Åg veda cultures and societies of the indus tradition

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Cultures and Societies of the Indus Tradition

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer


For most of human history, the only record of cultural development is derived from the archaeological record. This record is incomplete and fragmentary. It is not a clear document that can be interpreted without careful analysis and qualification. While the popular literature is filled with statements about ancient discoveries and the meaning of these finds, serious archaeologists are often much more cautious when making interpretations about the meaning of specific finds. Even when archaeologists do make qualified interpretive statements, they are often modified in later publications as more data is recovered from excavations. Unfortunately, the general public rarely follows the rapidly changing field of archaeological studies, and the earlier interpretations often find their way into the popular press to become what can be called "factoids." "A factoid is a speculation or guess that has been repeated so often that it is eventually taken for hard fact" (Yoffee 2005).

The concept of an "Aryan" race is one example of a "factoid". The term "Aryan" is derived from the term "?rya"

found in the ?g Veda and meaning "good or noble, someone who speaks Sanskrit, someone who practices the proper Vedic rituals" etc. (Renou 1959). When linguists tried to understand the relationship between the Sanskrit language and other classical languages such as Latin and Greek, they coined the word Indo-European, to refer to a large family of related languages that spread from India to Europe (Mallory 1989; Renfrew 1987). Sanskrit, the language of the ?g Veda and later texts, was considered a sub-branch of Indo-European languages and was classified as Indo-?ryan, while the language of the Avesta was called Indo-Iranian. All languages derived from Sanskrit have been classified as Indo-Aryan languages. The speakers of Indo-Aryan languages came to be referred to as Aryans. Unfortunately the term Aryan soon lost its meaning relating to language and came to be used incorrectly as a term for genetically distinct populations or races. This use of the term "Aryan" as a classification of a person's genetic heritage is totally misleading and factually incorrect, because a person's language does not always correlate to their genetic ancestry. Today, people throughout the world speak English, but only a small segment of the population is genetically related to English speaking ancestors.

Another example of a "factoid" is the destruction of Mohenjo-daro by so called "Aryan" invaders. Although this idea had been proposed by earlier scholars (see R. Thapar this volume) Sir Mortimer Wheeler's highly speculative statements regarding scattered skeletal remains found in the late levels of Mohenjo-daro (Wheeler 1953) were taken as being archaeological proof of this invasion and the theory became widely accepted in both scientific and popular writings. After assuming that Harappans were non-Aryan, and that the ?g Veda dated to around the fifteenth century B. C. Wheeler presented various Vedic descriptions of the destruction of walled cities by Indra, who is also known as

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purandara - "fort-destroyer". In describing the skeletal remains found at Mohenjo-Daro, he assumed that the individuals died violent deaths and that the absence of skeletons in the citadel areas of the site was due to the fact that invaders cleared this area to live in after sacking the city.

He concluded with the speculation " On circumstantial evidence such as this, considered in light of the chronology as now inferred, Indra stands accused. Alternatively, if we reject the identification of the fortified citadels of the Harappans with those which he and his Vedic Aryan following destroyed, we have to assume that, in the short interval which can, at the most, have intervened between the end of the Indus civilization and the first Aryan invasions, an unidentified but formidable civilization arose in the same region and presented an extensive fortified front to the invaders. This second assumption is more difficult than the first; it seems better, as the evidence presents itself to accept the identification and to suppose that the Harappans in their decadence, in the sixteenth or fifteenth century B. C., fell before the advancing Aryans in such fashion as the Vedic hymns proclaim. " (Wheeler 1953:92).

In a more comprehensive overview of the archaeology of Pakistan and India published five years later, he had totally changed the tone of his interpretation. He described the decline of the cities as long and drawn out, resulting from deforestation, flooding, and the wearing out of the landscape. He still assumed that the site of Mohenjo-daro was attacked by raiders, and suggested that they may have been linked to the Rig Vedic accounts of the destruction of cities, but clearly states that "...at present these thoughts are no more than conjectures; picturesque, perhaps provable, but not proven. " (Wheeler 1959). He also points out that " ... so-far-flung a society decayed differently and found death or reincarnation

in varying forms from region to region." (Wheeler 1959). Dr. George F. Dales strongly refuted Wheeler's claim of

