The ancient site of Mehrgarh lies at the foot of the Bolan Pass, on the banks of the Bolan River, not far from the modern city of Quetta in Balochistan in Pakistan. This has been a significant area in the Indian subcontinent’s history. From time immemorial, the Bolan Pass acted as a connector between the Iranian highlands and the Indus basin. It is through here that hunters, pastoralists, traders, invaders and others ventured into the land of the Indus, over thousands of years. It is also at the site of Mehrgarh, at its foot, that you will find clues to the dawn of India’s first civilisation - the Indus Valley or Harappan Civilisation
The raw beauty of the area is hypnotic. But it wasn’t this primal pull that brought a French husband-and-wife team of archaeologists here in the 1970s. They came here hunting for an ancient settlement. What they found was momentous - a missing link!
The site of Mehrgarh, in the Kachi Beg plains, is not a really impressive mound. Its various levels are scattered across 300 acres in a way that is truly exasperating for the modern archaeologist. Unlike the regular archaeological mound with its neat, multi-layered (chocolate cake-like) stratigraphy, Mehrgarh was occupied at different spatial locations at different times, and this resulted in a stratigraphy akin to a scattered deck of cards with different layers belonging to different periods, not in sequence and lying scattered across the landscape.
There are eight different chronological phases at Mehrgarh. Seven of these are in a 300-acre area and the last almost 8 km from the main cluster. The archaeological levels are not really very deep. The importance of the site, though, lies in the simple fact that it destroyed one of the greatest myths then prevalent among Harappan scholars.
Before the discovery of Mehrgarh, most scholars believed that the Harappans had their antecedents either in the Mesopotamian or the Elamite civilisations to the West. The discovery of Mehrgarh put an end to this speculation and took a settled, agrarian way of life in the Indian subcontinent back to almost 8,500 years ago.
It was the search for these roots of Harappan Civilisation that led the husband-and-wife team of Jean-Francoise and Catherine Jarrige, both French archaeologists, to discover the site of Mehrgarh in 1974.
India has a long history of human settlements. Excavations at Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu have conclusively shown the presence of Homo erectus in India at least 1.5 million years ago. The site of Isampur in Karnataka has corroborated this, with dates of 1.2 million years ago. Attirampakkam has also revealed a Middle Palaeolithic Phase which goes back over 380,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest such sites outside Africa.
The site of Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh, where Ravi Korisettar and his team have found evidence of human occupation by modern humans (Home sapiens sapiens) both before and after the Toba tuff (volcanic ash deposit from a supervolcano in Indonesia) have proved that the Toba supervolcano event of 70,000 years ago did not exterminate human beings from the subcontinent as proposed by some archaeologists.
Early humans populated the whole of peninsular India and left behind their art and artefacts at Upper Palaeolithic sites like Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh), Patne (Aurangabad, Maharashtra) and Muchchatala Chintamani Gavi (Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh). But all these sites and their inhabitants were nomadic to semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and not agriculturalists.
It was at Mehrgarh that archaeologists found the earliest-known remnants of the first farmers in South Asia. The excavations revealed 8 phases or periods, of which the most important for us are Periods 1-4.
Period 1A was a pre-pottery Neolithic Phase (between 8,500 and 8,000 years ago), where our ancestors practiced agriculture and animal husbandry but had not yet developed pottery. They used baskets, often lined with naturally occurring bitumen to make them waterproof.
Period 1B was a full-fledged Neolithic Phase with ceramic use. The ceramics were handmade and simple. Our earliest farmers lived in multi-room mud houses with no doors but with ingress through the roof, much like the very early Neolithic site of Catal Huyuk in Turkey. They grew wheat and barley and had domesticated sheep, goats and cattle. They had also domesticated dogs with whom they hunted and added to their diet.
Period 1 was found at Mound MR3, from which occupation moved to Mound MR4, possibly due to demographic pressure, and then in the next phase (Period 3) the Chalcolithic then moved to Mound MR2. This Chalcolithic phase was around 6,500 to 5,500 years ago.
Large numbers of terracotta figurines were discovered in these layers. The discovery of copper technology led to rapid advances in the growth of the site and the later Chalcolithic phase, from Periods 4-7 (5,500 to 4,500 years ago), were encountered on Mound MR1 in a regular vertical stack.
The excavations at Mehrgarh proved once and for all that the discovery of food production, i.e. agriculture, was a local process and that this process, from foraging to farming and pastoralism, was a local phenomenon. These excavations also showed that it was from this early farming phase that the earliest ceramic traditions emerged (Period 1B). And it was finally from here that the local inhabitants went on to discover copper metallurgy, thereby entering the Bronze Age and laying the foundations of the Bronze Age Harappan Civilisation.
