The Harappan Skeleton

The skeleton of the middle aged woman at the National Museum Delhi comes from a prosperous Indus city that archaeologists believe rivals both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in size and importance.

Her people were of an unknown origin who came to the Indus valley roughly nine thousand year ago. With the passage of time they developed a highly organized way of life that for 600 years thrived in precisely engineered cities the likes of which existed nowhere else in the world. Then, they mysteriously disappeared leaving behind scores of abandoned settlements and scholars with a handful of theories explaining what went wrong. None of which till date unveils the truth with certainty. Who were they and what where they like?

Archaeologists are hopeful the large Indus settlement discovered at Rakhigarhi, in district Hissar, Haryana will be able to provide the answers.

What we know of the Indus people till now.

The people of the Indus civilization are thought to be a Bronze Age tribe, living in small settlements in the eastern foothills of Balochistan, who starting from the 4th millennium BC penetrated deep into India searching for rich alluvial lands for agriculture and raw materials. Setting up colonies as far inland as the present day state of Haryana, they farmed the soil for barley, wheat, lentils and a variety of other crops to supplement their diet of fish, cattle, poultry and fruits then took to enlarging their settlements into the world’s first urban cities complete with drainage systems, produce industries and establish complex trade networks – over an area which archaeologists today estimated to be a million square kilometers.

One of the world’s three ancient civilizations that flourished on agriculture and trade.

The Indus civilization shared the same time frame as the kingdom of old Egypt and the city kingdoms of Sumer in Mesopotamia – some 25,000 kilometers west of the Indus. Indus traders, being a developed mercantile community, ferried raw goods like timber (an important commodity in early Mesopotamia) and finished products to Sumer by both land and sea. Returning, with a bartered exchange of textiles, silver and other metals, one of which was most likely copper. Some of them even took up residence in Sumerian cities.

Artifacts unearthed in Sumer such as Indus style cubical weight used in trade and shell bangles of the Turbinella Pyrum type (divine conch) found in the Indian Ocean conclusively link to strong ties and trade connections that existed during the period. The Sumerians knew the Indus as the land of Meluhha and prized their trade partners so much they had special translators versed in the Indus language to carry out transactions.

The pictographic Indus script, the Sumerians learnt with ease, continues to eluded philologists and historians, till date.

The close relationship enjoyed by Sumer and the Indus led many modern scholars to theorize they were one and the same people who developed independently in distant regions. In fact in the early stages the civilization had been dubbed the Indo-Sumer civilization till Sir John Marshal, the Directory General of the Indian Archaeological Survey of India had Sumer dropped from the name in 1926.

Discovery at Rakhigarhi.

Harappa (Punjab, Pakistan), first excavated in 1920 by Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni and Mohenjo-Daro (Sindh province, Pakistan) first excavated in 1922 by Rakal Das Banerjee was hitherto considered to be the two largest settlements of the civilization till the discovery of Rakhigarhi in recent years.

Postulated to be built between 2500-3000 BC on the banks of the Saraswati, a river that is believed to have dried up by 2000 BC, Rakhigarhi marks the easternmost periphery of the Indus sphere. Size and presence of industry suggests the planned city would have been a bustling civic center during its heydays teeming with artisans, traders, wealthy merchants, dancers and nobility.

Many of its citizens would have been well fed and provided for by a trade network bringing in exotic commodities from all corners of the Indus fold and Sumer in exchange for semi-precious stones and gold ornaments. What excites archaeologists most about Rakhigarhi, counted among the ten most endangered heritage sites in India, is that the settlement pushes the beginning of Indian history to an earlier date than imagined before.

The graves at Rakhigarhi.

During the final days of the civilization, cremation had become an alternative to burial in the city of Harappa. A trend that had confounded scholars for long. Now a new theory, cited in the scientific and health journal Natural News, taking into account climatic changes and examinations of bones suggest an epidemic outbreak as one of the prime factors that brought the civilization to its end.

Cremation might have been an experimental scientific resort for the hygiene centered society to contain infection and avoid contaminating the soil with the diseased. The fear of soil contamination has been around in the sub continent since early times and in the modern world biocontainment units have been known to sometimes use fire to prevent the spread of contagious and life threatening diseases.

Excavations in Rakigarhi haven’t as yet unearthed any sign of cremation that had crept in during the late Harappan phase. Out of the 11 graves unearthed (presumably belonging to the early or mature phase) all were found to be identical to the ones in Harappa, Kalibangan, Surkotada, Farmana and numerous other previously excavated sites.

Indus graves have been found to be generally of two types. Simple rectangular shafts or oval pits – lined with baked bricks or stone on the sides with some graves discovered to be used multiple times.

What does the woman in the grave tells us.

Even after being locked up under layers of dust and debris for centuries she was in much better condition than her neighbors. This was the first thing the team of archaeologists working on the site noticed, when they unearthed her remains and found her skull with teeth intact grinning back at them.

