What’s Cooking? Ancient Pots Reveal The Answer

Archaeologists study ancient pots in India’s Gujarat revealing cooking system of Indus Valley Civilization in the region.

Asian Scientist Magazine (Jun. 14, 2022) —Western India’s Gujarat region has been a focus of archaeological studies in South Asia for many decades —from the excavation of dinosaur fossils to the discovery of ancient tree species. The region has specifically shed light on the Indus Valley civilization, sometimes through excavated pots and vessels, which were used during the Bronze and Copper age.

In a new research, a team of archaeologists closely analyzed the leftovers in those pots, revealing that the ancient Indus civilization had quite a dynamic cooking system that relied on ingredients from a variety of sources. The researchers found that people during that time processed various non-ruminant fats, and starch belonging to beans, pulses, and underground tubers, rhizomes, and roots.

The new research is part of the Northern Gujarat Archaeological Project which is led by archaeologists P. Ajithprasad of Maharaja Sayajirao University in Gujarat, and Marco Madella of Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. Through this project, researchers have come to understand a great deal about the food that was available to ancient inhabitants in the region.

However, “very little is known about how these ingredients were transformed into meals,” Juan José García-Granero, the lead author of the study, told Asian Scientist Magazine. “So, this study aimed at filling this gap.” He is an archaeologist at the Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona.

“We attempted to gain a more holistic picture by combining the study of absorbed residues in pottery with starch-grain analyses of vessels and grinding stones,” Akshyeta Suryanarayan, co-author and archaeologist at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, told Asian Scientist.

Suryanarayan and her team looked at 28 ancient vessels. They combined starch-grain analysis and lipid residue analysis—two methods that have not been widespread in South Asian archaeology so far—to understand how different types of food were processed and consumed in the past.

They took a small piece of excavated pottery, removed its exterior surfaces, crushed the pottery into fine powder, and used various filtration techniques and solvents to extract starch and lipids. They employed tools including chromatography, and mass spectrometry that helps in identifying the types of lipid molecules. Specifically for the fats, the researchers also used isotopic analysis to distinguish whether the fats that were present in the ancient vessel belonged to ruminant animals such as goats, sheep, cattle, or other omnivores like pigs and rabbits.

During both the Copper and Bronze age in northern Gujarat, people seemed to have acquired ingredients in a variety of ways. At some sites, they discovered the presence of cereals like wheat, barley, and rye which aren’t native and thus were imported, while at others they discovered traces of bean starch and ginger.

“Study of the ancient fooding system potentially lead to a better understanding of the factors underlying culinary choices—what was eaten and how it was prepared—and allow archaeologists to look for macro-regional patterns,” said Charusmita Gadekar, an Indian archaeologist who works at the Spanish National Research Council. Gadekar was not involved in the new study.

However, Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist at the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, India, said that “this [study] is just a hint and is not enough to come to any conclusions.” Shinde who was not part of the study also cautions against oversimplifying the finding as there are thousands of sites like this with ancient people occupying different ecological zones.

“We need to expand the study on a much larger scale at this stage and this type of study should be undertaken by many scholars in different institutions,” says Shinde.

Source: Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda; Photo: Shutterstock

Saugat Bolakhe is a freelance science journalist based in Nepal. He writes about life science and the environment. When he is not reporting, he can be found hiking outdoors or humming songs.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist