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:
- 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.
- This urban culture remained static and uniform over much of the Indus River basin.
- It then collapsed suddenly and uniformly.
- 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
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.