The Destruction of the Buddhist site of Mes Aynak

When Buddha met Taliban (via Hadi Zaher)

Last December, the Hosni Mubarak’s government gave 2.8 square kilometers of land around lake Qarun to developers to build a tourist resort. If the resort was built, a Neolithic site would have been lost. Now, due to the revolution, that land deal has been revoked.

Archaeologists say the remains of rain-based Neolithic farming in the reserve may hold vital clues to a technological leap that led to irrigation-based farming along the Nile.
Around 4,000 BC, humans occupying a strip along the northern shore of the lake seized a window of only a few centuries of rainfall to grow grain in previously inhospitable desert, archaeologists say.
“We have the evidence of the earliest agriculture activity in Egypt. So it’s before the Pharaohs, it’s before the early dynastic period when Egypt becomes a state,” said Willeke Wendrich, an archaeology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.[Egypt’s revolution may save Neolithic treasure]

But the Buddhist monasteries of Mes Aynak in Aghanistan are not so lucky.

Mes Aynak (Little Copper Well) lies 25 miles south-east of Kabul, in a barren region. The Buddhist monasteries date from the third to the seventh centuries, and are located near the remains of ancient copper mines. It is unclear whether the monastery was originally established to serve the miners or if the monks set up there to work the mines themselves.Here, 7,000 ft up the mountains, Bin Laden set up a training camp in 1999 to prepare terrorists for the 11 September attack. All traces of the camp have gone, but the region still remains a Taliban stronghold.
During the early 2000s, widespread looting occurred at the Buddhist sites after the Kabul government found it difficult to impose control. Archaeologists are now uncovering dozens of statues with missing heads that were broken off to sell.
Mes Aynak’s fate changed again in 2007, when the government negotiated a 30-year mining concession with the state-owned China Metallurgical Group. The archaeological remains sit on the world’s second largest copper deposit. The $3bn deal represents the largest business venture in Afghanistan’s history.[Race to save Buddhist relics in former Bin Laden camp]

Now that mining the place is lucrative, you can say bye bye to the monastery next year. After all who wants that in Afghanistan now? Definitely not the Chinese and definitely not the folks who run the country. In 2001, the Taliban used  mortars, dynamite, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons to destroy Bamiyan. Now the Chinese are going to use dynamite and heavy machinery to destroy the remains of an Indic religion.
There is not much in the news about this Bamiyan type destruction. There are no screaming voices in the Guardian from international award winners who usually get upset when they hear the word mining.
If you want to know more about Mes Aynak and what the world is losing, please take a look at the ebook created by The Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology. (blog)

Revolutionary Ideas from Göbekli Tepe

(via Wikipedia)

National Geographic has an article (HT Vipul) on Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey where people constructed a huge temple complex much before the invention of agriculture. This site is now prompting historians to rethink the theories on the origins of complex societies. How were foragers, who usually follow the resources like the Nanook, able to stay at one place and move 16 ton stones without wheels or animals? Why did they even bother constructing such a massive structure? Did pilgrimage pre-date the Neolithic revolution?

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. “I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?” Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. “In 10 or 15 years,” Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”[Göbekli Tepe]

There is a new explanation for the origin of agriculture

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, “If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area.” Agriculture followed.[Göbekli Tepe]

and it is connected to religion

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.
Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.[Göbekli Tepe]

See Also: Photos from Göbekli Tepe | Video of a clay model

The Pharaoh's Ship

On Dec 29, 2009, archaeologists found the eighth in a series of lost chambers at Wadi Gawasis in Egypt. Previously seven chambers had revealed pieces of an Egyptian sea faring vessel.

Inside they found a network of larger rooms filled with dozens of nautical artifacts: limestone anchors, 80 coils of knotted rope, pottery fragments, ship timbers, and two curved cedar planks that likely are steering oars from a 70-foot-long ship. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions, the ship was dispatched to the southern Red Sea port of Punt by Queen Hatshepsut during the 15th century B.C. [Archaeologist Kathryn Bards Amazing Egyptian Digs]

This is not the oldest ship remains in Egypt; that credit goes to Khufu’s ship (2500 B.C.E), but then Khufu’s ship probably never sailed.

