Mehrgarh

When talking of ancient civilizations that once thrived in the areas that now are located in Pakistan, people generally know of Indus Valley Civilization (3500-1800 BC) of Moenjodaro and Harappa. But earliest evidence of sedentary lifestyle in South Asia discovered on the west bank of Bolan River and plains of Kachhi, about 30 kilometres from the town of Sibi, Balochistan (Pakistan) at place called Mehrgarh in 1979 took archaeologists by surprise to find the remains of a civilization that thrived immediately preceding the Stone Age (70,000–7000 BC).

The excavations, joint venture of the Pakistan Archaeology Department and French archaeologists, and the the following studies of the remains date this settlement back to some 7000 – 9000 years. Thus, the chronology of civilization in Pakistan, established through the study of Moenjodaro and Harappa, has been pushed back by over 4000 years. The habitation of the site has been divided into four to seven periods, the first being the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period that dates to circa 7000 B.C. or even earlier. The site was abandoned between 2000 and 2500 B.C. during a period of contact with the Indus Civilization and then reused as a burial ground for some time after 2000 B.C. It would not be wrong to conclude then that the Indus Valley civilization began neither in Moenjodaro nor Harappa but at Mehrgarh, as the archaeologists in the 1960s linked clues of Harappan genesis to Mehrgarh, when they found early indications of Harappan styles, specially the similarities in pottery designs.

The ‘Neolithic Revolution’ took place around 8500 – 6000 BC in Fertile Crescent. With the taming of variety of animals and domestication of wheat and barley man life style changed from nomadic to settled life in permanent homes. Being closest to Iran and Afghanistan, Balochistan was the first region in South Asia influenced by this revolution. Neolithic Mehrgarh consists of four mounds. The remains show that around 5100 BC, the Mehrgarh inhabitants constructed mud-brick structures. The remains of a large town spread over some 170 acres makes it the largest in the ancient world, being five times the size of the contemporary Catal Huyuk site in Turkey which has been called the largest Neolithic site in the Near East. It may be added that the entire population of Egypt was around 30,000 persons around 6000 BC, almost same as of Mehrgarh alone. Stone sickles found at Mehrgarh point towards wheat cultivation. Conch shells from the Arabian Sea (500 km distant) and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan dating back to period after 5000 BC indicate trade networks. By 3500 BC Mehrgarh had grown into an important regional craft centre. Pieces of painted pottery and ornaments (right) and figurines representing both humans and animals have also been discovered recently from the site. In what could be one of the earliest examples of dentistry, scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the United States have found tiny, perfectly rounded holes in teeth found in Mehrgarh, which they suspect were drilled to repair tooth decay.

Mehrgarh Period I 7000 – 5500 BCE, was Neolithic and aceramic (i.e., without the use of pottery). The earliest farming in the area was developed by semi-nomadic people using plants such as wheat and barley and animals such as sheep, goat and cattle. The settlement was established with simple mud buildings with four internal subdivisions. Numerous burials have been found, many with elaborate goods such as baskets, stone and bone tools, beads, bangles, pendants and occasionally animal sacrifices, with more goods left with burials of males. Ornaments of sea shell, limestone, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sandstone and polished copper have been found, along with simple figurines of women and animals. A single ground stone axe was discovered in a burial, and several more were obtained from the surface. These ground stone axes are the earliest to come from a stratified context in the South Asia.

The Mehrgarh people seemed to have developed understanding of surgery and dentistry, which is evident from the drilled teeth (left) of some of the skeletons found from the site. Analysis of the teeth shows prehistoric dentists had a go at curing toothache with drills made from flint heads. The work has been so crafted that even the modern dentists are surprised as how effectively the Mehrgarh “dentists” removed the rotting dental tissue. From the remains, a total of eleven drilled crowns have been found, with one example showing evidence of a complex procedure involving tooth enamel removal followed by carving of the cavity wall. Four of the teeth show signs of decay associated with the drilled hole. None of the individuals with drilled teeth appear to have come from a special tomb or sanctuary, indicating that the oral health care they received was available to any and all.

The form of dental treatment using flint drill heads found at Mehrgarh continued for about 1,500 years, before the practice was stopped in the area. Flint drill heads are found abundantly at the Mehrgarh site, among assemblages of beads made of bones, shell and turquoise.

Mehrgarh Period II 5500 – 4800 BC and Mehrgarh Period III 4800 – 3500 BC were ceramic Neolithic (i.e., pottery was now in use) and later chalcolithic. Much evidence of manufacturing activity has been found and more advanced techniques were used. Glazed faience beads were produced and terracotta figurines became more detailed. Figurines of females were decorated with paint and had diverse hairstyles and ornaments. Two flexed burials were found in period II with a covering of red ochre on the body. The amount of burial goods decreased over time, becoming limited to ornaments and with more goods left with burials of females. The first button seals were produced from terracotta and bone and had geometric designs. Technologies included stone and copper drills, updraft kilns, large pit kilns and copper melting crucibles. There is further evidence of long-distance trade in period II: important as an indication of this is the discovery of several beads of lapis lazuli – originally from Badakhshan.

Mehrgarh period IV was somewhere between 2600 and 2000 BC, by which time the city seems to have been largely abandoned, and which is when the Indus Valley Civilization was in its initial stages of development. It has been surmised that the inhabitants of Mehrgarh migrated to the fertile Indus valley as the Balochistan became more arid due to climatic changes. Thus while another civilization was thriving along the Indus, the great and ancient civilization of Mehrgarh was fading fast into the history.

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