Mehrgarh, Pakistan - Life in the Indus Valley Before Harappa

The Roots of the Chalcolithic Indus Civilization

Ruins of Ancient Village, Mehgarh
The ruins of Mehrgarh, an ancient mud-brick village dating from before 6500 BC, Baluchistan, Pakistan. © Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Mehrgarh is a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic site located at the foot of the Bolan pass on the Kachi plain of Baluchistan (also spelled Balochistan), in modern day Pakistan. Continuously occupied between about 7000-2600 BC, Mehrgarh is the earliest known Neolithic site in the northwest Indian subcontinent, with early evidence of farming (wheat and barley), herding (cattle, sheep, and goats) and metallurgy.

The site is located on the principal route between what is now Afghanistan and the Indus Valley: this route was also undoubtedly part of a trading connection established quite early between the Near East and the Indian subcontinent.

Chronology

Mehrgarh's importance to understanding the Indus Valley is its nearly unparalleled preservation of pre-Indus societies.

  • aceramic Neolithic founding 7000-5500 BC
  • Neolithic Period II 5500-4800 (16 ha)
  • Chalcolithic Period III 4800-3500 (9 ha)
  • Chalcolithic Period IV, 3500-3250 BC
  • Chalcolithic V 3250-3000 (18 ha)
  • Chalcolithic VI 3000-2800
  • Chalcolithic VII-Early Bronze Age 2800-2600

Aceramic Neolithic

The earliest settled portion of Mehrgarh is found in an area called MR.3, in the northeast corner of the immense site. Mehrgarh was a small farming and pastoralist village between 7000-5500 BC, with mud brick houses and granaries. The early residents used local copper ore, basket containers lined with bitumen, and an array of bone tools.

Plant foods used during this period included domesticated and wild six-rowed barley, domestic einkorn and emmer wheat, and wild Indian jujube (Zizyphus spp) and date palms (Phoenix dactylifera). Sheep, goats, and cattle were herded at Mehrgarh beginning during this early period. Hunted animals include gazelle, swamp deer, nilgai, blackbuck onager, chital, water buffalo, wild pig and elephant.

The earliest residences at Mehrgarh were freestanding, multi-roomed rectangular houses built with long, cigar-shaped and mortared mudbricks: these structures are very similar to Prepottery Neolithic (PPN) hunter-gatherers in early 7th millennium Mesopotamia. Burials were placed in brick-lined tombs, accompanied by shell and turquoise beads. Even at this early date, the similarities of crafts, architecture, and agricultural and funerary practices indicate some sort of connection between Mehrgarh and Mesopotamia.

Neolithic Period II 5500-4800

By the sixth millennium, agriculture had become firmly established at Mehrgarh, based on mostly (~90%) locally domesticated barley but also wheat from the near east. The earliest pottery was made by sequential slab construction, and the site contained circular fire pits filled with burnt pebbles and large granaries, characteristics also of similarly dated Mesopotamian sites.

Buildings made of sun-dried brick were large and rectangular, symmetrically divided into small square or rectangular units. They were doorless and lack of residential remains, suggesting to researchers that at least some of they were storage facilities for grains or other commodities which were communally shared.

Other buildings are standardized rooms surrounded by large open work spaces where craft-working activities took place, including the beginnings of the extensive bead-making characteristic of the Indus.

Chalcolithic Period III 4800-3500 and IV 3500-3250 BC

By the Chalcolithic Period III at Mehrgarh, the community, now well over 100 hectares, consisted of large spaces with groups of building divided into residences and storage units, but more elaborate, with foundations of pebbles embedded in clay. The bricks were made with molds, and along with fine painted wheel-thrown pottery, and a variety of agricultural and craft practices.

Chalcolithic Period IV showed a continuity in pottery and crafts but progressive stylistic changes. During this period, the region split into small and medium sized compact settlements connected by canals.

Some of the settlements included blocks of houses with courtyards separated by small passageways; and the presence of large storage jars in rooms and courtyards.

Dentistry at Mehrgarh

A recent study at Mehrgarh showed that during Period III, people were using bead-making techniques to experiment with dentistry: tooth decay in humans is a direct outgrowth of a reliance on agriculture. Researchers examining burials in a cemetery at MR3 discovered drill holes on at least eleven molars. Light microscopy showed the holes were conical, cylindrical or trapezoidal in shape. A few had concentric rings showing drill bit marks, and a few had some evidence for decay. No filling material was noted, but tooth wear on the drill marks indicate that each of these individuals continued to live on after the drilling was completed.

Coppa and colleagues (2006) pointed out that only four of the eleven teeth contained clear evidence of decay associated with drilling; however, the drilled teeth are all molars located in the back of both lower and upper jaws, and thus are not likely to have been drilled for decorative purposes. Flint drill bits are a characteristic tool from Mehrgarh, mostly used with producing beads. The researchers conducted experiments and discovered that a flint drill bit attached to a bow-drill can produce similar holes in human enamel in under a minute: these modern experiments were not, of course, used on living humans.

The dental techniques have only been discovered on only 11 teeth out of a total of 3,880 examined from 225 individuals, so tooth-drilling was a rare occurrence, and, it appears to have been a short-lived experiment as well. Although the MR3 cemetery contains younger skeletal material (into the Chalcolithic), no evidence for tooth drilling has been found later than 4500 BC.

Later Periods at Mehrgarh

Later periods included craft activities such as flint knapping, tanning, and expanded bead production; and a significant level of metal-working, particularly copper.

The site was occupied continuously until about 2600 BC, when it was abandoned, about the time when the Harappan periods of the Indus civilization began to flourish at Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Kot Diji, among other sites.

Mehrgarh was discovered and excavated by an international led by French archaeologist Jean-François Jarrige; the site was excavated continuously between 1974 and 1986 by the French Archaeological Mission in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology of Pakstan.

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to the Indus Civilization, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Mehrgarh, Pakistan - Life in the Indus Valley Before Harappa." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2016, thoughtco.com/mehrgarh-pakistan-life-indus-valley-171796. Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, September 10). Mehrgarh, Pakistan - Life in the Indus Valley Before Harappa. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mehrgarh-pakistan-life-indus-valley-171796 Hirst, K. Kris. "Mehrgarh, Pakistan - Life in the Indus Valley Before Harappa." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mehrgarh-pakistan-life-indus-valley-171796 (accessed October 19, 2017).