The ship that was found at Wadi Gawasis was sent to Punt by the female Pharoah Hatshepsut (1508 B.C.E – 1458 B.C.E). But even now no one knows where Punt it. We know that it was south of Egypt, was accessible through the Red Sea and from there Egyptians obtained an alloy of gold and silver, wood, slaves and animals like giraffe and rhino. 

The most important export of Punt was a tree resin  used to make incense. Then incense, during those times, could be obtained from Arabia, Sindh, Baluchistan, Gujarat, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. In fact among all these places, the Arabian one was considered the best. But looking at various other factors, Punt is believed to be in the Saudi/Yemen border or Eastern Sudan/Eritrea area.

The importance of incense during that period can be seen in the story of Queen Sheba who visited King Solomon. She came either from Ethopia or Yemen and bought bales of incense as gift. This is the same queen who had a Duryodhana effect and converted and whose son stole the Ark of the Covenant

Egyptians were known for their land trade, but when the King of Kush became powerful and hostile, Queen Hatshepsut had no option other than navigating the choppy waters of the Red Sea. The design of her ship can be seen in the frescoes of her tomb and based on that archaeologists and ship builders made an exact replica which was the subject of the new PBS documentary Building the Pharoah’s ship. This ship,  made of wood, tied with rope and sealed with beeswax, performed well. It was able to survive a small storm as well.

But then sailing across the open ocean was quite common by that period. A millennia before Hatshepsut, Sargon of Akkad boasted about the ships of Magan, Dilmun and Meluhha lying in his harbor. To prove that ancient ships could do such long distance travel Thor Heyerdahl made a 60 foot reed ship called the Tigris and sailed from the Tigris delta to the Indus delta and returned back to Djibouti. It was in such ships that Queen Puabi got her carnelian beads, Gudea got his wood and the Meluhhans arived to settle in Guabba.

UCLA 9A: The Dark Skinned Dasas

In the lecture on Vedas, as part of the  Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India course at UCLA, the instructor makes few points about the Vedic period which again shows that mostly outdated information or incomplete information is still being taught (Lecture of 10/2/2009). 

When he talks about the Vedic gods — Agni, Varuna, Indra, Ushas — he notes that they are connected to the elements. This, he explains, is not surprising since the Aryans were pastoralists concerned about the whims of nature. Though it looks convincing, the shallowness of this observation can be understood only by reading better books on that period.

The Aryans did not just have a childlike wonder towards the natural forces; they also had a philosophy behind it. The Rg Vedic gods did not just keep order in the physical universe. They also kept moral order[1]. In the Mantras, there are expressions like ‘guardians of rta’ and ‘practicers of rta’. For example Varuna is not just the god of sky and heavenly light, but also the one who fixed the laws of the physical universe which cannot be violated. It is said that no sin escapes his attention[2].

The instructor mentions another point in his confusing Aryan invasion narrative: He says that the Rg Veda notes that

  1. the incoming people attacked forts and citadels
  2. subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas.

An analysis of this statement shows there is a Grand Canyon wide gap between what we know now and what the instructor is teaching.

The theory of the forts and citadels comes from the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. When he saw thirty seven skeletons in Mohejo-daro, Indra stood accused for he was purandara or the ‘fort destroyer’. Later Western archaeologists themselves noted that there was not a single bit of evidence to suggest an armed invasion of Harappa; none of the skeletons were in the area of the citadels. Also to add more nails to this coffin, it was found that the skeletons were from a period after the abandonment of the city and only one skeleton had a lesion caused by a weapon[3].

This nasal debate was started by Max Müller in 1854 based on a solitary reference to the word anasah.He thought this word meant noseless or snub nosed. In 1891, in the eyes of British ethnographer Herbert Hope Risley, this solitary reference became frequent references. By 1967 some Western scholars thought that the word probably meant faceless instead of noseless. Nevertheless they decided to go with Max Müller[3].

A proper response was given by Sri Aurobindo. He noted that the word anasah does not mean noseless. Even if it did mean noseless, he said it could not be a reference to the Dravidian nose which was as good as any Aryan nose. Another possibility is that the noseless description could refer to the tribal people. In fact there is an equivalent word in the language of the Bhil tribe. But the word in Bhil tribe means unethical not noseless[3].

