Gwen Robbins Schug looks at a Harappan human bone at the Anthropological Survey of India in Calcutta
New Delhi, Nov. 20: A study of human bones from the ruins of Harappa has revealed signs of lethal interpersonal violence and challenged current thinking that the ancient Indus civilisation was an exceptionally peaceful realm for its inhabitants.
An American bioarchaeologist has said that her analysis of skeletal remains from Harappa kept at the Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta, suggests that women, children and individuals with visible infectious diseases were at a high risk of facing violence.
Gwen Robbins Schug studied the skeletal remains of 160 individuals from cemeteries of Harappa excavated during the 20th century. The burial practices and injuries on these bones may be interpreted as evidence for social hierarchy, unequal power, uneven access to resources, and outright violence, she said in a presentation earlier this week at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Montreal, Canada.
The skeletal remains from Harappa tell us a compelling story about social suffering and violence, said Robbins Schug. The violence was present in low frequency at Harappa, but it affected some communities more than others, she said.
She found signs of accidental injuries on skeletal parts, but the majority of head injuries appeared to be the result of clubbing. The prevalence of such head injuries was about six per cent — a low figure for an ancient state-society. However, the distribution of the head injuries across gender and class appeared striking.
About half the female skeletons from one cemetery had severe head injuries caused likely by blows from clubs. In another pit of bones, which archaeologists call area G, 22 per cent skeletons had acute head trauma as well as chronic highly-visible infectious diseases.
The individuals in area G appeared marginalised even in burial — they suffered the most extreme injuries and had the highest prevalence of diseases, and they were interred just beyond a sewage drain, Robbins Schug told The Telegraph.
Area G also had skeletal remains of children similarly affected. A male adult skull showed a sword cut between the eye sockets, another male skeleton had an early version of craniotomy (brain surgery) to deal with a head injury. But no female or child skeletons showed evidence of such treatment. This could imply a hierarchy in access to a medical care, Robbins Schug said, or the victims had received fatal blows.
Harappa was among the largest and most populous cities in the Indus civilisation between 2600 BC and 1900 BC.
While Anthropological Survey of India researchers had recognised the injuries on human bones from Harappa decades ago, the injuries remained largely uninvestigated.
Most research until now had been directed at arguing that the injuries on the bones were not due to an Aryan invasion and, one archaeologist said , there has been no systematic effort to understand the cause of injuries or interpret their significance.
This study shows how bones can give us insight into ancient societies, said Veena Mushrif-Tripathy, an archaeologist who specialises in skeletal biology at the Deccan College, Pune, who was not associated with the study.
The Indus cities had large complex societies in some ways similar to our modern societies and it would have been surprising if we had no evidence of interpersonal violence," Mushrif-Tripathy said.Several scholars had earlier proposed that town plans of Harappa and other Indus cities indicate social hierarchy. Some researchers have suggested that an autocratic priest ruler exercised control over access to resources.
An Indian anthropologist Anek Ram Sankhyan said earlier research on the skeletal remains from the Indus cities had independently suggested that women had lower levels of nutrition than men. Dental enamel studies have hinted at gender-based nutritional discrimination, said Sankhyan who had collaborated with Robbins Schug earlier this year in analysing the male skull with the evidence for craniotomy.
The Indus civilisation experienced a period of decline between 1900 BC and 1700 BC, although what caused this decline remains unclear. Some researchers have attributed the eventual fall of the civilisation to climate change, others have linked it to changes in trade patterns and economy.
Archaeologists say there is need for caution in interpreting the new observations. The finding that women, children and infected individuals appeared to be disproportionately exposed to violence may be used as arguments for a society where the status of women was lower than that of men, and where people with visible infectious diseases were viewed as social outcasts, said Mushrif-Tripathy.
Mushrif-Tripathy had collaborated with Robbins Schug in an earlier study of skeletal remains from Balathal in Rajasthan where they had observed evidence of leprosy in a skeleton dated from 1500 BC.
Social exclusion of people affected by leprosy was practiced in various cultures during medieval times, Mushrif Tripathy said. But, she said, without written records from the Indus civilisation, It is impossible to say whether this was violence through actions of individuals or under direction of the state, she said.
A University of Cambridge archaeologist Jane McIntosh had about a decade ago in her book on the Indus civilisation described it as an exceptionally peaceful realm where everyone led a comfortable existence under the benevolent leadership of a dedicated priesthood. The research by Robbins Schug, supported by the US India Educational Foundation, has challenged that assumption through bones that have carried tales across the centuries.