Evidence of dairy production in the Indus Valley Civilisation

Age-old story: Analysis ofresidues on ancient pots shows the earliest evidence of dairy processing.   | Photo Credit: Prabodh Shirvalkar

The year 2020 marks 100 years of discovery of Indus Valley Civilisation, and a new study has shown that dairy products were being produced by the Harappans as far back as 2500 BCE.

By analysing residues on ancient pots, researchers show the earliest direct evidence of dairy product processing, thus throwing fresh light on the rural economy of the civilisation. The studies were carried out on 59 shards of pottery from Kotada Bhadli, a small archeological site in present-day Gujarat.

“When we talk about Harappans, we always refer to the metropolitan cities and the big towns. But we have no idea of the parallel economy — agro-pastoral or rural. We know they had great urban planning, trading systems, jewellery making. But we don't have any idea how the common masters were living during the Harappan times, their lifestyle and how they were contributing in the larger network,” explains Prabodh Shirvalkar, from the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology at the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune. He is one of the authors of the papers published in Scientific Reports.

Carbon isotope studies

The team used molecular analysis techniques to study the residues from ancient pottery. “Pots are porous. So as soon as we put any liquid form of food, it will absorb it. The pot preserves the molecules of food such as fats and proteins. Using techniques like C16 and C18 analysis we can identify the source of lipids,” adds Kalyan Sekhar Chakraborty, the first author of the paper, from the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, Canada.

When asked if this proves that the Harappans made curd and cheese, Dr. Chakraborty adds: “It is very difficult to pinpoint. Traces were seen in cooking vessels indicating that milk may have been boiled and consumed. We also found residues in a bowl showing that either heated milk or curd could have been served. There are also remains of a perforated vessel, and similar vessels were used in Europe to make cheese. So it is possible that they were further processing milk into different forms.”

Animal husbandry

The team was also able to show which type of animals were being used for dairy production. They studied the tooth enamel from fossils of cattle, water buffalo, goat and sheep found in the area. Cows and water buffalo were found to consume millets, while sheep and goats ate nearby grass and leaves. A preliminary study suggested that most of the cattle and water-buffalo died at an older age, suggesting they could have been raised for milk, whereas the majority of goat/sheep died when they were young, indicating they could have been used for meat.

“The Harappans did not just use dairy for their household. The large herd indicates that milk was produced in surplus so that it could be exchanged and there could have been some kind of trade between settlements. This could have given rise to an industrial level of dairy exploitation,” adds Dr. Chakraborty.

He concludes: “The most fascinating thing about the Indus Valley Civilisation is that it is faceless — there is no king, no bureaucratic organisations, but there are these very close regional interactions between settlements, a symbiotic relationship of give and take that helped the civilisation survive for so long.”

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 1:09:18 AM |

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