New study further suggests animal meat, possibly cattle, consumed in Indus civilisation

Courtesy Akshyeta Suryanarayan
10 December, 2020

The Journal of Archaeological Science will carry a paper titled, “Lipid residues in pottery from the Indus Civilisation in northwest India,” in January 2021. The study, now available on the JAS’s website, revealed a dominance of animal products—such as meat of animals like pigs, cattle, buffalo and dairy products—used in ancient ceramic vessels from the present-day states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In an email interview to Amrita Singh, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, Akshyeta Suryanarayan, a post-doctoral researcher in France who led the study, explained how to interpret these findings. 

Amrita Singh: Could you explain the study’s findings and the process of carrying it out?
Akshyeta Suryanarayan: The study investigates absorbed lipids that are embedded in fragments of ancient pottery. Pottery that is not glazed is very porous, and the process of cooking or processing foodstuffs leads to fats, waxes and other biochemical components being absorbed into the fabric of the vessel walls. Fats and oils are quite resistant to degradation, and can survive within pottery for thousands of years (although they do transform and break down).

The technique used in the study is called lipid residue analysis. A small fragment of pottery is cleaned and then crushed, and solvents are used to extract lipids from the pottery. The extract is then analysed via Gas Chromatography [an analytical technique] and Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry [an analytical method], through which different compounds are separated and identified. After this, some of the fats within the extracts are also analysed using isotopic analysis, which helps differentiate between different types of animal meat—such as those of ruminants and non-ruminants—and dairy products.

The findings of this study are: It is the first systematic study on ceramic lipid residues from rural and urban sites of the Indus Civilisation in northwest India. Lipid residue analysis provides chemical evidence for milk products, meat and possible mixtures of products and/or plant consumption in pottery vessels. There is surprisingly very little direct evidence for dairy products, including in perforated vessels, which have been previously linked to dairy use. There is evidence for the processing of ruminant meat products, but these might be cattle or buffalo; sheep or goat; or deer. A majority of the vessels indicate the processing of the meat of non-ruminant animals, such as pigs, but the results are still ambiguous and multiple interpretations are possible, including mixtures of products or plant products. There are similarities in vessel use a cross settlements, which might suggest common regional culinary practices. There is evidence for continuity in vessel usage practices in rural settlements after the decline of urbanism and during the onset of increasing aridity in the region, indicating that everyday practices continued despite cultural and environmental changes. 

Singh: Does the study establish that people in ancient India consumed meat of cows and buffalos? 
Suryanarayan: The absorbed residues in vessels suggest evidence for the preparation of the meat of ruminant animals in vessels, and the animal bones suggest that these animals might be sheep or goat, cattle or buffalo, and or deer. It is very difficult to get to species-level identification, but yes, some vessels contained the meat of animals eating a lot of C4 plants—for example, grasses. Cattle or buffalo make up the majority of the animal bones found at Indus archaeological sites, and recent studies suggest that cattle or buffalo ate a lot of C4 plants.

There are some vessels that show evidence for dairy products, which likely came from cattle or buffaloes. This study is not new in suggesting that people in ancient South Asia consumed meat, or cattle or buffalo meat!

Many zooarchaeologists studying the Indus Civilisation have reported the presence of different types of animal bones found at Indus sites, which include cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goat, pig, wild deer and fish. Many of these bones have butchery marks on them which indicate they were used for meat. 

Singh: Does this suggest that the dietary prohibition on eating beef was not part of the Harappan cultural practices?
Suryanarayan: We do not have a clear understanding about dietary prohibitions in the Indus Civilisation as yet. We find a large number of cattle bones at Indus Civilisation sites, suggesting they were a very integral part of the agricultural and pastoral economy and were probably also consumed.

Singh: The study 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. Could you elaborate what this indicates? 
Suryanarayan: The technique used in the study enables the distinction between ruminant—that is, grass-eating—and non-ruminant—omnivorous—animals. Much to our surprise, we found that most of the vessel residues demonstrated values for the meat of non-ruminant or omnivorous animals. The only remains of omnivorous animals found at Indus sites are those of pigs, hares and birds, but in much smaller proportions than domestic ruminant animals like cattle, and sheep or goat.

What makes things more complicated is that plant products and mixtures of products produce isotopic values that are similar to non-ruminant products. Vessels may have been used repeatedly for multiple plant and animal products over time, and this can create values that are difficult to pin down to a single origin. Thus, this evidence does not fit just one interpretation—so it is important to acknowledge the uncertainty in the results.

Singh: Could you elaborate on your finding about the limited evidence for ruminant carcass and dairy products? What does this indicate?
Suryanarayan: The animal bones found at Indus sites show that cattle or buffalo are the most abundant, averaging between 50 and 60 percent of the animal bones found, with sheep or goat accounting for 10 percent of animal remains. This is why it is surprising that the study has found such limited direct evidence of dairy products in vessels, and less direct evidence for ruminant carcass products compared to those of non-ruminants. 

However, given the diversity of resources that were available to Indus populations, it is possible that vessels were used for both plant and animal products to create foodstuffs throughout their life-histories. Mixtures of products make it challenging to disentangle a single source.

Singh: The study mentioned, “… 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.” Could you elaborate these practices?
Suryanarayan: Cities in the Indus Civilisation have dominated research and investigation. Although they are, of course, important, recent research has been highlighting the distinctiveness of the rural character of the Indus Civilisation. Rural settlements produced unique pottery and grew a range of different crops, and also had connections to cities and lands further afar.

This study suggests that within the same region, the products cooked or used in vessels in villages, the town of Farmana and the city of Rakhigarhi were similar, and included a range of plant, meat and dairy products. This could indicate shared regional culinary tastes. It is not possible to know the specific details of cooking practices or recipes, though.

Singh: How does the study add on to the existing discourse on the food consumed by the Indus Civilisation in northwest India? How is it different from previous studies carried out on ancient ceramic vessels?
Suryanarayan: This is the first systematic study looking at the actual contents of vessels of multiple sites in the Indus Civilisation. Although we have a lot of previous research into plant remains or crops and animals used, this technique enables us to get a glimpse into foodstuffs, and even at secondary products like dairy, which is quite difficult to have access to in archaeology. The results confirm the diversity of products used by Indus populations.

Research into ancient ceramics is usually dominated by studying the production of pottery, not into its use. One older study on lipid residues examined a single perforated vessel from Nausharo and suggested it was used for dairy products, but this study does not find that perforated vessels were used to process dairy. A more recent study investigated vessels from a Sorath Harappan site in Gujarat and present similar results to what we have, but report more evidence of dairy products.

Singh: How do you think the Indian academic world will receive this study? What gateways does this open for lipid analysis in India?
Suryanarayan: I hope this study will open up more discussions around ancient foodways in South Asia! There is still so much to be discovered. Other archaeologists researching South Asia are already pursuing lipid residue analysis and conducting other investigations into diet through isotopic analysis of teeth and bone. Hopefully, the increased use of archaeological science techniques will open up new insights. However, one of the major challenges with this research is that organic remains do not survive very well, and this limits detailed analysis.

This interview has been edited and condensed.