It is important to note that early farmers did not turn to farming out of choice but were pushed out of fertile regions by their hunter-gatherer compatriots. Pushed into semi-arid regions, they had no choice but to grow their own food. Thus almost all the early Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites in South Asia are in semi-arid zones.
The most interesting aspects of Period 1 at Mehrgarh were the discovery of advanced lapidary activities i.e. relating to the engraving, cutting or polishing of stones or gems, long-distance trade and the fact that they believed in a life after death and buried their dead with gifts for the afterlife.
From the burial of a young woman belonging to this phase, we have a beautiful cylindrical bead of lapis lazuli (which would have come from Badakshan, 1,000 km north as the crow flies and probably longer by half as much on foot), a disc bead made from a seashell (from the Makran coast, over 600 km to the south) and bracelets made of limestone beads. The girl was buried in a foetal position, facing south, and at her feet were the skeletons of six baby goats. These goats would have been the beginning of her own herd in the afterlife.
Among the other finds from the site are chert blades from Rohri (250 km to the south-west), turquoise beads from the foothills of the Himalayas (at least 400 km to the north-east) and small pieces of mother of pearl for which the only known findspot is Oman! The Neolithic phase is also known for the world’s oldest dentistry (dental drilling) known to man.
Mehrgarh has given us many, many firsts. One of the most interesting is the earliest evidence of cotton in South Asia from a few strands preserved due to copper beads oxidising and preserving the string that held them together. What is most amazing is that the fibres are from a burial of the 6th millennium BCE. This makes it the earliest example of cotton fibre known to us in the world.
As life progressed from the earliest stages to the more developed Chalcolithic, technology made life easier and we begin to see lots of human and animal figurines, stone axes and mortar and pestles, fine chert blades, painted wheel-thrown ceramics and very early examples of seals. In fact, this is everything that we see later, in the Harappan Civilisation.
Designs like the Pipal leaf, fish motif and geometric designs are seen from here till the end of the Harappan Civilisation. The world’s oldest example of ‘the Lost Wax technique’ of metal casting is seen on a small wheel-shaped amulet from the Chalcolithic layers at Mehrgarh.
As the site and its people evolved, so did their agricultural and pastoral abilities. They went from using small amounts of cattle, to large numbers of sheep and goats in the earliest phases, to cattle-dominated pastoralism with sheep and goats coming in second and third, and very little hunting. The housing pattern too changes over time, and the people of Mehrgarh at Mound MR1 have moved into individual houses.
By the time we get to Period 4 at Mehrgarh, there are a number of other regional centres/sites of human habitation and the people of Mehrgarh are in contact with them as is seen from the non-local pottery found during the excavations. These are ceramics from early Chalcolithic sites like Kili Gul Mohammed, Mundigak, Faiz Muhammad and Togau. Around this time, the inhabitants of the site seem to have moved away to colonise a nearby site called Nausharo and the story continues here.
The French Archaeological Mission (led by Jean-Francoise and Catherine Jarrige) and the Archaeological Survey of Pakistan jointly excavated Mehrgarh from 1975 to 1986, and from 1987 to 1995 they concentrated their work at Nausharo, and then came back to excavate at Mehrgarh from 1996 to 2000.
Nausharo seemed to take off seamlessly from the end of Period 3 at Mehrgarh, and Period 1 at Nausharo is almost identical to Period 4 at Mehrgarh. However, here we see variations in the ceramic shapes and designs and also in the type of human figurines being made. Period 2 and 3 at Nausharo belong very clearly to the Harappan Civilisation, thereby clearly showing the continuity of the traditions created at Mehrgarh.
While early farmers were beginning to lay down their roots at Mehrgarh, there were developments along these lines across the Ganga Valley. The lower-most layers at the site of Jhusi near Allahabad have given us a date of 7100 BCE for the Neolithic Chalcolithic levels. Sadly, there hasn’t yet been a large-scale excavation here.
On the other hand, excavations at the site of Lahuradewa by Rakesh Tewari of the State Department of Archaeology in Uttar Pradesh have revealed some very exciting details. Early Neolithic farmers at the site had made their presence felt by the 9th millennium BCE and by the 8th to 7th millennium BCE, there is conclusive evidence of the cultivation of rice.
Neolithic cultures continued to sprout all over the Indian subcontinent over the next few millennia, from Kashmir to Karnataka and Assam to Orissa. These soon led to the evolution and transition to the Chalcolithic cultures of the Deccan, Central India, the Vindhyas, the Ganga Valley, Bengal and Orissa but none of these cultures evolved into an urban civilisation like the one that emerged from the dusty site of Mehrgarh.
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.