Chennai/Hyderabad, Feb. 2: Murli Manohar Joshi’s claim of a 9,500-year-old civilisation off the coast of Gujarat rested on a piece of wood.
At a meeting of his peer group in Hyderabad last week, Prof. S.R. Rao, an accomplished marine archaeologist, described the “discovery” as “bunkum”, kicking off a controversy that has divided the academic world.
But it spills out of the confines of scientific debate to touch the Union human resources development minister’s eagerness to prove India’s superiority by virtue of being home to the world’s oldest civilisation. Just over a year ago, Joshi held a news conference in Delhi to announce that the “find” of a “civilisation” dating back to 7500 BC in the Gulf of Cambay would change world history. Archaeological excavations have so far held that the earliest cities appeared in Sumer around 3500 BC, in Egypt around 3000 BC and at Harappa in 2500 BC.
Other than the piece of wood, beads and objects with holes in them that were yet to be dated through what is called the carbon 14 method were cited by Joshi to declare: “These discoveries will have far-reaching implications for Indian history.”
Rao, credited with discovering sunken settlements of ancient Dwarka cited in the Mahabharat also off the Gujarat coast, described the announcement as “flippant and premature” that “puts the credibility of Indian science at stake”.
He told The Telegraph: “We need much more evidence, both physical and visual, to confirm that there were any prehistoric structures on the seabed.”
The former director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, revealed that excavations in the Gulf of Cambay had already led to the discovery of the city of Lothal of Indus Valley vintage. If the new civilisation was anywhere near Lothal, pottery, bricks or prehistoric tools should exist.
These may now have been found. The Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology, which undertook the exploration, has struck upon some 40 to 50 samples of burnt pottery and a few ‘stone tools’ collected from the same site, lying west of Hazira, during exploration in the last three months.
Dr S. Kadiroli, group head, coastal and environmental engineering at the institute, said: “I don’t want to get into whether a disclosure is premature or not.” But he recommended patience as the recent findings — on their way to the institute — indicated that it was too early to write off the project. “After the receipt of the samples next week, they will be sent to two or three prestigious laboratories abroad for dating. I cannot reveal the laboratories to which they are being sent, but they will be among the best to avoid the slightest of doubts or criticism later.”
Since the wooden samples were dated as being “9,000 years old” and the “oldest available Harappan pottery was said to be about 6000 years old, “we said our find was older than the latter,” Kadiroli said.
It was unresolved, though, if the wooden samples were from that place or had found their way there. Rao gave voice to this doubt: “You cannot date a civilisation from a piece of wood that could have come from anywhere.”
Kadiroli admitted that this question was yet to be answered. But he added: “When a piece of wood breaks, you don’t get a polished face; but these pieces had a polished face and so we said the intervention must have been by man.” he said.
“How can one make such a claim without even sending a diver or taking pictures or involving any archaeologist'” Rao had asked.
A trained archaeologist was part of the exploration team this time, but there are still no pictures. “We tried hard to take pictures,” Kadiroli said but the seawater was too turbid, a reason Rao dismisses as unacceptable.
One of Rao’s charges that the Geological Society of India had rejected the paper put together on the “discovery” for publication in its journal has, however, been answered.
Sources at the Bangalore-based institute said any paper is sent to a panel of scientific experts who review it and their views are sent back to the author/authors who in turn revise the paper before it is accepted for publication. Sometimes it can take even up to a year. The paper on the Gulf of Cambay findings was published in October 2002.
If publication signals acceptability in the peer group, Kadiroli cites the event to declare: “The game is still not up.”
“You must wait for some more months,” he added. The new samples are of burnt pottery whose vintage is established through a heating technique known as “thermo-luminescence dating”.
That could take another three months.