The Indus Valley and the surrounding area that today covers parts of Pakistan and northwest India have long been known to hold many secrets of ancient human civilization. Deep into the past, cities rose and fell for thousands of years, emerging as influential centers and disappearing to remain enigmas for archeologists to uncover.
Located west of the Indus River near the Bolan Pass in Balochistan, Pakistan is the archeological site of one of the most mysterious ancient cities. It is here, 9,000 years ago, that the ancient city of Mehrgarh was founded.
Hidden for millennia, the secrets are slowly being revealed, answering the questions of who these people were, what they built, and what their culture was like.
Discovery of Mehrgarh
Archeological discoveries throughout the 20th century in Pakistan proved that the whole region was home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations and an extremely important center of human development for thousands of years. The site of Mehrgarh was discovered in 1974 by a French archeological mission led by husband-and-wife pair Catherine and Jean-François Jarrige.
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The initial excavation period lasted from 1974 to 1986, when the site was excavated extensively and continuously. The site was revisited from 1997 to 2000 when excavations yielded more secrets of the city of Mehrgarh.
The site consists of six mounds spread over an area of 495 acres (374 football fields, or 200 kilometers2) in which a total of 32,000 artifacts have been discovered. In the site’s northeast corner are the remains of a small farming village dated to be 9,000 to 7,500 years old, making it the oldest evidence of human settlement in the entire Indus region and one of the oldest in the world.
Where Did the Mehrgarhans Come From? (& Where Did They Go?)
It is difficult to say with any certainty the events that happened 9,000 years ago regarding a people who did not yet have a writing system. Archeological finds provide clues, but no concrete evidence is available. Thus, various theories exist about the origin of the people who founded Mehrgarh.
Studies of wheat varieties show that wheat in the Indus Valley likely originated from the Middle East, and based on this evidence, it is theorized by many academics that the Indus Valley civilizations originated from people who migrated into the Indus Valley from the west, becoming an offshoot of the Middle Eastern Bronze Age civilization. Thus, it is argued that Mehrgarh was founded by the first wave of immigrants. This theory is contested by the man who led the excavations.
Jean-François Jarrige argues that early Mehrgarhan archeological evidence differs enough from late Indus Valley settlements to indicate that Mehrgarh has a unique local origin not connected to the Middle East.
Mehrgahr was inhabited for many thousands of years, and genetic evidence suggests that the original ethnic group that founded the site was displaced during the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Chalcolithic periods. The direct descendants of the original inhabitants can be found south and east of Mehrgarh around the western edge of the Deccan Plateau in the northwest of India.
The Eras of Settlement
What is known as the Mehrgarh I period extends back to at least 7000 BCE and lasts until around 5500 BCE. This was when farming was first practiced in the area. Wheat and barley were the main crops, while sheep, goats, and cattle were also farmed, with water buffalo and elephants being domesticated. Dates and jujubes were also cultivated. This early culture did not make use of pottery but did use unbaked clay to build their structures. The bricks were mortared and cigar-shaped, and the residential structures were rectangular buildings with multiple rooms. Instead of pots, baskets were covered in bitumen to make them waterproof.
Evidence of burial sites suggests that the culture might have been patriarchal, with more luxury goods being buried with men than with women. Ornaments such as stone and bone tools, baskets, beads, bangles, and pendants made from a variety of substances such as sea shells, lapis lazuli, turquoise, limestone, and sandstone have been found, with some of the dead being buried alongside animal sacrifices. Most of the dead were buried in small brick-lined tombs, and there were individual burials as well as mass burials. The bodies in mass graves were buried in a flexed position, and there seems to be a focus on burying the bodies oriented in an east-to-west position. Bones of children were also found in urns.
In 2001, an examination of the teeth of several of the men buried at Mehrgarh displayed signs of primitive dental work where drilling had been done on molars. This is the oldest evidence of dentistry in human civilization and dates from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago.
From 5500 BCE (Mehrgarh II), signs of pottery work began to emerge. Through the centuries to the Mehrgarh III period (4800 BCE–3500 BCE), pottery-making techniques became more advanced and complex. Simple terracotta figurines that were identified with Mehrgarh I evolved to become more intricate. They were painted, and a diverse array of hairstyles are apparent. The female figurines generally have large, pronounced breasts, and many of the figurines incorporate anthropomorphic designs. Until 4000 BCE, all the figures that were created depicted females, and it is plausible that the Mehrgarhans practiced a form of mother-goddess worship.
Decoration on pots also became more intricate, with designs being painted onto them with the addition of high-quality glazing techniques.
Merhgahr II also shows the first instances of metalwork with the discovery of a copper ring and a bead. There is distinct evidence that in the third period, copper smelting became widespread with various forms of kilns making an appearance, although the first evidence of copper being smelted dates all the way back to 6000 BCE with the discovery of a small spoked wheel amulet that was created using the lost-wax technique. This predates the first evidence of copper smelting in Europe by several hundred years.
From around 5000 BCE, trade also increased with settlements and cities from the Badakhshan region, most of which is located in present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By the 4th millennium BCE, settlements bloomed in the surrounding areas, offering many trading opportunities. This period also saw advances in building techniques. Clay bricks were made in molds, and the foundations of buildings were improved by incorporating pebble aggregate into a clay medium.
The Decline of Mehrgarh
By the end of the 4th millennium BCE, the settlement had split into several smaller settlements of compact buildings. From around 2600 BCE to 2000 BCE, the settlement was abandoned. During this period, several other towns and cities in the area offered better prospects, including safety in the form of fortifications. This was the era of the high points of many other civilizations, including Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and Kot DijiIt. It is likely the last residents of Mehrgarh left their homes and resettled in the fortified town of Nausharo, which was just five miles away.
Mehrgarh stands as a prime example of the progress of humanity during the Neolithic period. It is extremely important in that it exists outside of the Middle East, where most of the world’s oldest civilizations existed, and is thought to be where human beings first settled down and abandoned their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, and engaged in farming to support their tribes.
Mehrgarh is the oldest permanent settlement outside of the Middle East and provides a foundation for an investigation into the culture of the Indus Valley civilizations that followed or developed when Mehrgahr was still inhabited. Cultural contact would have been possible, and many ancient peoples could have learned from Mehrgarh and passed their knowledge down through the centuries and millennia that followed.