"We considered that it is high time for a team of interdisciplinary scientists to contribute to the debate about the enigmatic fate of these people," added Giosan.
The research was conducted between 2003 and 2008 in Pakistan, from the coast of the Arabian Sea into the fertile irrigated valleys of Punjab and the northern Thar Desert. The international team included scientists from the U.S., U.K., Pakistan, India, and Romania with specialties in geology, geomorphology, archaeology, and mathematics. By combining satellite photos and topographic data collected by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), the researchers prepared and analyzed digital maps of landforms constructed by the Indus and neighboring rivers, which were then probed in the field by drilling, coring, and even manually-dug trenches. Collected samples were used to determine the sediments' origins, whether brought in and shaped by rivers or wind, and their age, in order to develop a chronology of landscape changes.
From the new research, a compelling picture of 10,000 years of changing landscapes emerges. Before the plain was massively settled, the wild and forceful Indus and its tributaries flowing from the Himalaya cut valleys into their own deposits and left high "interfluvial" stretches of land between them. In the east, reliable monsoon rains sustained perennial rivers that crisscrossed the desert leaving behind their sedimentary deposits across a broad region.
Among the most striking features the researchers identified is a mounded plain, 10 to 20 meters high, over 100 kilometers wide, and running almost 1000 kilometers along the Indus, they call the "Indus mega-ridge," built by the river as it purged itself of sediment along its lower course.
"At this scale, nothing similar has ever been described in the geomorphological literature," said Giosan. "The mega-ridge is a surprising indicator of the stability of Indus plain landscape over the last four millennia. Remains of Harappan settlements still lie at the surface of the ridge, rather than being buried underground."Mapped on top of the vast Indo-Gangetic Plain, the archaeological and geological data shows instead that settlements bloomed along the Indus from the coast to the hills fronting the Himalayas, as weakened monsoons and reduced run-off from the mountains tamed the wild Indus and its Himalayan tributaries enough to enable agriculture along their banks.
Archaeological evidence supports the Ghaggar-Hakra as the location of intensive settlement during Harappan times. The geological evidence—sediments, topography— shows that rivers were indeed sizable and highly active in this region, but most likely due to strong monsoons. There is no evidence of wide incised valleys like along the Indus and its tributaries and there is no cut-through, incised connections to either of the two nearby Himalayan-fed rivers of Sutlej and Yamuna. The new research argues that these crucial differences prove that the Sarasvati (Ghaggar-Hakra) was not Himalayan-fed, but a perennial monsoon-supported watercourse, and that aridification reduced it to short seasonal flows.
By 3900 years ago, their rivers drying, the Harappans had an escape route to the east toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable.
"We can envision that this eastern shift involved a change to more localized forms of economy: smaller communities supported by local rain-fed farming and dwindling streams," said Fuller. "This may have produced smaller surpluses, and would not have supported large cities, but would have been reliable."Such a system was not favorable for the Indus civilization, which had been built on bumper crop surpluses along the Indus and the Ghaggar-Hakra rivers in the earlier wetter era. This dispersal of population meant that there was no longer a concentration of workforce to support urbanism. "Thus cities collapsed, but smaller agricultural communities were sustainable and flourished. Many of the urban arts, such as writing, faded away, but agriculture continued and actually diversified," said Fuller.
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