The answer to the riddle of the Harappan Civilisation may lie in the remains of four people who died more than four thousand years ago.
In January and February of this year, archaeologists excavated four nearly intact skeletons from an ancient cemetery in Rakhigarhi, in Haryana. Rakhigarhi is the largest Harappan Civilisation site we know, spreading over more than 350 hectares – around four square kilometres. It has yielded skeletons before 13 of them, in a dig between 1997 and 2000 but these four have been prised out with great caution.
“We took all precautions. We used masks, etc., gowns, etc.,” Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist at Pune’s Deccan College, said. “We documented them and immediately we packed [the bones] properly in foil.”
The care is necessary. Any ancient DNA remaining upon these skeletons can easily be contaminated by modern DNA. And if it is, it won’t be useful in the DNA analysis that will be run by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad.
Analysing the DNA from ancient skeletons has yielded marvellous insights in the past. It has solved the mystery of the Roopkund skeletons and it has diagnosed thalassemia in Italian burials. Niraj Rai, a geneticist at CCMB, hopes that his team can seek clues in the Rakhigarhi DNA to determine if the Harappans were of Indo-European extraction — speaking a proto-Indo-European language — or if they were other indigenous people who were later absorbed by waves of migration from the west.
This is a fierce debate, and one that is often politically charged. An objective scientific analysis may lend weight to one theory or the other, although as Rai said, ancient Indian skeletons “are very difficult to work with.” The humidity degrades DNA in a way that cold conditions or hot, dry locations do not. “But we have hope.”
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