THE ‘MESOPOTAMIAN CONNECTION’- The microlithic tool-makers who settled at a place now called Mehrgarh,   in the Bolan River basin in Baluchistan, initiated a new phase of human organization in India which has shattered all previous beliefs about early

society there. From the first forays by European scholars into Indian prehis- tory during the late nineteenth century a single general paradigm held sway. It consisted of the following propositions about civilization in northwestern India:

  1. An urban culture, or civilization, emerged suddenly in the middle of the third millennium bce, rather late in comparison with other areas of the Old World and therefore thought to be a plantation of colonists from Mesopo- tamia or elsewhere in western Asia.
    1. This urban culture remained static and uniform over much of the Indus River basin.
    1. It then collapsed suddenly and uniformly.
    1. The collapse came in the face of the onslaught of Indo-Aryans from the Central Asia steppe.

This formulation held sway until the 1950s and was based on a thin store of field data, lacking both substantial stratigraphic and quantitative analysis. Moreover, little heed was paid to ecological variations among known sites in Sind and the Punjab, and little attention given to human occupation before the advent of cities.

It could scarcely have been otherwise given what was known and not known during the first century of modern Indian scholarship. European scholars had not had the slightest intimation of the existence of the cities of the Indus basin before they were found. The discovery of ancient urban ruins of Mohenjo- Daro was made wholly by chance, for what had concerned Sanskrit and philo- logical scholarship of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the antiquity of Indo-European languages, to which Germanic ones were linked. From the outset what was intellectually valuable to them about India were the vedic hymns of the ‘Aryan invaders’ of India. The hymns inspired esteem for and interest in Sanskrit, but also made it clear that Sanskrit came from elsewhere; it was not considered originally Indian.

Our  understanding  of  what  was  called ‘the  Indus  civilization’ has  under- gone  considerable  modification  over  recent  decades. What  persuaded  many to give up the older view was the growing evidence of farming communities in the northwest long before the emergence of cities in about 2500 bce, and the evidence of continuous evolution of these agricultural communities into urban configurations. Mehrgarh is the earliest of such communities and one on which a fine assemblage of physical evidence has been amassed. The neo- lithic  communities  initiated  an  epoch  which  culminated  around  500  bce, when  the  pre-formation  of  something  to  be  called  Indian  civilization  was completed. The  excavation  of  Mehrgarh  in  the  1970s  has  shown  this  epoch to be longer than standard historical accounts had hitherto reckoned.

Received wisdom had long held that the process which transformed India from its prehistoric origins through a protohistory into history proper was decisively shaped by forces outside the subcontinent. Thus, it is not surprising that when the ruins of immense Indus cities were uncovered during the 1920s they were assumed to be outliers of the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, not
Ancient Days

products of indigenous invention. It not until later that many pre-urban archaeological sites were uncovered in northwestern India. That, together with the philological bias toward imported culture, explains several erroneous notions that persisted even after colonial control ended in 1947.

The  governments  of  the  post-colonial  states  of  their  subcontinent  –  the republics  of  India  and  Pakistan  –  were  determined  to  extend  the  limited knowledge  of  prehistoric  times  upon  which  the  prevailing  view  was  based. Launching  ambitious  programmes  of  field  archaeology  and  often  guided  by new theories, they succeeded in revising our views of the protohistoric cultures of  the  subcontinent, for  which  there  was  a  wide  array  of  material  evidence, but no written documentation. Where previously virtually nothing had been known of the pre-urban phases of occupation and it was assumed that urban culture  had  been  imported  around  3500  bce,  there  were  now  grounds  for believing that a very long, indigenous, pre-urban phase, dating to 7000 bce, was  followed  by  a  swift  transition  to  a  full-blown  urban  phase  beginning about  3500  bce. The  urban  phase  might  have  been  stimulated  by  external contacts, including trade; however, the length of gestation suggests that it was home-grown.

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