Indian scholars meanwhile read anasah as an-asa meaning devoid of fair speech.This makes sense because the words Arya, Dasa and Dasyu appear mostly with reference to hymns about Indra. The Aryans worshipped Indra while the Dasas or Dasyus were without rites, of different rites, non-sacrificers, without prayers, without Brahmin priests, and without Indra. This word appears in a passage where Dasyus are also described as having defective organs of speech; maybe they were referring to the Dasyus as uncivilized or uncultured[3]

Thus you see two groups of people who disagreed on rituals, but there is nothing to suggest a racial divide. Since the UCLA instructor is a proponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, there is one version of which suggests that the Dasas were Indo-Europeans who arrived earlier than the Vedic people.

What about the dark skin? This comes from two words — krishna and asikini — which mean black. These words are used to refer to black clouds, black demons, the power of darkness and a demon named Krishna.

According to one Western scholar the krishna is a symbolic expression for darkness. According to Prof. Michael Witzel, for Vedic poets black meant evil and not skin color. In 1999 Hock reexamined all these passages and concluded that this skin color was just a mechanism to justify European imperialism; Ambedkar had made that conclusion much earlier.

For more than a century Indian scholars have challenged this racial interpretation. For more than half a century Western scholars have agreed with this. Still in 2009, Max Müller’s 19th century racial interpretation is being taught. 


  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).
  2. M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass Pub, 2000).
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate(Oxford University Press, USA, 2004). 

UCLA 9A: The Gangetic Plain

If you listen to Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India, a course taught at UCLA and which has Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India as mandatory reading, you will get a good introduction to the Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory. Unlike Matthew Herbst or Tara Carter of the MMW courses at UCSD, the UCLA instructor teaches in a very confusing manner and hence it is hard to figure out if he is touting the Aryan Invasion Theory or the Aryan Migration Theory or if he knows the difference between the two. In one part he mentions Aryans arriving on their horses in 2000 B.C.E and subduing the snub-nosed Dasas and later mentions the migration of Aryans.
This is at a time when even Marxist historians have written off the AIT. According to Romila Thapar:

There is virtually no evidence of the invasion and the conquest of northwestern India by a dominant culture coming from across the border. Most sites register a gradual change of archaeological cultures. Where there is evidence of destruction and burning it could as easily have been a local activity and is not indicative of a large-scale invasion. The borderlands of the northwest were in communication with Iran and Central Asia even before the Harappa culture with evidence of the passage of goods and ideas across the region. This situation continued into later times and if seen in this light when the intermittent arrival of groups of Indo-European speakers in the northwest, perhaps as pastoralists or farmers or itinerant traders, would pose little problem. It is equally possible that in some cases local languages became Indo-Europeanized through contact.[From Aryan Invasions to Aryan Migrations]

But this post is not about AIT or AMT or OIT. It is about the developments in the Gangetic plain.  According to the instructor, incoming Aryans hit the Harappans like a cue ball on a pool table dispersing Harappans to places like South India and the Gangetic plain. According to him, it is around this time we see civilized living in the Gangetic plain.
Our understanding of that region has changed a lot in the last decade. Archaeology at Jhusi, near the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, has revealed evidence of a Neolithic settlement dating to the 7th-6th millennium B.C.E[2]. This is the time frame associated with the Mehrgarh culture in Baluchistan, considered to be the predecessor of the Harappan civilization.
The people of Jhusi, who lived in grassy land with occasional trees, bamboo groves and lakes,  had pottery, arrowheads, and semi-precious stone beads.  They built houses with bamboo walls smeared with mud plaster[1].  The people of Jhusi had domesticated plants and animals and they spent their time farming, herding and foraging[2].
We now know what the people of Jhusi cultivated: they had rice, barley, bread-wheat, dwarf-wheat, lentil, green-gram, grass-pea, field-pea, horse-gram, sesame, linseed, anwala among other crops.  Among these rice and sesame were summer crops; the rest, winter. The important point is that rice was cultivated in India as far back as the 7-6th millenia B.C.E[2].
Another surprising find is grape cultivation. Susruta and Charaka knew about grapes, but they never mentioned the cultivation; the mention of grape cultivation comes after the Muslim invasion. Even though the Sanchi stupas depict the grape-vine, it was attributed to Hellenistic influence. But now we know that grape was cultivated in Jhusi since the Neolithic times[2].
What is more fascinating is that there was cultural contact between the people of North-West region of the Indian subcontinent and Jhusi: There is evidence of rice in Kunal, Haryana dating to 3000 – 2500 B.C.E and Swat in 2970 – 2920 B.C.E. and various winter crops from moving from Baluchistan  into Jhusi. All this is before the migration of Harappans to the Gangetic plain. Also with this find, we see a cultural continuity in Jhusi which starts in the Mesolithic period, continues through the Neolithic and Chalcolithic age to modern times[2].
When will this information make it to UCLA’s History of India course?
References & Notes:

