Thursday, February 13, 2014

Disease and trauma within collapsing Indus Civilisation

During the third millennium BCE, the Indus Civilisation flourished in what is now northwest India and Pakistan. Between 2200-1900 BCE the culture was characterised by long-distance exchange networks, carefully planned urban settlements such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro that had sophisticated sanitation facilities, standardised weights and measures, and a sphere of influence that extended over a million square kilometres of territory.

The culture was seemingly at its height when the end came  (collapse attributed to climatic change) but recent research published in both the open access journal PLoS ONE and an earlier 2012 article in the International Journal of Palaeopathologyhas expanded on this hypothesis.

A climatic collapse

Recent palaeoclimate reconstructions from the Beas River Valley demonstrates hydro-climatic stress due to a weakened monsoon system may have impacted urban centres like Harappa by the end of the third millennium BCE. However, the impact of environmental change was compounded by disruptions to the regional interaction sphere.

Lead author in both these studies, Gwen Robbins Schug, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Appalachian State University, explained, “we assessed evidence for palaeopathology to infer the biological consequences of climate change and socio-economic disruption in the post-urban period at Harappa”.

This site is one of the largest urban centres of the Indus Civilisation and the study suggests that climate, economic and social changes contributed to the disintegration after 1900 BCE; the change being evident within the declining health of the population and the seeming rise of interpersonal violence towards those suffering from visible diseases.

A clear correlation

The researchers examined 160 individuals (67% of the total number excavated) from three main burial areas at Harappa: an urban period cemetery (R-37), a post-urban cemetery (H), and an ossuary (Area G) where it is clear that the prevalence of infection and infectious disease increased through time.

Of the 209 skeletons excavated from Cemetery R-37, 66 (31.6%) were available at AnSI (Anthropological Survey of India) for the present research. Of these 66, 16 were from complete burials, 29 from fractional burials, and 21 were from multiple burials. Most of the burials were adults but there were two immature individuals present over five years of age.

Examination of the Harappan skeletons, showed evidence for non-specific periosteal reactions, sinus infections, and individuals that demonstrate a pattern of lesions consistent with leprosy and/or tuberculosis. In addition, there seems to be clear signs of internal and structured violence within what had previously been thought to be a ‘perfect‘ and peaceful society.

An unequal struggle

The results demonstrated that during this critical period there was no evidence for violence consistent with invasion or warfare, that would have supported the general belief of an Aryan Invasion. Rather, the majority of violent trauma seemed to have been directed against  women and children of the local population; showing untreated cranial fractures associated with the presence of congenital and communicable diseases.

Interestingly, one male with a cranial fracture consistent with interpersonal violence had received a craniotomy, perhaps as a form of surgical intervention to relieve the effects of the trauma. Women and children suffering from highly visible and often stigmatized diseases were  disproportionally affected by violence without benefit of available surgical intervention.

This pattern can conservatively be interpreted as evidence for social hierarchy at Harappa, but it appears likely that structural violence—unequal power, uneven access to resources, systematic oppression, and outright violence—also existed here.

Furthermore, the risk for infection and disease was uneven among burial communities with differences suggesting that socially and economically marginalized communities were most vulnerable in the context of climate uncertainty at Harappa.

Combined with prior evidence for rising levels of interpersonal violence, the data is increasing the general support for a growing pathology of power at Harappa after 2000 BCE.

Observations of the intersection between climate change and social processes in proto-historic cities offer valuable lessons about vulnerability, insecurity, and the long-term consequences of short-term strategies for coping with our own climate change.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Disease and trauma within collapsing Indus Civilisation”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 25, 2013. Available online:

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