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What was cooking in Harappa?

Excavations at one of the Harappan sites   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

What has cuisine and culinary practices got to do with ancient history? Plenty, as archaeologist and anthropologist Brad Chase would tell you. Discovering what our ancestors ate and how they cooked their food can open unseen doors into their lives. It can tell us who they were, how they organised their societies, their cultural practices and even their social identities.

With food as a probe, Brad has been trying to shed new light on one of the oldest, and perhaps the least understood of ancient civilisations of the world, the Indus Valley a.k.a. Harappan civilisation.

“In college I was instinctively drawn towards two subjects – astronomy and archaeology. But somehow the secrets of the past buried beneath the ground was more compelling,” says Brad.

From his student days, Brad has been frequenting India for fieldwork in collaboration with colleagues here. His fascination for India is evident from his fluency in Hindi. “India is like a second home for me. I spent a lot of time here. Where I do my field work, in Saurashtra and Kutch, it’s important to be able to speak with people in a language they can understand,” he says.

The excavations undertaken jointly with the Archaeological Survey of India and the MS University of Baroda at Dholavira and Bagasra sites have revealed some interesting finds. The humans who once inhabited these Harappan settlements fed on a diverse diet dominated by grains, meat and seafood. Those who lived within the confines of the monumental brick walls at Bagasra, for example, ate more of mutton, pork, and fish than others who lived in neighbourhoods outside the walls.

Brad explains that “although wealth or class differences are hinted at by the existence of a walled neighbourhood, the study of food habits provides the intimate details of such social distinctions within the towns and cities of the Indus Valley civilisation.”

These are not merely a spin of stories. There is hard evidence that Brad looks for during his excavations. Animal bones with cut marks, domestic trash deposits, pottery used for cooking all form a vast trove of artefacts that Brad and his colleagues have relied on for their pragmatic claims.

“Trying to piece together the ancient past from fragmentary objects in the present is a challenge. The picture is never complete and keeps one guessing. The exciting part is trying to rigorously corroborate your guesses with physical evidence,” he explains.

Continuing this, Brad is carrying out chemical analyses of ancient animal bones to understand how, and where, livestock were raised in order explore the relationship between the residents of the walled Harappan sites and rural villages in the region.

Past continuous

Brad, who is currently with the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Albion College in Michigan, was on his maiden visit to Thiruvananthapuram. He is part of a team doing extensive fieldwork at Navinal, another Harappan site in the Kutch region of Gujarat. This project, funded by the University of Kerala, is led by researchers at the University’s Department of Archaeology. At Navinal, they have found evidences which indicate that 4,000 years ago it was an important craft and trade site.


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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 10:01:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/interview-with-archaeologist-and-anthropologist-brad-chase/article7477435.ece

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