Archaeologists Discover Secrets of Indus Civilization Diets

Lead author Akshyeta Suryanarayan sampling pottery for residue analysis in the field. (Credit: Akshyeta Suryanarayan)

(CN) — Archaeologists are closer to understanding the diets of the people of the ancient Indus Civilization after new research found fatty residues in ceramic vessels, indicating an abundant use of animal products.

In a study published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of researchers led by Akshyeta Suryanarayan, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, discovered the presence of lipids in the ancient pottery pieces.

“The study of lipid residues involves the extraction and identification of fats and oils that have been absorbed into ancient ceramic vessels during their use in the past,” Suryanarayan said in a statement. “Lipids are relatively less prone to degradation and have been discovered in pottery from archaeological contexts around the world. However, they have seen very limited investigation in ancient ceramics from South Asia.”

She said the study is significant as it is “the first to investigate absorbed lipid residues in pottery from multiple Indus sites, including the Indus city of Rakhigarhi, as well as other Indus settlements of Farmana and Masudpur I and VII, allowing comparisons to be made across settlements and across time.”

The Indus Valley Civilization, spread out from western and northwestern India to northeast Afghanistan, was a Bronze Age civilization that lasted about 2,000 years, from 3300 B.C. to 1300 B.C.

The archaeologists said they were able to identify specific compounds in the extracts of lipids used in the ceramic vessels, allowing them to understand what kinds of milk and meat were held in them.

“Our study of lipid residues in Indus pottery shows a dominance of animal products in vessels, such as the meat of non-ruminant animals like pigs, ruminant animals like cattle or buffalo and sheep or goat, as well as dairy products,” Suryanarayan said. “However, as one of the first studies in the region there are interpretative challenges.

“Some of the results were quite unexpected, for example, we found a predominance of non-ruminant animal fats, even though the remains of animals like pigs are not found in large quantities in the Indus settlements. It is possible that plant products or mixtures of plant and animal products were also used in vessels, creating ambiguous results.”

She noted that despite finding the remains of domestic animals at the examined sites, “there is very limited direct evidence of the use of dairy products” in the vessels. She suggests that evidence of the consumption of dairy, recently reported in another study, may have varied by region.

Senior author Cameron Petrie from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. said the animal products used in the vessels does seem to show that the different settlements “may have shared cooking practices and ways of preparing foodstuffs.”

“Our understanding of the culinary history of South Asia is still very limited but these results demonstrate that the use of lipid residues, combined with other techniques in bioarchaeology, have the potential to open exciting new avenues for understanding the relationship between the environment, foodstuffs, material culture, and ancient society in protohistoric South Asia,” Suryanarayan said. 

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