January 31, 2013

Fundaments of curry found in Indus Valley Civilization

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
(CC by J.M. Garg)
[Updated on Feb 8th, based on details arisen in the discussion, see comments]

While modern curry is an amalgamation of many influences some of its foundations may have been used already in the South Asian Chalcolithic and Bronze Age civilization (contemporary of ancient Egypt for example), known variedly as Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) or Harappan culture. 

Key curry ingredients, namely turmeric and ginger, have now been found in pot and cow teeth remains from the impressive South Asian first civilization, suggesting that the fundamentals of modern Indian cuisine were already there some 5000 years ago.

A carbonized garlic clover was also found. Garlic is another key component of curry.

An interesting revelation is that rice grains were among the findings, indicating that the farming of this oriental cereal had already reached India by c. 2500 BCE and was popular enough to make it not just to the modern rice-farming regions of East and South India but also as far as Pakistan.

Source: Slate (via Pileta).

8 comments:

  1. "...the South Asian Chalcolithic civilization (contemporary of ancient Egypt for example), known variedly as Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) or Harappan culture."

    You shouldn't use words like, "Chalcolithic", and, "contemporary", and then take such indecent liberties with established chronologies.

    The IVC -- or Mature Harappan -- is a specific phase of Harappan culture, dating from about 2600 BCE until its rapid decline and collapse, 1800-1700 BCE. This is obviously well into the Bronze Age, not the Chalcolithic, and is only contemporary with ancient Egypt if we pretend that Egyptian civilization began with the First Intermediate period and ended with the Middle Kingdom.

    If we are more generous in defining our terms, the two cultures are still only roughly contemporary. The Neolithic began in Egypt significantly later than in South Asia and Early Harappan arises some centuries before the Early Dynastic period of the Nile Valley. But Egypt outlasted her 'contemporary' by a very long time and, while the IVC was disintegrating due to a probable environmental crisis, Egypt was about to enter what was arguably her greatest era.

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    1. I'm counting Harappan from 3300 to 1900 BCE, then come the IE cultures like Cemetery H and such. In this sense it is very parallel to Ancient Egypt, which also begun c. 3300 BCE. Also from that time are Troy, since 3000 BCE, Karanovo-Gumelnita, Elam, "post-diluvian" Sumer, etc. It is a period of expansion of civilization all around (previously it only existed in parts of West Asia, notably Sumer), eventually reaching far away places like Western Europe also (since c. 2600 BCE).

      As for Bronze I fail to find any specific dating of the first bronze item. It would seem clear that there was some quality bronze metallurgy at the end of the period but I lack that reference of when exactly IVC incorporates bronze metallurgy. By 2500 it seems they were still experimenting with lesser copper alloys like lead-copper, so it must be later.

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  2. IIRC, the first widespread appearance of Bronze in the Indus River Valley coincides with Cemetery H and it does not appear in pre-IE Harappan culture. I would concur with Maju that the Harappan culture was not a Bronze Age culture even though it thrived in a time period when some cultures to the west of it were in their Bronze Age. (It could be, however, that I am confusing the earliest not meteoric iron in the Harappan area with the earliest homemade Bronze).

    This study provides key clues regarding multiple aspects of the Harappan culture and its transition to an IE Vedic Sanskrit Hindu culture that expands to conquer much of the remainder of South Asia.

    One very notable point from the study, that Maju's brief summary omits, is that curry ingredients were found on cow teeth and that the food remains analyzed included chicken, but did not include beef (the archaeology also included Tandoori ovens). The implication (which also fits the use of cattle on Indus script seals) is that the status of the cow as sacred in Hindu culture is a Harappan substrate influence, rather than something that was transmitted with IE culture or something that was a Vedic cultural innovation that arose after IE people had appeared.

    Another notable point from the study is that the study dates the use of rice by Harappans as a secondary staple food back to 2500 BCE, one of the earliest known instances of this that coincides with the advent of the Mature Harappan phase in the Indus River Valley Civilization (although not with the earliest Neolithic IVC culture that it is in continuity with, which dates from around the same time as the Egyptian Neolithic - in each case about a thousand years after the Fertile Crescent Neolithic from which both derive). As a story (quoted in my blog post here) about the find explains:

    "[V]illagers cultivated a wide array of crops, including rice, lentils, and mung beans. Finding significant quantities of rice was a particular surprise, since the grain was long thought to have arrived only at the end of the Indus civilization. In fact, inhabitants of one village appear to have preferred rice to wheat and barley (though millet was their favorite crop)."