invasion by clearly demonstrating that the skeletons did not belong to one single period and there is no archaeological evidence for destruction, burning or looting of the city that would normally accompany a massacre (Dales 1964). Furthermore, reanalysis of the skeletal remains from Mohenjo-daro by Dr. Kenneth Kennedy indicate that only one out of the 42 different individuals shows any evidence of trauma that could have been the immediate cause of death (Kennedy 1984). The archaeological and skeletal evidence clearly do not support any model of invasion or sudden collapse of Mohenjo-daro, let alone the Indus urban culture as a whole. The decline of Mohenjo-Daro is no longer attributed to Indo-Aryan invasion or migrations, disease or floods, as proposed by earlier scholars, but rather to a combination of factors that include the changing river system, the disruption of the subsistence base, and a breakdown in the important integrative factors of trade and religion (Kenoyer 2005; Possehl 1997).

Unfortunately, such refutations and later clarifications have been ignored by secondary authors and the general public, resulting in major misunderstandings about the nature of archaeological interpretations and the value of archaeology as a scientific study of early human society. For the past fifty years, archaeologists, linguists and historians have been arguing about the nature of the earliest cities of the Indus valley and their relationship to later cultures mentioned in the oral traditions that eventually became codified in the Vedas and later texts.

In this essay we will first look at the types of questions that can be answered by the mute archaeological record followed by a brief summary of the current state of knowledge regarding the ancient cultures of northwestern South Asia,

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during the time period from around 3000-1000 BCE.

Archaeological Approaches

Who were the peoples living in the ancient Indus valley and surrounding regions during the prehistoric period? Where did they come from? What language did they speak and what were their religious beliefs? Can these communities be linked to the Vedas or even to later Epic texts? These questions have been challenging archaeologists, historians and linguists ever since the discovery of Harappa and later Mohenjo-daro in the 1920s and are still at the forefront of discussions today.

The people living in the prehistoric Indus valley and surrounding regions can only be defined on the basis of the archaeological remains that they left behind. This means they are described by their pottery, the types of houses they lived in and the food that they ate. Their origins can be roughly correlated by tracing the development of specific artifact types and tracing the distribution of these artifacts across space (Kenoyer 1998). More recently, studies of the ancient skeletal remains provides clues as to the genetic relationships between the people of the Indus region and other areas of the ancient world (Hemphill and Lukacs 1993). Eventually the study of prehistoric DNA may shed new light on the genetic relationships of specific populations, but so far no wellpreserved DNA has been discovered. Even when we do figure out how to trace DNA in ancient populations of South Asia, it will not be possible to use this data to determine the language or religious beliefs of the people that are being studied.

The most difficult aspects of prehistoric archaeological research and interpretation revolve around issues of language and religion. Language and religion are not passed on genetically but are learned behavior that does not always correlate with genetic heritage. Furthermore, without the aid

of written records, it is impossible to determine the language used by a prehistoric community. Although we have written records during the period of the Indus cities, the writing has not been deciphered and the language that they represent is unknown (Parpola 1994). Without decipherment, it is not possible to make positive correlations about the meanings of specific symbols or the use of particular artifacts in the context of religion. This dilemma has been the source of considerable discussion and dispute regarding the language and religion of the ancient urban culture of the northwestern subcontinent that is commonly referred to as the Harappa culture, Indus Civilization or the Indus-Saraswati Civilization.

The term Harappa Culture derives from the initial identification in 1920 of artifacts at the site of Harappa, located along the Ravi River in modern Pakistan (Vats 1940) (Figure 1). Harappa is known as the "type-site" for this culture and archaeologists traditionally use the type-site where artifacts are first discovered to refer to the cultural tradition as a whole. With the discovery of similar artifacts from the site of Mohenjo-daro in 1921 (Marshall 1931), and subsequent discoveries throughout the Indus valley, many archaeologists began referring to the Indus Civilization or Indus Valley Civilization, which includes the Harappa Culture (Wheeler 1968). Eventually, sites dating to this same time period and cultural tradition came to be discovered outside the Indus valley, in the highland regions of Baluchistan and Afghanistan, as well as in the territories of Gujarat and Kutch. This led to the introduction of the term "greater Indus Valley" to refer to the larger area encompassed by this civilization (Mughal 1970).