  1. Lallanji Gopal et al., History of agriculture in India, up to c. 1200 A.D. (Concept Publishing Company, 2008). 
  2. J. Anil K. Pokharia, JN Pal and Alka Srivastava, Plant macro-remains from Neolithic Jhusi in Ganga Plain: evidence for grain-based agricultureCURRENT SCIENCE 97, no. 4 (2009): 564-572.
  3. Image via Wikipedia

Archaeology Magazine's Top 10

The Archaeology Magazine has published a list of the top 10 discoveries of 2009 and as usual there is nothing from India. But atleast it does not have vampires and pirate relics as major stories. Among the stories two are interesting: the domesticated horses of Botai and the palace of Palace of Mithradates in Kuban, Russia.

Horses were domesticated for the first time sometime between 3700 and 3100 B.C.E in Kazakhstan. The fact that horse is not native to India and was domesticated elsewhere has a profound impact on ancient Indian history. The spread of Indo-European around the world, the arrival of Indo-Aryans in North-West India and the composition of Rg Veda has always been tied to the arrival of horse riding people, though the history is much more complicated.

Mithridates VI who ruled the kingdom of Pontus from 119 to 63 B.C.E, was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, but he troubled Rome to no end. Between 89 B.C.E and 63 B.C.E, three Mithridatic wars were fought between Roman legions and Mithridates VI. He feared death by poisoning and hence poisoned himself in small doses to develop immunity. He developed his knowledge by reading Indian texts, among others. More details at The Poisons of Mithridates.

The Harappan Volumetric System

One of the functions of ancient scribes was to record economic activity, which would mean keeping count of various trade items; for example, 5 cows, 17 bangles. Hence one of the obvious things to look for in Indus seals are signs which represent numbers.
According to one study based on statistical analysis, “U” is the symbol for 5. The number 6 was written either as “UI” or with six vertical strokes; ten was “UU”. What is interesting is that in Nagari, the sign for 5 is “U” with a tail added to it; “U” in Brahmi denotes pa, the first syllable of panca[1]. The fish symbol, it is proposed, represents a higher number – 10 – and the trident sign, a multiplicative higher number[2].
That was a decade back. Now, based on an analysis of inscriptions on bas-relief tablets, incised tablet texts, and ceramics (pic), there are new proposals.

… indicating that the sign ‘V’ stood for a measure, a long linear stroke equalled 10, two long strokes stood for 20 and a short stroke represented one, according to Bryan Wells, who has been researching the Indus script for more than 20 years.Dr. Wells has proposed that “these sign sequences [sign ‘V’ plus numerals] are various values in the Indus volumetric system. The bas-relief tablets might have been used as ration chits or a form of pseudo-money with the repetitive use of ‘V’ paired with ||, |||, |||| relating to various values in the Indus volumetric system. The larger the ceramic vessel, the more strokes it has. This postulation can be tested by detailed measurements of whole ceramic vessels with clear inscriptions.” [Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

So what is the basic measure here represented by “V” ?

