The Mohenjo Daro ‘Massacre’
In the 1920s, the discovery of ancient cities at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in Pakistan gave the first clue to the existence more than 4,000 years ago of a civilization in the Indus Valley to rival those known in Egypt and Mesopotamia. These cities demonstrated an exceptional level of civic planning and amenities. The houses were furnished with brick-built bathrooms and many had toilets. Wastewater from these was led into well-built brick sewers that ran along the centre of the streets, covered with bricks or stone slabs. Cisterns and wells finely constructed of wedge-shaped bricks held public supplies of drinking water. Mohenjo Daro also boasted a Great Bath on the high mound (citadel) overlooking the residential area of the city. Built of layers of carefully fitted bricks, gypsum mortar and waterproof bitumen, this basin is generally thought to have been used for ritual purification.
However, in contrast to the well-appointed houses and clean streets, the uppermost levels at Mohenjo Daro contained squalid makeshift dwellings, a careless intermingling of residential and industrial activity and, most significantly, a series of more than 40 sprawled skeletons lying scattered in streets and houses. Paul Bahn (2002) describes the scene:
In a room with a public well in one area of the city were found the skeletons of two individuals who appeared desperately to have been using their last scraps of energy to crawl up the stair leading from the room to the street; the tumbled remains of two others lay nearby. Elsewhere in the area the ‘strangely contorted’ and incomplete remains of nine individuals were found, possibly thrown into a rough pit. In a lane between two houses in another area, another six skeletons were loosely covered with earth.
Numerous other skeletons were found within layers of rubble, ash and debris, or lying in streets in contorted positions that suggested the agonies of violent death.
A Violent Massacre
The remains of these individuals led many archaeologists at the time to conclude that these people all died by violence. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who excavated at Mohenjo Daro in 1950s, believed they were victims of a single massacre and suggested that the Indus civilization, whose demise was unexplained, had fallen to an armed invasion by Indo-Aryans, nomadic newcomers from the northwest, who are thought to have settled in India during the second millennium BC. Wheeler claimed the remains belonged to individuals who were defining the city in its final hours. He was so convincing that this theory became the accepted version of the fate of the Indus civilization.
However, many of his claims simply did not add up. There was no evidence that the skeletons belonged to ‘defenders of the city’ as no weapons were found and the skeletons contained no evidence of violent injuries. Some archaeologists suggested that the influx of Indo-Aryan people occurred after the decline of the Indus civilization while others questioned whether an Indo-Aryan invasion of the subcontinent even took place at all.
Flood and Disease
An alternative theory was put forward that the city suffered extensive flooding and that people died off as a result of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Recent investigations revealed considerable evidence of flooding at Mohenjo Daro in the form of many layers of silty clay. The Indus River was prone to change its course and through the centuries moved gradually eastward, leading periodically to flooding within the bounds of the city. Indeed, the massive brick platforms on which the city is constructed and the fortifications around parts of it seemed to have been designed to provide protection against such floods. Conditions would have been ideal for the spread of water-borne diseases, especially cholera, although cholera epidemics cannot be proved to have occurred.
The conclusion that many mainstream archaeologists now make is that the ‘massacre’ victims from Mohenjo Daro were simply the victims of the natural tragedy of fatal disease rather than that of human aggression.
Evidence of Atomic War?
There exist a growing number of ‘alternative archaeologists’ and researchers who have not settled for theories that do not satisfactorily explain the conditions of the skeletal remains and who have sought other explanations. One such individual is David Davenport, British Indian researcher, who spent 12 years studying ancient Hindu scripts and evidence at the site where the great city once stood. In his book Atomic Destruction in 2000 B.C. he reveals some startling findings: the objects found at the site appeared to be fused, glassified by a heat as high as 1500°C, followed by a sudden cooling. Within the city itself there appeared to be an ‘epicentre’ about 50 yards wide within which everything was crystallized, fused or melted, and sixty yards from the center the bricks are melted on one side indicating a blast. A. Gorbovsky in his book Riddles of Ancient History , reported the discovery of at least one human skeleton in the area with a level of radioactivity approximately 50 times greater than it should have been due to natural radiation. Davenport claimed that what was found at Mohenjo Daro corresponded exactly to what was seen at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Davenport's theory was met with intense interest from the scientific community. Professor Antonio Castellani, a space engineer in Rome said: “it's possible that what happened at Mohenjo Daro was not a natural phenomenon”.
Since there was no indication of a volcanic eruption at Mohenjo-Daro, or another disaster that could explain such features, Davenport suggested that the ancient city and its last inhabitants were obliterated by a blast from an ancient weapon, likened to an atomic bomb. The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series gave credence to the idea, and so the ancient weapon theory immediately ignited.
Proponents were quickly drawn to an alleged quotation from the Indian epic Mahabharata, published by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods , which speaks of doom and destruction:
... (it was) a single projectile
Charged with all the power of the Universe.