Some scholars in India have begun to use the term IndusSaraswati or Saraswati Civilization (Gupta 1996; Lal 1997). The use of this name is based primarily on the misconception that a significant or even greater proportion of the ancient

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"Indus" sites were situated along the bed of the now dry Saraswati-Ghaggar-Hakra-Nara River. In fact, most sites along the dry river channel are relatively small and even the few large ones are not as large as the major cities on the Indus or its tributaries. The discovery of these sites is mainly due to the rapid abandonment of the region after the river began drying up during the Late Harappan period. The lack of later occupation and the fact that no more silts were brought down with annual floodwaters has left these sites exposed and therefore easily identified by archaeologists. In contrast, the Indus settlements in other parts of the Punjab, Sindh and Gujarat have been buried by annual flood sediments or by later historical villages and cities.

Regardless of what terminology is used, the characterization of this society is based on the recovery of archaeological evidence alone, as the Indus writing has not yet been deciphered. Archaeologists must use a combination of resources to interpret the incomplete archaeological record. Scientific analysis is used to interpret the nature of specific materials, the technologies used to produce them. Geological models are used to interpret the ways in which the ancient artifacts have been preserved in the soil, and complex archaeological models are used to reconstruct the overall layout of a settlement, the subsistence, and eventually the social and political organization of the people living there. Ethnographic models based on studies of living or historical communities are used to help provide examples of the overall structure of an ancient society. However, none of these approaches can provide a totally accurate or complete picture of an ancient society, since the archaeological record only preserves a small proportion of the original society.

This is also the situation with literary texts, which generally only provide one perspective on an ancient culture, composed or written by a minority of literate elites. Using

such written records it is equally difficult to accurately reconstruct a total picture of the society. This situation is abundantly clear in the numerous interpretations of the meaning of specific words found in the ?g Veda and later Vedic texts, as well as the well-known epic texts, the Mah?bh?rata and the R?m?ya?a. These texts were not intended to be used as historical documents and yet many scholars have tried to use them to reconstruct ancient Vedic society and to link specific events or localities to the fragmentary archaeological record.

There is little question that many of the events and localities described in the Vedic and later texts can be associated geographically with the greater Indus Valley and adjacent regions. The challenge then is to develop a systematic method of testing the archaeological data to see what, if any, can be associated with the Vedic literature. Using a scientific approach one does not attempt to prove a proposition or hypothesis, but rather to disprove it. If the hypothesis cannot be disproved, then it may represent a valid interpretation.

For example, one of the major characteristics of being "?rya" in the Vedas is being able to perform rituals using proper mantras spoken in Sanskrit (Renou 1971). In order to determine if an archaeological site were inhabited by "?rya" it would be first necessary to demonstrate that they had ritual fire altars as well as determining that the language spoken in the course of the fire rituals was indeed Sanskrit. Since we do not have any written language during the Vedic period, and there are no tape recordings of the languages spoken over an ancient fireplace, it is not possible to test if the fireplace was in fact a fire altar or what type of language was spoken. If it is not possible to test a hypothesis, then it cannot help to increase our knowledge of the past. Hence the identification of simple "Vedic fire-altars" at a site is simply a speculation that cannot be tested.

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Similarly, there are many horse using cultures in the ancient world, but the presence of a horse does not mean that the people who used the horse are "?rya". The use of the horse spread quite rapidly (Anthony 1997), and by 1500 BCE horses and chariots were used by elites in a vast area spreading from Egypt to China, and yet no one would argue that Egyptians or Chinese elites were Vedic Aryans. Consequently, the presence of horse bones in a site does not in itself indicate the language or religion of the community using the horse. In order to determine if "?rya" communities used horses it would be necessary to find evidence of horse sacrifice as described in the ?g Veda. So far no such remains have been discovered in South Asia.

Another example is the use of symbols such as the swastika. This is a symbol that has been found distributed throughout the world beginning in the Palaeolithic period. It is found on pottery in Mesopotamia dating to around 4000 BC, at Harappa beginning around 3300 BC (Kenoyer and Meadow 2000) and widely used in the Indus cities from 26001900 BCE (Kenoyer 1998). The presence of the swastika in Mesopotamia and the Indus valley is not necessarily connected in any cultural or religious way, but is evidence of independent invention of a symbol that probably had very different ideological meanings.

It should be clear from the preceding examples, that the unbiased documentation of the archaeological record is critical to providing a sound description of prehistoric communities. Furthermore, the connection of prehistoric communities with later literary texts or historically known communities must proceed with great caution, and that all interpretations must be taken as suggestions and not as facts. In the following section I present a summary of the theoretical framework that I feel is most appropriate for incorporating and explaining both the archaeological and the literary

evidence from South Asia.

