Indus Valley

views updated


INDUS VALLEY. The food on which the diverse peoples of ancient India lived is a subject that has received some attention since archaeologists can recover bones, teeth, and carbonized seeds from their excavations. The period covered in this entry has come to be called the Indus Age (Possehl, 1999), that period in Pakistan and northwestern India which stretches from the beginnings of farming and herding around 7000 b.c.e. through the Early Iron Age to about 500 b.c.e. This period encompasses the Indus Civilization (25001900 b.c.e.), the Indian subcontinent's first period of urbanization (Fig. 1).

It was centered on the Indus Valley and the Punjab, but there were important settlements in southern Baluchistan, Gujarat, northern Rajasthan, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh (Fig. 2).

From the point of view of soil, water, and climate, these are regions suitable for the growing of wheat and barley and the raising of cattle, sheep, and goats on a significant scale. This is the constellation of plants and animals on which the earliest farmers and herders thrived, from the Mediterranean Sea to the lands of the Indus civilization.

A glimpse at an early period of farming and herding in this region is available from the site of Mehrgarh, on the Kachi plain of the Indus Valley. Around 7000 b.c.e., the inhabitants of this village lived mostly on domesticated, naked six-row barley, along with two other varieties of domesticated barley. Einkorn, emmer, and hard wheat were present in smaller amounts. The noncereals include the Indian jujube, a cherry-sized fruit; grapes; and dates. Sugar would have come from honey.

The use of domesticated rice by the peoples of the Indus civilization is not fully documented. However, by the second millennium b.c.e., it was the staple food grain at the site of Pirak, near Mehrgarh on the Kachi plain.

The animal economy of early Mehrgarh was dominated by twelve species of what can be termed "wild big game": gazelle, swamp deer, nilgai, blackbuck, onager, spotted deer, water buffalo, sheep, goat, cattle, pig, and elephant. These are animals that would have lived on the Kachi plain itself and the hills that surround it. The virtual absence of fish and bird remains suggests that the swampy environments near Mehrgarh were little exploited, but no screening was undertaken at the Mehrgarh site, and the recovery of fish and bird bone was therefore somewhat compromised.

Meadow has noted the following concerning the subsistence economy of early Mehrgarh:

  1. Goats were kept from the time of the first occupation of the site.
  2. Cattle and sheep are likely to have been domesticated from local wild stock during Periods I and II (c. 70005000 b.c.e.).
  3. Size diminution in goats was largely complete by late Period I, in cattle by Period II, and in sheep perhaps not until Period III.
  4. The development of animal keeping by the ancient inhabitants of Mehrgarh took place in the context of cereal crop cultivation, the building of substantial mud brick structures, and the existence of social differentiation and long distance trade networks as attested by the presence of marine shells, lapis lazuli, and turquoise in even the earliest graves (p. 311).

From this evidence one can see that the development of food production and the domestication of the plants and animals appears to have been a local phenomenon, not one that came to the subcontinent by diffusion from the west.

Crops and Herds: Hunters, Gatherers, and Fishermen

From about 5000 b.c.e. the peoples of the Indus Valley and surrounding regions lived on a variety of food resources, both domesticated and wild. The base of the diet would have been the two cereals: barley first, and wheat second. They also cultivated various peas, beans and other pulses and exploited dates. Cotton seeds may have been present in Period II at Mehrgarh. One generally thinks of cotton as a fiber crop, but cotton oil is an important and nutritious commodity. Sesame was also domesticated in the Indus region, almost certainly for its oil. Most of these crops are grown in the winter season. For many millennia winter was the principal agricultural growing season in the subcontinent.

Extensive archaeology and archaeobotanical work in Gujarat, the southeastern "domain" of the Indus civilization, has produced evidence for the breadth of food resources used by the Indus peoples. A pot filled with seeds was recovered from the site of Surkotada. A number of seeds belonged to cultigens like Italian foxtail millet, green foxtail, and finger millet. The foxtail millet and finger millet were also found at the Sorath Harappan site of Rojdi (Weber, p. 119).

The chicken seems to have been first domesticated in China, but a case can be made that this was separately accomplished in the Indus region, where it is descended from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl, a beautifully colored bird. The male is a glossy deep orange-red, with long, yellowish neck feathers. The tail is shiny metallic black with long, arching sickle-shaped feathers. The underparts of the wild bird are blackish brown. This magnificent creature shares little in common with the almost pathetic white broiler stock now raised around the world. The wild chickens were eaten, and the eggs were probably a part of the diet.