An incandescent column of smoke and flame
As bright as the thousand suns
Rose in all its splendor...
...it was an unknown weapon,
An iron thunderbolt,
A gigantic messenger of death,
Which reduced to ashes
The entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas.
...The corpses were so burned
As to be unrecognizable.
The hair and nails fell out;
Pottery broke without apparent cause,
And the birds turned white.
After a few hours
All foodstuffs were infected...
....to escape from this fire
The soldiers threw themselves in streams
To wash themselves and their equipment.
The description is indeed unnervingly similar to the effects of an atomic bomb explosion – an incredibly bright blast, a column of rising smoke and fire, fallout, intense shockwaves and heatwaves, and the effects of radiation poisoning.
But is everything as it seems?
Separating Fact from Fiction
A thorough keyword search through English translations of the Mahabharata reveals no such passage, and yet it appears in more than 30 books and across thousands of online articles.
Rather than being entirely fictitious, the passage is composed of a merging together of various unrelated passages scattered throughout the 200,000-verse epic, some of which are also questionable English translations of a questionable French translation of the original Sanskrit. When viewed in their original context, they are a little less convincing. For example, one passage reads:
“When the next day came, Camva actually brought forth an iron bolt through which all the individuals in the race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas became consumed into ashes. Indeed, for the destruction of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas, Camva brought forth, through that curse, a fierce iron bolt that looked like a gigantic messenger of death. The fact was duly reported to the king. In great distress of mind, the king (Ugrasena) caused that iron bolt to be reduced into fine powder.” (Mausala Parva, sec. 1)
I am sure most would agree that this cannot be taken as evidence for an ancient nuclear blast.
But what of the crystallized objects, fused together as though exposed to an intense blast of heat? This one is not so mysterious. The so-called bomb blast ‘epicenter’ is the ancient dumping ground for broken pots that were often made by vitrifying sand in high-temperature kilns.
As for the irradiated bodies, unfortunately this appears to be nothing more than a fictional account put through the rumor mill, with no original source quoted against the claims. Despite the skeletal remains being extensively studied down to finest details, not a single scientific paper reports on the discovery of radiation.
But scientific papers aside, common sense dictates that the 15-foot (4.5m) high walls that can be seen in Mohenjo Daro today, would not have survived a nuclear blast!
Explaining the Forty-Four
For the massacre theory to hold up as a valid explanation for the scattered skeletal remains of the forty-four, Dr Dales points out that we need a lot more than the odd and haphazard positioning of the remains: “Where are the burned fortresses, the arrowheads, weapons, pieces of armor, the smashed chariots and bodies of the invaders and defenders?”, he asks in his paper The Mythical Massacre at Mohenjo Daro . The answer is that despite extensive excavations at Mohenjo Daro, none were ever found.
Fortunately, science has progressed immensely since the time of the first excavations of Mohenjo Daro, and there now exist precise methods for dating human bones, as well as identifying signs of violent death, and these new methods eventually provided a nail in the coffin to Wheeler’s long-accepted theory.
In the 1980s, biological anthropologist K.A.R. Kennedy and colleagues, studied the collection of skeletal remains, and found no evidence of violent death. They concluded that the massacre theory had been incorrectly based on archaeological evidence of disorderly disposal of the dead, rather than on skeletal evidence of trauma.
Further evidence unravelling the massacre theory came in the form of more precise dating assigned to different layers of ruins at Mohenjo Daro, as well as to the skeletons themselves. Dating of the remains showed that some of the individuals had died much earlier on, in the Intermediate Period. In fact, it is believed there could be up to 1,000 years in between the time that some of the individuals died, meaning there was no single tragedy that killed the forty-four, and in fact, they may all have died very uneventful and natural deaths!
This may come as somewhat of a disappointment to those that love a dramatic story of widespread devastation from an ancient weapon of mass destruction or from an invasion of marauding barbarians, but not all the mystery surrounding Mohenjo Daro has been eliminated.
Archaeologists still remain perplexed as to why such an advanced civilization would bury their dead without any apparent funerary rituals or without even positioning them neatly in a grave. It is almost as though they were tossed in a hole and buried in whatever position they landed. This is quite in contrast to the order and attention to detail that is seen in the rest of the city, and so far, remains unexplained.
And then there is the question of where the rest of the inhabitants are? Archaeologists estimate that at its peak, Mohenjo Daro was home to some 40,000 people. So why only forty-four bodies? To date, no cemetery has ever been found in Mohenjo Daro or its surrounds. If such a site is ever found, it may offer the key to answering many of the questions that still remain about this impressive civilization.
Bahn, P. (2002). Written in Bones: How Human Remains Unlock the Secrets of the Dead. London: New Burlington Books.
Davenport, D. (1979). Atomic Destruction in 2000 B.C. Milan, Italy
Gorbovsky, A. (1966). Riddles of Ancient History . Moscow: Soviet Publishers.