    Thus, the Mature Harappan phase of the IVC was a rice and curry eating, sacred cow culture, which may have supposed may have already had in place a pre-IE version of the Hindu caste system that emerged from the fusion of IE and Harappan culture with the IE conquerors simply infusing themselves into the upper caste part of this pre-existing caste structure (which probably also lacked "tribals" in the formative Harappan area).

    Given the data point regarding the presence of rice in their diet, it isn't a that much of a stretch to imagine that the addition of rice to the diet of the Harappans may even be what brought about the Mature Harappan phase, and to also imagine the Mature Harappan phase beginning at the point in time when the people who brought to the Munda languages to South Asia in a rice farming Neolithic expansion from Southeast Asia first made significant contact with the Indus River Valley civilization.

    In this scenario, the linguistic studies that have purported to see a Munda-like substrate in Vedic Sanskrit may be picking up Munda word borrowed into the Harappan language at that point (or even more radically, the Harappans could have undergone language shift to a Munda language at the time of the transition to the Mature Harappan phase).

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    1. I'm swinging on this issue, Andrew. Notice that famous "dancing girl" statue seems to be made of bronze and is attributed to c. 4500 years old [Reliability of the date? Is it a mere hunch or is C14? Is it an isolated artifact or there are more? All I can say is that I see that date repeated through Google]. So maybe it is correct that IVC was partly (but not completely) a Bronze Age culture in the full sense of the term.

      "One very notable point from the study, that Maju's brief summary omits, is that curry ingredients were found on cow teeth"...

      Really? Only "teeth" and also "pottery" were mentioned in the media I read but I have not dug in the matter because it has been popping in my feeds from many sources, so I thought it was a matter of course (after all if they found the rudiments of cheese in Poland why not the rudiments of curry in Pakistan?)

      "... the food remains analyzed included chicken, but did not include beef"...

      That makes good sense considering the Hindu (and probably IVC proto-Hindu taboo against cow meat, taboo also shared in Antiquity by Egyptians - who would go as far as not purchasing cutlery from beef-eating Greeks for fear it'd be "polluted").

      I don't think this taboo can be considered to be IE by origin (no other IE population has it) but should be either ancient Neolithic (my pick) or a Vedic innovation specific to (Greater) India.

      "Another notable point from the study is that the study dates the use of rice by Harappans as a secondary staple food back to 2500 BCE"...

      I have not even looked for the study (there were a lot of news in a short spat of time and I was sick at the same time) but it seems to be quite interesting for what you say. Can you point me to it? Is it open access? It may well be worth a better documented and well pondered entry, beyond the anecdote, after all.

      Certainly finding rice is surprising and implies that rice agriculture had somehow reached Greater India by then. I wonder which are the implications for the agriculture of Southern India often considered to be quite later than that of the IVC (because of crop incompatibility with the tropical climate, what surely does not apply to rice).

      "In this scenario, the linguistic studies that have purported to see a Munda-like substrate in Vedic Sanskrit may be picking up Munda word borrowed into the Harappan language at that point"...

      I'm not knowledgeable but what you say here may well make sense, especially if those are words related to East Asian style agriculture. Alternatively Munda may retain IVC vocabulary (by influence from the greatest civilization of the region) - I would choose this if the words cannot be traced to Eastern Austroasiatic or otherwise East Asia.

      "or even more radically, the Harappans could have undergone language shift to a Munda language at the time of the transition to the Mature Harappan phase"...

      This last sounds too radical to me, more so as I feel that there is growing evidence in favor of Dravidian (Elamo-Dravidian anyone?) as main language of IVC and in general Indian Neolithic (very especially the genetic identity between Brahui and Baloch).

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  3. My source for the curry story was here. References to some of the published or to be published articles can be found in here.

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    1. Same article as I used for reference... but apparently did not read with enough care. For example I did not realize the cow teeth detail (thinking it were human teeth instead). I promise I'll re-read and hopefully add some corrections.

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    2. I cannot access the second link however. :(

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  4. Updated finally with the issues raised here. Sorry for the delay (I've been busy).

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