She had been placed face-up with a set of pottery near her head as was the custom of her people – in a somewhat similar manner as one can find her today in the National Museum. Who ever she was, she appears to have been much loved for the friends and family she left behind had taken the time to fill her grave with adequate provisions for her afterlife.

Belief in the afterlife.

Like the Sumerians the people of Indus were quite serious about the pre-historic belief of an afterlife and stocked the graves of the deceased with essential commodities they would require in the netherworld. In a majority of graves, this without fail has turned out to be sets of pottery containing perishable items. Though nothing much is known in what manner the deceased was expected to use the provisions in the afterlife. Tools related to one’s occupation in life were mostly left out. Unlike the Sumerian, the people of Indus did not think one performed the same role in the afterlife.

Shell bangles.

The shell bangle on her left wrist is quite common for women of her period. A large number of skeletons unearthed have been found with the ornament either because it was more affordable or held some sort of symbolic significance. Shell bangles would have been difficult to find in the late Harappan phase as by this time trade links between settlements including the ones on the coast would have been been disrupted. In all likelihood, her shell bangle signifies she belonged to the early or mature Harappan phase, in the absence of a carbon dating analysis.

What was her status in society.

The woman was not as wealthy as the occupant of a neighboring grave who was found with a gold armlet and semi-precious stones. Although the people of Indus attached less value to gold and precious stones ,working on metal and faience required a high degree of skill.

In a study published by American archaeologist and professor of Anthropology, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, terracotta bangles featured on the lowest rung of the hierarchy with shell a notch above. Gold, silver, copper, stone and faience ornaments made up the higher end – as working with these metals required a considerable investment in skill and time.

What does her age reveal.

The woman was fortunate indeed to reach her middle age. Men during her time had an average lifespan of 30-33 years. Women even less. She was positively healthier than most of her women companions and some of the men.

Furthermore bone analysis of Harappan skeletons by bioarchaeologist Gwen Robbins Schug (published in the Telegraph, Calcutta) reveals she was also fortunate to be spared a violent death resulting from criminal violence, and disease as observed in the late Harappan phase. Schug’s analysis of bone samples has revealed the women and children of Harappa who showed signs of infections and disease also showed signs of trauma resulting from blunt objects. A likely fate suffered by her children and descendants during the final days of the civilization.

Who was she?

Bone samples can tell us a great deal about people long dead. In her case they can reveal if she was a mother, a dancer or suffered from ailments such as arthritis. But what they can’t tell us is her name. Unlike modern grave stones, Indus graves carry no inscriptions that help in identifying their occupants and it is even more doubtful if the people of Indus, maintained family records.

Who she was in life and what her name was, is something we probably might never learn.

Ornaments like bangles, necklaces and other forms of jewellery were created with exceptional refinement and produced in mass particularly for women. Newly married couples lived with the bride’s family in contrast to the latter patrilocal society of the Arayans.

Women in general were mostly revered in the Harappan society, even though their roles would have been restricted to child rearing, household chores and in some cases prostitution. Figurines excavated from the ruins of the civilization represent women both as deities and sensually as the discovered figurine of the famous naked dancing girl.

What did she look like in the flesh?

Forensic facial reconstruction could provide an accurate picture. Proving true or false an assumption the people of the Indus had originated from the middle east and intermingled with the local populace that lived in pockets across the subcontinent since the neolithic times.

However, the Decan College Postgraduate and Research in association with Indian Archaeology Survey and Paleoparasitologists from Seoul National University College of Medicine have proposed a study of parasite eggs to ascertain the DNA of skeletons found at Rakhigarhi.

Headed by Vasant Shinde, vice chancellor of the Decan College Postgraduate and Research, the team is optimistic the new tests will provide hints as to who the people of Indus really were.


  1. Great Study! I would’ve been more happy if the Government of India, The department of archaeology decides to conduct Forensic facial reconstruction of excavated human remaining of Harappan people with the help of Western experts. If the Indian Government puts efforts to understand their (Harappan) language and encourage people to research in it may give us a proper understanding about them. There are some research and findings that suggest that it is close to ancient Chinese scripts. Professor Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao’s ( Dr. S. R. Rao) marine archaeology research interests me a lot. He related the Harappan or Saraswathi river civilization to Mahabharata and he explained his theory by referring events that is mentioned in Mahabharata with is findings. Dr. Rao mentions the killing of Kaurava brothers’s only sister’s husband the Jayathrada by Arjuna to prove his theory. He calculates the solar eclipse that occurred at that time with moon’s shadow falling on Kurukshetra (Haryana) at the time when the sun was setting. According the Mahabharata Jayathradha was killed at the at sunset solar eclipse by Arjuna. He also refers the Uddhava Gita or Hamsa Gita that mentions about sea water entering the Harappan Port city Dwaraka. Researching in this angle may also throw some light on it.


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