Sedentary, village-based agriculture was complemented by herding, hunting and the gathering of additional plants. This served to expand and broaden the food base. We know from extensive analysis of animal remains that the peoples of the Indus civilization were cattle keepers on a grand scale. They also kept domesticated sheep and goats, as well as water buffalo. These animals were the source of a host of products from food to traction and of valuable materials such as fiber, leather, sinew, bone, and horn. Milk and milk products would have been very important to the Indus peoples. It is interesting to note that the subcontinent has never been a place where cheeses were prepared, but butter, ghee (clarified butter), and various forms of yogurt are widely known and may have their beginnings in the period being discussed here. The pig seems to have stayed wild, but it was hunted along with the animals listed above as "big game" that were not domesticated. Pigs and elephants were the source of ivory for the Indus peoples.

The aforementioned pot from Surkotada also produced large numbers of seeds from wild grass and sedges and other wild plants. This, and parallel evidence from Rojdi, informs us that gathering of wild plant material was an important part of the subsistence strategy, at least in some places. The Indian jujube was then, and is today, another food product gathered from wild trees.

Evidence for the use of fish and shellfish is spotty and not robust in the Indus region prior to the Indus civilization. After about 2500 b.c.e., however, the use of these maritime and riverine resources increased markedly. It is clear, for example, that fish contributed significantly to the diet of the Harappan inhabitants of Balakot, just to the west of Karachi near Sonmiani Bay on the coast of the Arabian Sea. They were eating a grunt, a fish that inhabits lagoons and sea areas with sandy bottoms and is taken today by fishermen who use gill nets in Sonmiani Bay. The peoples of the Indus civilization were great fish lovers. The Indus River teems with various species that were caught and eaten. The Harappans made very nice copper or bronze fishhooks, with an eye to take the line (Fig. 3).

Large fish vertebrae have been found at some Kutch Harappan sites. Salted and/or dried fish were traded over large distances during the Mature Harappan, as documented by the presence of a marine species at the Indus civilization city of Harappa.

The peoples of the Indus civilization ate considerable quantities of shellfish and turned the shells into beautiful artifacts: bangles, beads, ladles, figurines, rings, and inlay. The gastropods included five "shank" type shells and three bivalves, or clamlike animals. At Balakot one species of "shank" and the grunt seem to have dominated the diet of the Harappans.

We do know that these protohistoric peoples ate plenty of meat, including beef. Whether any of them were vegetarians has not been determined. Some of them could have been, but the widespread modern Indian tradition of vegetarianism, and the special respect that Hindus have for cattle, came later. Modern Indian vegetarianism has many bases, but key to it historically is the philosophical concept of ahimsa (noninjury), which is a part of the Indian intellectual achievement of the second half of the first millennium b.c.e.

Dietary Innovation with African Millets

The food grains of the early Indus Age were winter grasses, barley, and wheat. These do well in the northwestern region of the subcontinent where there is enough winter rain and snow to sustain them. But the main period of rainfall for the subcontinent as a whole is the summer monsoon, which lasts from June to November. This is the hot season, and the winter grasses, as well as the other winter crops that the peoples of the Indus Age used, were not well adapted to it. It turns out that the subcontinent does not have any large-seeded summer season cereals that could be domesticated, so there was something of an environmental bind for the expansion of agriculture outside the northwestern region with its winter rainfall.

This environmental bind was broken to a large extent when three millets from Africa became available to the farmers of ancient India. These plants were sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet, all of which evolved in a belt across Africa just below the southern margin of the Sahara desert. Evidence for maritime trade between the Indus civilization and Mesopotamia comes to us from cuneiform texts and artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations. The texts speak of Mesopotamian venture capitalists who mounted maritime trading expeditions to three lands: Dilmun, Magan, and Meluhha, identified in order as Bahrain Island, Oman, and the Indus civilization (Possehl 1997: 133137). They brought large quantities of copper back to Mesopotamia. Sailors of the Indus civilization reached Oman and the Arabian Gulf, since quantities of common Indus pottery have been found there along with other Indus artifacts.

The presence of the African millets in archaeological sites dating from 2400 to 2000 b.c.e. in Yemen, Oman, and the subcontinent implies that one leg of this maritime trade extended to the mouth of the Red Sea, where Indus sailors, probably short on food supplies, acquired local grains (the millets) for the trip home. These are the large-seeded summer cereals on which an entire subsistence system can be based. They begin to appear in the archaeological record of the Indus civilization about 2400 b.c.e.first finger millet, then pearl millet, and finally sorghum at the end of the third millennium.

