Pot Residues Lift the Lid on Ancient Indus Valley Food Choices
Researchers are getting a glimpse into ancient Indus Valley food choices by analyzing residues on ceramic pots from urban and rural settlements during the Mature Harappan period (c.2600/2500–1900 BC). It is a landmark study because this is the first multi-site analysis of fats and oils on pottery from the Indus Valley civilization. The results enable us to see and compare the popularity of some of the ancient Indus Valley foods across settlements and over time.
A University of Cambridge press release on the new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science says that the pottery with ancient Indus Valley foods’ fat residues came from both rural and urban settlements that are located across the modern states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The research team was led by Dr. Akshyeta Suryanarayan, former PhD student at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge and current postdoctoral researcher at CEPAM, UMR7264-CNRS, France .
Lead author Akshyeta Suryanarayan sampling pottery for residue analysis in the field. Photo credit: Akshyeta Suryanarayan
The First Study of Its Kind
Dr. Suryanarayan said in the press release that, “This study is the first to investigate absorbed lipid residues in pottery from multiple Indus sites, including the Indus city of Rakhigarhi, as well as other Indus settlements of Farmana and Masudpur I and VII, allowing comparisons to be made across settlements and across time.”
Dr. Cameron Petrie, of the University of Cambridge and one of the lead authors in the study mentioned some of the regional similarities and differences in Indus Valley cuisine, saying that, “The products used in vessels across rural and urban Indus sites in northwest India are similar during the Mature Harappan period ( c.2600/2500-1900 BC). This suggests that even though urban and rural settlements were distinctive and people living in them used different types of material culture and pottery, they may have shared cooking practices and ways of preparing foodstuffs.”
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According to Dr. Petrie, the study results also suggest, “There is also evidence that rural settlements in northwest India exhibited a continuity in the ways they cooked or prepared foodstuff from the urban (Mature Harappan) to post-urban (Late Harappan) periods, particularly during a phase of climatic instability after 4.2 ka BP ( c.2100 BC), which suggests that daily practices continued at small rural sites over cultural and climatic changes.”
Complete vessel found during excavation at the Indus site of Lohari Ragho I, Haryana. Lipid residues on ancient pots are revealing new information on Indus Valley food choices and cooking. (Image: Cameron Petrie)
Finding the Fat Residues of Ancient Indus Valley Foods
The researchers analyzed lipid residues on the pottery to find out what plant or animal products, such as fatty acids, remained and could provide them with chemical clues about ancient Indus Valley foods. Isotopic analysis allowed them to also discern between the fatty acids left by meat and milk. The analyses showed researchers what was cooked in different pots. In the press release, Dr. Suryanarayan explained the importance of studying these materials in the region:
“The study of lipid residues involves the extraction and identification of fats and oils that have been absorbed into ancient ceramic vessels during their use in the past. Lipids are relatively less prone to degradation and have been discovered in pottery from archaeological contexts around the world. However, they have seen very limited investigation in ancient ceramics from South Asia.”
The researchers’ analyses of lipid residue on pottery from the various sites shows that there was an abundance of animal products in ancient Indus Valley cuisine. The researchers found evidence for the Indus Valley people eating the meat of pigs, cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goats, and also consuming dairy products from the ancient ceramic vessels.
Surprising Results Raise Questions About Ancient Indus Valley Food Choices
Although this seems to provide pretty clear indications of some of the Indus Valley food preferences at first glance, Dr. Suryanarayan said that there are other factors to consider:
“Our study of lipid residues in Indus pottery shows a dominance of animal products in vessels, such as the meat of non-ruminant animals like pigs, ruminant animals like cattle or buffalo and sheep or goat, as well as dairy products. However, as one of the first studies in the region there are interpretative challenges. Some of the results were quite unexpected, for example, we found a predominance of non-ruminant animal fats, even though the remains of animals like pigs are not found in large quantities in the Indus settlements. It is possible that plant products or mixtures of plant and animal products were also used in vessels, creating ambiguous results.”
Dr. Suryanarayan also cautioned that “despite the high percentages of the remains of domestic ruminant animals found at these sites, there is very limited direct evidence of the use of dairy products in vessels, including in perforated vessels that have been previously suggested to be linked to dairy processing. A recent Scientific Reports study has reported more evidence of dairy products, primarily in bowls in Gujarat. Our results suggest that there may have been regional differences.” According to the researcher, “Analysis of more vessels from different sites would help us explore these potential patterns.”
Example of contemporary hearth and clay vessel in rural Haryana, India. (Image: Akshyeta Suryanarayan)
Implications for Studying Protohistoric South Asian Food
This study can help researchers find out details beyond ancient Indus Valley food choices; it also provides clues about the resilience of rural settlements at a time when the region was becoming increasingly arid . Furthermore, the University of Cambridge press release states that the current study’s results are significant beyond India and “have major implications for broadening our understanding of the foodways of South Asia , as well as the relationship between pottery and foodstuffs.”
Dr. Suryanarayan noted that, “Our understanding of the culinary history of South Asia is still very limited but these results demonstrate that the use of lipid residues, combined with other techniques in bioarchaeology, have the potential to open exciting new avenues for understanding the relationship between the environment , foodstuffs, material culture, and ancient society in protohistoric South Asia.”
They say we just need food to survive, but we all know we eat good food to really live! The ancients knew this as well, and that sentiment was echoed across time and cultures, creating vibrant, delicious cuisines made from regional foods to sustain, nourish and nurture—foods that were sometimes good enough for the gods! Dig in to the mouth-watering and sometimes surprising foods of the ancient world, available from our store here.
The full study is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2020.105291
Top Image: The analysis of fat residues on pottery reveals clues about ancient Indus Valley food preferences. Source: sablinstanislav / Adobe Stock