When he measured their volumes, Dr. Wells found that the pot with three long strokes had an estimated volume of 27.30 litres, the vessel with six long strokes 55.56 litres and the one with seven 65.89 litres. Thus, the calculated value of one long stroke was 9.24 or approximately 10 litres.[Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

This means that “V” stands for a specific volume and  one though n long strokes are used to specify the exact values. The most common combinations are VII, VIII and VIIII making it a three tiered system, like the Tall, Grande and Venti at Starbucks. One theory is that this was a measure of grain paid as wages from the granary.
Besides this volumetric system, there is a unit of counting as well. When one long stroke is combined with seven short strokes, it represents 17 (10 + 7) as in 17 bangles. There is a rake sign which is read as 100 and a double rake as 200. Another important point is that, this system is used only in Harappa; bas-relief tablets are common in Harappa than other locations.
Since there are clues that some Indus seals were used in economic activity —  seals found in Lothal warehouse had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse  — this find that the tablets were used as ration chits or pseudo-money is not surprising. It would be interesting if this discovery is a key which can unlock other secrets held in the seals and tablets.

  1. Subhash C. Kak, “A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  2. Subhash C. Kak, “INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.

Deforestation in India: 73,000 years back

(Image from Journey of Man)

A new study reveals that the volcanic eruption of Mt. Toba in Sumatra, 74,000 years back, deforested Central India.

The volcano ejected an estimated 800 cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere, leaving a crater (now the world’s largest volcanic lake) that is 100 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. Ash from the event has been found in India, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.
The bright ash reflected sunlight off the landscape, and volcanic sulfur aerosols impeded solar radiation for six years, initiating an “Instant Ice Age” that — according to evidence in ice cores taken in Greenland — lasted about 1,800 years. [Supervolcano Eruption In Sumatra Deforested India 73,000 Years Ago]

Temperature dropped by 16 degrees; there was an Ice Age; there was population reduction among the earliest arrivals in India from Africa. The deforestation in turn caused a behavior change in human beings.
But did it exterminate Indians or the entire humanity? According to a paper published two years back, we know that few people of Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh survived. Stone blades and other tools  as well red ochre used in cave paintings were found both above and below the ash layer indicating that whoever lived at that time survived and there was technological continuity. Following Mt. Toba the Indian subcontinent was repopulated again by new migrants from the North-West as well as from the North East.
See Also: Environmental Impact of the 73 ka Toba Super-eruption in South Asia

The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 2

(Ziggurat at Ur)

Read Part 1
Even though direct trade declined, a large number of foreigners stayed back, adopted local customs, and played an important role in Sumerian economy. These foreigners stayed in a village — a Meluhhan village — from 2062 B.C.E; we have documents from this period. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba which had the temple of Nin-mar[5]. The Meluhhan village in Guabba and was associated with this temple.
Guabba was probably a harbor town under the jurisdiction of the Girsu/Lagas but by the time of Ur III, it was not near the sea,  but could only be reached by inland waterways.A large number of granaries existed in Guabba where the temple was located. The granaries had to deliver barley and the Meluhhan village granary was one of them[10][11].
Thanks to the meticulous record keeping by the Sumerians we get a good picture of what these Meluhhans did. In 2062 B.C.E, a scribe of the builders received barley from the Meluhhan village. In 2057 B.C.E, there is account of grain delivery, the details of which is mentioned against a tablet of one Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha; the inventory of barley deposits in 2047 B.C.E mentions the quantity from the Meluhhan village. By 2046 B.C.E, there is a debt note:Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha has to recompense some wool. In 2045 B.C.E, the list of grain rations mentions the son of Meluhha, who was the serf of the Nanse temple from the delta[10][11].
During the Akkadian times, the Meluhhans were considered as foreigners, but by Ur III period they became part of society – paying tax and distributing grain — like other Sumerian villages. Compared to other towns and villages, the amount of grain delivered by the Meluhhan village was quite high. Between 1981-1973 BC, Ur was ruled by Amar-Sin and between 1972-1964 BC by his brother Shu-Sin. During the sixth year of the former and eighth year of the latter, barley was delivered only by the Meluhhan granary. Maybe the Meluhhan granaries were bigger or there was a third millennium jaziya[11].
Besides the granary, few people of Guabba — 4272 women and 1800 children — worked in the weaving sector. The Indus region was famous for cotton since 4000 B.C.E: one of the earliest evidence for exports from the subcontinent is Baluchistan cotton which was found in Jordan. So probably the residents of Guabba were skilled weavers from the Indus region[11].
Besides weavers, the village also had shepherds; the Ur III texts also mention a Meluhhan goat. The temple of Ninmar had two gardens out of which one was Meluhhan. This was probably a garden planted with fruit trees from Meluhha and provided fruits for the goddess. Also by the Ur III period, the Meluhhans had adopted Sumerian names. It seems the overseer of the Nanshe temple was a Meluhhan and there was a Meluhhan worker in the temple. Thus instead of following their religious traditions, the Meluhhans adopted the Sumerian ones[11].
Even though we have a better idea of the Meluhhans in Mesopotamia, these texts don’t help us in identifying Meluhha; We don’t know how far it was from Ur. Also no where in the texts the Meluhhans are mentioned in being in touch with their homeland. There is a mention of a Meluhhan skipper, but he was involved in domestic trade.
The Language Turner

