DNA samples from Rakhigarhi burial pits sent for analysis

Analysis of Rakhigarhi burial pits may reveal ancestry of the people who lived at the ancient city, whether they were native or had migrated

May 08, 2022 08:27 pm | Updated 10:48 pm IST - Rakhigarhi (Har)

Excavation site RGR 7 of Archeological Survey of India, where 60 skeletons have been found in the previous excavations, at Rakhigarhi in Hisar district, Saturday, May 7, 2022.

Excavation site RGR 7 of Archeological Survey of India, where 60 skeletons have been found in the previous excavations, at Rakhigarhi in Hisar district, Saturday, May 7, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

DNA samples collected from two human skeletons unearthed at a necropolis of a Harappan-era city site in Haryana have been sent for scientific examination, the outcome of which might tell about the ancestry and food habits of people who lived in the Rakhigarhi region thousands of years ago.

The skeletons of two women were found a couple of months ago at mound number 7 (named RGR 7 by the Archaeological Survey of India or (ASI), believed to be nearly 5,000 years old. Pots and other artefacts were also found buried next to them in a pit, part of the funerary rituals back in the Harappan Civilisation era, ASI officials said.

"Seven mounds (RGR 1-RGR 7) scattered around two villages (Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur) in Hisar district are part of the Rakhigarhi archaeological site. RGR 7 is a cemetery site of the Harappan period when this was a well-organised city. The two skeletons were unearthed about two months ago by our team. And DNA samples were collected by experts about two weeks ago," Joint Director General, ASI, S. K. Manjul told the PTI.

At present RGR 1, RGR 3 and RGR 7 have been taken up for investigation.

Dr. Manjul, who is leading the excavation team at the Rakhigarhi site, about 150 km north-west of Delhi, since it commenced on February 24, 2022, said the DNA analysis will help answer a lot of questions, anthropological or otherwise.

The samples will be first examined by the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleosciences, Lucknow for preliminary investigation and scientific comparison, before being sent further for forensic analysis from an anthropological perspective, he said.

"The outcome of the DNA analysis will help tell about the ancestry of the people who lived at this ancient city, whether they were native or had migrated from elsewhere to settle. Besides, samples taken from the teeth area would tell about their food habits, what kind of food they consumed and other anthropological patterns related to that human settlement which must have been one of the largest, dating from the Harappan Civilisation period," said Dr. Manjul, who had also led the excavation at Sanauli in Uttar Pradesh in 2018, where pre-Iron Age artefacts were unearthed.

For the collection of DNA samples, experts had done it while wearing special uniform so as to not contaminate the samples. And samples were taken from the teeth region and petrous part of the temporal bone, located at the base of the skull in the ear region.

At Rakhigarhi, the team, consisting of members from Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Institute of Archaeology, Greater Noida and the ASI's Excavation Branch-II, besides several local men and women workers, continued to labour in scorching heat on Saturday, and ASI officials shared some of the findings of the current round of excavation which is expected to close by the end of May, and a new field season is planned to begin from September post-monsoon.

The Rakhigarhi site is one of the "five iconic sites" declared by the Central government in the Union budget 2020-21.

The cultural span of the Harappan Civilisation can be broadly subdivided into three periods — early (3300 BC to 2600 BC), mature (2600 BC to 1900 BC), and late (1900 BC to 1700 BC), according to archaeological experts.

Five major urban sites — Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Ganweriwala, all three sites now in Pakistan, and Rakhigarhi and Dholavira in India — have been identified as regional centres of the Harappan Civilisation.

Archaeological evidence from the Rakhigarhi site spanning seven mounds is spread across nearly 350 hectares, covering at the present villages of Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur in Hisar, according to the ASI.

Dr. Manjul said that at the Rakhigarhi site, "layers of history", ranging from the early Harappan to the mature Harappan period can be seen, but compared to the previous excavation, where town planning contours had emerged, in the current excavation, "detailed town planning patterns, street designs, including provision for soak pits" as part of a possible drainage system can be seen.

ASI officials are banking on the analysis of DNA samples to further unearth the fascinating story of Rakhigarhi, located in the Ghaggar river plain of the seasonal Ghaggar river.

Arvin Manjul, Regional Director (North), ASI, said that while carbon dating would tell the age via scientific process, the excavation site at mound RGR 7, as per current status of the excavation, can be said to be tentatively dated close to the 3,000 BC period, making the site about 5,000 years old.

"Again, there are techniques to get exact age from skeletal remains, but the two skeletons found in separate burial pits are of women. The sex was determined through examination of pelvic structures and other biological details. The age of the two women, when they had died, was possibly in the range of 40-50 years, as per our assessment," she told PTI.

The two skeletons were found lying in a supine position with head pointing in the north direction. They were both buried with a plethora of pottery and adorned jewellery like jasper and agate beads and shell bangles. A symbolic miniature copper mirror was found buried along with one of the skeletons, officials said.

Animal bones were also found at the site, they said.

First attempts to archaeologically explore the Rakhigarhi site are said to have been done in the late 1960s.

The site was first excavated by the Institute of Archaeology, ASI in 1998-2001. Later, Deccan College, Pune excavated the site from 2013 to 2016, and RGR 7, which is located 500 m north of RGR 1 had yielded around 60 burials in the previous excavations, the ASI said.

"At RGR 1, besides other activity, a large quantity of debitage of semi-precious stones such as agate and carnelian which was used to manufacture objects like beads as part of extensive lapidary activity are found. Evidence of street planning has been found with general width of 2.6 m as per the available exposed remains," the ASI said.

Among other noteworthy artefacts and antiquities found in the current excavation include steatite seals, terracotta bangles, terracotta unbaked sealing with relief of elephant, and Harappan script. Animal figurines of dog and bull, made of terracotta and steatite, copper objects, a large number of steatite beads, beads of semi-precious stones, shells, and objects made of agate and carnelian, said Disha Ahluwalia, a PhD scholar at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, who is part of the excavation team.

A Memorandum of Understanding is in process between the ASI and the Government of Haryana, according to which antiquities from Rakhigarhi would be displayed at a site museum, the building of which is currently being constructed by the State government near the RGR 1 mound.

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