Little is known about the people after the post-urban Harappan period. Some archaeologists believe that there was no demographic collapse as such. Rather populations persisted in smaller less complex settlements dispersed from the original river valleys of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra to more distant areas of the Ganga-Yamuna interfluves or Gujarat and Rajasthan until 3000 years before the present time. In northern India new kind of civilization rose afterward, namely, the Iron Age (or Painted Gray ware) between ~3000 and 2500 years before the present time that was followed by the Kushan period (~1900–1500 years).

“This was indeed a very critical transition, wherein human migration, as suggested by our findings, was far more expansive than thought before. We suspect that the gradual shift of Intertropical Convergence Zone, the main driver of monsoon from west to east over the last seven thousand years, forced people to migrate for greener pastures,” remarked Prof. Sarkar.

An earlier study by Prof. Sarkar on Haryana’s Bhirrana region had shown human migration from west to east due to the weakening of the monsoon. In a way, this created large climate refugees who took refugia were still some little rainfall was available.

“The United Nations framework convention on climate change and high commissioner for refugees in its report warned about such climate refugees due to impending climate change. If it could have happened in the past it will happen in the future too” reminded Prof. Sarkar.

Apart from the climatic conditions and sustenance of the settlements, the researchers have been successful in stitching a critical section of India’s Iron Age history which lay buried under the deep stretches of the Rann. The recovery of artefacts like pitcher, jars and bull figurines and also numerous animal remains like bones, teeth etc. have helped in reconstructing the social subsistence pattern of the region during the study period confirmed co-researcher Dr. Arati Despande Mukherjee from Deccan College PGRI Pune. The earliest evidence of Iron Age found in Gujarat till now was 2500 years old which has now been pushed back by several centuries in antiquity. At Motichher, a place close to Karim Shahi, iron objects, nuggets, and slags have been found and which would need further investigation. The researchers acknowledged the Indian Army for facilitating the explorations. The areas are so remote and close to an international border that no scientific investigation could have been carried out without the permission of the Indian army.

Talking about a probable occupation of those people, Prof. Sarkar remarked, “both Karim Shahi and Vigakot probably acted as trade centers during this time. In fact, at Vigakot we found 1100 years old Chinese Qingbai porcelain probably manufactured in Guangdong province of south China and Sgraffiato potteries of 10th century Persia suggesting it to be a part of long-distance trade between West Asia and China”.

Prof. M.G. Thakkar from Kutch University and a collaborator emphasized the fact that the multidisciplinary study has proven the near-cultural continuity after the Harappans which the experts till now only hypothesized. He also harped on the point that this finding is going to bring Kutch under international limelight.

The findings have been published online in the prestigious Elsevier journal ‘Archaeological Research in Asia’. Download Paper

Graphic Credit: Suman Sutradhar

By Shreyoshi Ghosh

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