Chronology and Cultural Traditions

Most traditional archaeological studies of the prehistoric and protohistoric period of South Asia use a linear sequence of periods and events to categorize and discuss the continuities and change in human adaptive strategies. While this approach is still used to some extent to describe the chronological changes within a site or a region, the overarching concept of a "Cultural Tradition" is used in this chapter to encompass long-term cultural developments in a specific geographical region (Kenoyer 1991; Shaffer 1992). While this terminology may be unfamiliar to many readers, it is the most appropriate model because of the nature of archaeological data and dating techniques. The attempt is to provide a focus on the major activities of societies at particular periods. The reference therefore is not just to a chronological bracket but also to how a society was organized and why it was so.

Each "Cultural Tradition" can be subdivided into Eras and Phases that allow archaeologists to organize and compare materials from different chronological periods and geographical regions. The term Era as used in this model designates a unit of analysis that does not have uniform fixed boundaries in time or space and more than one Era may coexist within a Tradition. The Era is not a developmental phase and not all are found in every tradition. A Phase is the smallest analytical unit, defined by ceramics, architecture and a variety of artifact styles, is limited to a locality or a region and to a defined period of time.

Foraging Era refers to the subsistence focus on wild plants and animals. This era includes mobile and sedentary foragers, including communities involved in hunting and fishing. Early Food Producing Era has an economy based on food production but lacking ceramics. In the Regionalization

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Era, distinct artifact styles (e.g. ceramics) cluster in time and space (without fixed boundaries) and are connected by regional interaction networks. The Integration Era shows pronounced widespread homogeneity in material culture, reflecting intense interaction between social groups. The Localization Era has general similarity in artifact styles (comparable to the Regionalization Era), indicating a continued, but altered, presence of interaction networks (Shaffer, 1991: 442).

Within each Era, Phases can be defined on the basis of tool technologies, pottery and other types of artifacts, writing and architectural styles. A Phase is the smallest analytical unit, limited to a locality or a region and to a relatively short interval of time. All of the Traditions and Phases are linked directly or indirectly though avenues of communication and trade. These Interaction Systems are reflected by broad distributions of cultural traits within a brief period. Traditions and Phases are not totally distinct phenomena because of their interconnections through economic, social and ritual interaction systems.

Three major Cultural Traditions can be identified for the northwestern subcontinent during the period under consideration: the Indus, Baluchistan, and Helmand Traditions. The Bactro-Margiana Tradition falls at the northwestern edge of South Asia and is linked in different ways to processes of cultural and political developments in the subcontinent, beginning as early as the Palaeolithic and continuing through the Early Historic period.

Cultural developments in other regions of peninsular South Asia have generally been discussed in terms of single sites or small regional cultures based on limited surveys and excavations. In order to integrate these oftentimes confusing sets of data into the framework used in the northwestern regions, it is possible to identify three additional cultural

traditions for peninsular India; the Ganga-Vindhya Tradition,

the Malwa Tradition and the Deccan Tradition.

Each of these traditions is represented by various Eras

and Phases, and all of them are linked during their respective

Integration Eras to the overarching Indo-Gangetic Tradition.

This final Tradition has been defined for the northern

subcontinent during the second major phase of urbanization

- that of the Indo-Gangetic plain - and is basically

synonymous with the Early Historic Period, starting from

the mid-first millennium BCE.

Using this chronological and theoretical framework it

is possible to describe the cultures emerging in the

northwestern regions of South Asia without getting buried

with all of the data (Figure 1). Brief overviews of the Indus

and the Indo-Gangetic traditions are presented below.

Table 1

Indus Tradition: Basic Chronology

Foraging Era

10,000 to 2000 BCE

Mesolithic and Microlithic

Early Food Producing Era

7000 to 5500 BCE

Mehrgarh Phase

Regionalization Era

5500 to 2600 BCE

Early Harappan Phases

Ravi, Hakra, Sheri Khan Tarakai,

Balakot, Amri, Kot Diji, Sothi,

Integration Era

Harappan Phase

2600 to 1900 BCE

Localization Era

Late Harappan Phases

1900 to 1300 BCE

Punjab, Jhukar, Rangpur

Indus Tradition

The Indus Tradition refers to the total phenomenon of human adaptations that resulted in the integration of diverse

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