Ruins of the Sutlej avulsion paper’s coverage

Reporting on the new Indus civilisation study out of IIT-K and Imperial College London was an interesting experience because it afforded an opportunity to discover how the technical fields of sedimentology and hydrodynamics can help understand the different ways in which a civilisation can grow. And also how “fluviodeltaic morphodynamics” just rolls off the tongue.

In my report for The Wire, however, I stuck to the science for the most part because that in itself offered a lot to discover (and because you know I’m biased). For example, how the atomic lattices of quartz and feldspar played an important part in identifying that the Sutlej river had formerly occupied the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel.

Audience response to the reports were also along expected lines:

  • a fifth read it quietly, without much fanfare, asking polite questions (without notifying the authors, however) about various claims made in the article;
  • some two-fifths went to town with it, calling the Hindutva brigade’s search for the Saraswati a lost cause; and
  • another two-fifths also went to town with it, calling out The Wire‘s attempt to ‘disparage’ the Saraswati misguided.

I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

What was not along expected lines, however, was international coverage of the study. The BBC’s and Axios‘s headline on the topic were the following (in order): River departed ‘before Indus civilisation emergence’ and Indus Valley civilization may have arisen without a river. The Axios headline is just wrong. The BBC headline is fine but its article is wrong, stating:

The Indus society came to prominence in what is now northwest India and Pakistan some 5,300 years ago thanks in large part to the sustenance of a long-lost Himalayan river.

Or so it was thought.

New evidence now indicates this great water course had actually changed its path and disappeared before the Indus people had even settled in the region.

That they lacked the resource offered by a big, actively flowing river will come as a surprise to many; the other early urban societies of the time, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, certainly benefitted in this way.

The Daily Mail had an unsurprisingly garbage headlineMysterious Indus Valley Civilisation managed to thrive without a river to provide flowing water 5,300 years ago. Newsweek‘s headline (Long-lost river discovered in the Himalayas may completely change what we know about early civilisations) and article were both sensational. Excerpt:

Scientists have found the ancient remains of the river that prove it did not exist at the same time as the Indus civilization. This means the civilization existed without a major active water source, something archaeologists did not believe was possible.

The common mistake in all these reports is that they either assume or suggest that the Indus valley civilisation was fed by one river – at least in the first half – and that the entire civilisation was centred around that river. On the contrary, the Indus valley civilisation was the largest of its time, over a million sq. km in area, and was fed by the Indus and its dozens of tributaries (only one of which was the Sutlej).

This in turn limits the extent to which claims about civilisations being able to arise without perennial sources of water can be generalised. The prominent Indus valley settlements affected by the Sutlej’s avulsion are two in number (Banawali and Kalibangan) whereas the civilisation overall hosted over 1,000 such sites and, by one estimate, almost five million people. Second: to what extent would the Indus civilisation have been possible (relative to what actually was) if all of its settlements had been fed by gentler monsoonal rivers?

So yes, the study does provide a new perspective – a new possibility, rather – on the question of what resources are necessary to form a conducive natural environment for a proto-urban human settlement. But this is not a “revolutionary” idea, as many reports would have us believe, at least because other researchers have explored it before and at most because there is little data to run with at the moment. What we do know and for sure is that the Sutlej avulsed 8,000 years ago and, about 5,000 years ago, a part of the Indus valley civilisation took root in the abandoned valley.

Further, I’m also concerned the reports might overstate what “ancient Indians” (but for some reason not “ancient Pakistanis”) could have been capable of. This is a topic that the Hindutva brigade has refurbished with alarming levels of success to imply that the world should bow down to India. Archaeological surveys of the Indus valley region could definitely do with staying away from such problems, at least as much as they can afford to, and some of the language in the sites quoted above isn’t helping.

Featured image credit: Usman.pg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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