The Indus Civilisation diet

Leftovers in prehistoric pots reveal carby diet of a lost civilisation.

Food residue analysis has produced rich dividends in the complex study of ancient diets. High technology science is allowing us to study fatty molecules and microscopic plant remains from plants such as starch grains and phytoliths, the silica structures deposited in many plant tissues.


Akshyeta Suryanarayan and a team of researchers from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, have studied eleven Copper and Bronze Age vessels excavated at Shikarpur, an Indus civilization community in Gujerat, India. The pots, goblets, and platters dated to 4,200 to 4,000 years ago. They also analysed the residues on seventeen 5,300 to 4,300 year-old vessels from nearby Datrana and Loteshwar (pictured), occupied by semi-nomadic farmers and herders.


The analyses showed that people acquired edible plant foods from a variety of sources. Some were foraged locally from the wild, others grown or imported, while meat came from herds. Ninety-nine percent of the Datrana vessels came from greases in the Hordeeae tribe, which includes barley, rye, and wheat, also their wild relatives. Interestingly, none of these were native to Gujerat, which hints that they were imported from elsewhere. Loteshwar and Shikarpur yielded 67 to 73 percent starch grains from beans. There were also traces of ginger, which was presumably grown nearby.


Many of the vessels yielded relatively abundant carbon isotopes from omnivores such as pigs, birds, or rabbits, in contrast to Copper and Bronze Age sites from Gujerat, which yielded isotopic signatures from ruminant fat. Looking at the samples as a whole, the researchers concluded that millets were used for flour-based, bread-like foods, while other ingredients such as beans were used in a wider range of dishes. Now they are widening the focus, to study the transitions between pr-urban and urban diets in the Indus civilization.


Given that the Indus Valley was one of the world’s most remarkable ancient civilisations – with no real evidence for war, hierarchy, or indeed religion; but lots of evidence for excellent sanitation and well-built architecture – we suggest this dietary research reveals that you enjoy your carbs too. Oh yes, and note their imported food too. Connections made their world go round.


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Image: Overview of the excavation at Loteshwar.