Cut to the bone

P Anima | Updated on February 22, 2019

Muddy history: Archaeologists found the remains of a couple — the woman with her face up and the man’s face turned towards her   -  IMAGE CREDIT: THE RAKHIGARHI PROJECT

Excavations from Rakhigarhi, a Harappan site in Haryana, could alter the readings of ancient history

Some 4,500 years after their death, a young couple created a stir when their skeletons were unearthed from an excavation site in north India. The archaeologists found them lying side by side — the woman with her face up, a single agate bead resting near her collar bone, and the man’s face turned towards her.

A team headed by Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor at the Deccan College, Pune, and experts from the Seoul National University College of Medicine, South Korea, had been excavating from 2015 the vast cemeteries in Haryana’s Rakhigarhi, one of the largest Harappan sites. They excavated 37 well-preserved skeletal remains and subjected them to anthropological examinations and DNA tests. The results, some set to alter readings of ancient history, are being published in multiple international journals. The discovery of the couple’s grave in 2016 was published in the peer-reviewed journal Anatomy and Cell Biology last September.

Professor Vasant Shinde


Shinde’s team is not new to the concept of joint graves and had earlier excavated five skeletons buried together at Rakhigarhi. The couple’s grave, however, gives a new turn to their findings — it speaks of relationships through millenniums of dust and bones.

“The position in which the skeletons were found is important,” says Shinde. He points out that the skeletons — labelled 11A and 11B — were placed close to each other, indicating a close bond. “It is very intimate. The Harappans probably cared about relationships,” he tells BLink during a visit to New Delhi.

The team found no archaeological evidence to suggest the burials were separated by a time span, leading it to conclude that 11 A and 11 B had died at the same time and were buried together. The grave was found in a community cemetery, which suggested the couple shared a relationship that society sanctioned. “They were probably a couple; they could be husband and wife. It is likely that the tradition of marriage started in the Harappan time,” says Shinde. “I believe the Harappans are the founders of Indian tradition and culture.”

The people believed in afterlife and left pots of food and jewellery in the graves. The team unearthed large graves lined with clay and stocked with as many as 40 pots, which were indicative of the social standing of the buried.

The couple’s grave was modest with a few pots. “They were ordinary people.” The excavated skeletons were taken to Pune for scientific and pathological studies, which established the gender as well as the age of the specimen. The experts suggested that they were between 21 and 35 years. “They were healthy and bore no trace of illness or injury,” Shinde says.

A joint grave discovered earlier in Lothal, Gujarat, had been inconclusive in establishing the gender of the skeletons and the circumstances of the deaths, which makes the Rakhigarhi find the first sign of an ancient union. Though the team has so far published three research papers on cemetery excavations at Rakhigarhi, the most-awaited ones — focused on who the Harappans were, and how they looked — are still in the works. Shinde is tight-lipped about the findings, since there were some controversial news reports about the ancestry of the ancient Indians.

Instead, he talks of how the team succeeded in extracting DNA from the Rakhigarhi skeletons after having failed to do so at Farmana, another Harappan site in Haryana, a few years ago. The team then had excavated 70 burial sites simultaneously, left them open to the sun and rain for two months and allowed visitors — all of which contaminated the ancient DNA. This time around, they were in touch with South Korean scientists who have studied ancient DNA extensively and follow rigorous methods of excavation, he adds.

Burials were excavated one by one in Rakhigarhi and the team wore masks, gloves and gowns and used specific instruments for each grave to ensure there was no contamination. Visitors were not allowed near the site. The skeletal remains were meticulously documented, packed and taken to Pune. Scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad worked on the DNA. Three sets of samples were extracted — one was tested by CCMB, another by the South Korean team and the third was sent to David Reich of Harvard University, an authority on ancient DNA.

“The findings of the Harvard group and the Indian scientists’ were complementary. We will be submitting the research to an international publication soon,” he adds.

Shinde is reluctant to talk about their findings till the paper is published, but says that Harappans were local people. “The indication is it was a local development — that people were already there. We have combined genetic and archaeological data to reach this conclusion.” The local people had contacts with people in south and central India and relied on them for gold, semi-precious stones and copper. They also had ties with Iran and Afghanistan. “There is a possibility of mixing of population. The Harappans were a heterogeneous people,” he says.

Another breakthrough paper involves the facial recreation of the ancient people. Shinde insists the South Korean team’s work on this is accurate. “We now know how the Harappans looked — and they were not very different from us. The paper has been submitted to Nature,” he adds.

Facial reconstructions were done for three male and two female skulls. “They were robust people, sturdy, quite like the men and women of Haryana today,” he notes. The healthy gene, he says, is probably the reason why Haryana produces so many sportsmen and women.

The findings are likely to raise a storm, but Shinde is calm. “We produce the scientific data we have. Let people interpret it the way they want to,” he says.


Published on February 22, 2019

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