(Cuneiform letter to King of Lagash)

Few years back, Gregory L. Possehl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, was reading Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, when he discovered a reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia. Possehl tracked down a photograph of the seal as well as got a fresh impression from the original seal (pic). The seal was dated from Late Akkadian (2200 – 2113 B.C.E) to Ur III (2113–2004 B.C.E)[3].
Think about this: Around 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages.
This suggests that there is probably a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever. We will know if the Indus people were literate or illiterate, spoke some variant of Indo-Aryan or proto-Dravidian or Klingon. This find could end the dispute over the indentity of the Harappans.
While no bi-lingual seal has been found so far, various Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. G.R. Hunter, who in 1934 concluded that Brahmi was derived from Indus script, observed that square Indus seals could be in Indus language while the circular ones, though in Indus script, could be encoding a non-Indus language. He has a reason for suggesting this: there is one particular circular Mesopotamian seal which has five Indus signs in a sequence not seen before; a square seal found in Kish was similar to the Indus ones[10].
That has not helped in decipherment. The number of Indus seals found in Mesopotamia are not too many. About thirty seals have been found of which only ten can be dated with certanity. With trade relations lasting centuries this is a disappointing count. So our hope of finding a bi-lingual tablet depends on finding a Sumerian cuneiform tablet.
Another clue could come from the translations of Ur III texts. Mesopotamians were prolific writers: We know what Sargon of Akkad wrote; we can read the seal of Queen Puabi; there are numerous texts which describe in detail how much tax was paid, debt was kept and who broke whose tooth. Due to this meticulous record keeping we can reconstruct the history of people from the Indian subcontinent in Mesopotamia during the period when Khufu was building the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The news about the Meluhhan village came in a paper published in 1977 based on ten Ur III texts from Lagash/Girsu[10]. Last year there was another update based on the translations of 44 texts which has 48 references to Meluhha. The text which connects the Meluhhan village with Guabba is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and was first published in 1912; no one noticed the connection till recently. Hopefully with revived interest in this topic, scholars will keep an eye for such clues which will help us solve this puzzle.

  1. The place Ur is important in the Abrahamic religions since it is  the birth place of Abraham. According to tradition Abraham lived from 1812 B.C.E to 1637 B.C.E. Since there is evidence for the granary delivering grain between 1981-1973 B.C.E and also between 1972-1964 B.C.E, it is possible that Meluhhans were around during Abraham’s time as well. That is if Abraham is a real historical character. According to Bible’s Buried Secrets — a historical analysis of the Hebrew Bible — the Babylonians exiled the Caananites in 586 B.C.E. It was while living in Babylon, near Ur, that a scribe, named “P” created the Abraham story to enforce the concept of the covenant.
  2. Many thanks to Hari and Ranjith P for their help in this research.
  3. Images from Wikipedia.


  1. Iraq’s ancient past at University of Pennysylvania
  2. The Middle Asian Interaction Sphere by Gregory L. Possehl
  3. Shu-ilishu’s Cylinder Seal by Gregory L. Possehl
  4. Dionisius A. Agius, Classic ships of Islam(BRILL, 2008).
  5. Charles Keith Maisels, The emergence of civilization (Taylor & Francis, 1990).
  6. Hammurabi (King of Babylonia.), (University of Chicago Press, 1904).
  7. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  8. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  9. Michael Roaf, The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (Facts on File, 1990).
  10. Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165.
  11. P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.