The resulting modification to the subcontinent's subsistence pattern was slow and complex. The process was certainly not linear, with millets replacing other crops, and the massive acceptance of farming by huntergatherers. But over time these three African millets have made a massive contribution to the Indian economy because they were so well adapted to the summer monsoon wet season. Some measure of this success can be seen in modern statistics on cereal production in India. The three African millets are all in the list of the six most productive cereals, as seen in Table 1.

Production of the top six cereals in India
Grain Amount in thousands of tons
Rice 70,667
Wheat 53,995
Sorghum 10,518
Corn 8,332
Pearl Millet 7,787
Finger Millet 2,379
All cereals 156,550
source: Government of India. Indian Agriculture in Brief. 23rd ed. Delhi: Ministry of Agriculture, 1990.

Ceramics and Food

Archaeologists have identified a few pottery shapes that can be associated with food and cooking in specific enough ways that they are interesting to talk about. There is a cooking pot, today called a handi in most north Indian languages (Fig. 4).

Shards from the bottoms of these pots are often fireblackened, and they were sometimes protected against thermal shock with a coating of clay placed on the bottom after the pot was fired. The dish-or bowl-on-stand (Fig. 5). looks like a raised plate, just the sort of thing that a person who ate sitting on the floor would use to raise his or her dinner closer to the mouth. There are lots of globular pots, often with surface treatments that significantly increase the surface area of the pot. One of these ceramic types is called "wet ware" (Fig. 6), which was made by applying a viscous slurry of very fine clay over the body of a formed pot. The resulting pattern is both a decoration and functional since the many ridges increase the surface area of the pot, allowing for maximum evaporation, which kept the water in them cool. There are also small teacups (Fig. 7) with perforated handles, which look much like their modern counterparts, and probably functioned in much the same way, as well as copper-bronze frying pans (Fig. 8).

Food and Eating in Ancient India

Based on what is known one can imagine an eating scene in a home during the Indus civilization. People seem to have eaten while sitting on the floor, which was probably covered with a rug or a mat. They were served their food in a dish or bowl on a stand. The meal could have included flat, unleavened bread of barely or wheat flour, ground at home between stones. This would have been accompanied by meat: chicken, goat, sheep, water buffalo, or even beef. At times the flesh of wild ungulates would have been available. Fish and shellfish would have broadened this portion of the diet. Various peas and pulses would have added a vegetable component to the meals; and chicken eggs may have been included. A fruit component to the meal, possibly a dessert, would have come from honey, dates, grapes and the jujube. Milk from cows, buffalo, sheep and goats would have been available, and could have added great diversity of taste to the ancient diet. Cool liquids would have come from spherical pots, like those in wet ware, and been consumed in ceramic tableware, possibly even the little tea cups. Although butter was probably prepared, since it goes rancid so quickly in hot climates, the more stable clarified form, known as ghee in contemporary India, was also prepared. Other oils, for cooking and consumption, would have come from sesame and cotton seeds.

Cooking would have included roasting, boiling, and baking, as suggested by the handi- shaped pots, and frying, as documented by the copper-bronze frying pans. By 1500 b.c.e. the tandoor, a clay oven, is documented. This implies that this distinctive cuisine of modern India and Pakistan has a 3,500-year history.

There would have been almost no refrigeration, so many foods would have been eaten fresh, and seasonal availability would have had an important impact on the diet. But some forms of preservation were probably known. Food grains can be stored for years if kept dry. Clarified butter keeps for months. Dried and/or salted meat and fish are implied by the presence of maritime fish at Harappa, five hundred miles from the sea.

There is much to be learned on this topic of food in protohistoric times in South Asia. But there is an outline, and that will surely be filled out over time.

See also Butter; Cereal Grains; India.


Meadow, Richard H. "Animal Domestication in the Middle East: A Revised View from the Eastern Margin." In Harappan Civilization: A Recent Perspective. 2d ed. Edited by Gregory L. Possehl. Delhi: Oxford & IBH and the American Institute of Indian Studies, 1993.

Possehl, Gregory L. "Seafaring Merchants of Meluhha." In South Asian Archaeology 1995. Edited by Bridget Allchin. Delhi: Oxford & IBH, 1997.

Possehl, Gregory L. Indus Age: The Beginnings. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Weber, Steven A. Plants and Harappan Subsistence: An Example of Stability and Change from Rojdi. Delhi: Oxford & IBH and the American Institute of Indian Studies, 1991.

Gregory L. Possehl