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The prehistory of Indian food

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Indian cuisine may be more than 4500 years old, a developing branch of archaeology seems to find. Science reports:

With Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus was among the first urban civilizations, centered on today’s Pakistan and India. The Indus people built a half-dozen massive cities around 2500 B.C.E. that mostly fell into ruin after 1800 B.C.E. No Indus texts have been deciphered, however, and few images found, leaving scholars with fundamental questions about how the people lived, worked, and worshipped. But some of their traditions, including food preparation, may live on.

Plants store starch granules as food, and the microscopic leftovers can be identified by researchers. For example, anthropologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber of Washington State University, Vancouver, in Canada analyzed starch grains from human teeth from the ancient town of Farmana, west of Delhi, and found remains of cooked ginger and turmeric. They also found those ingredients inside a cooking pot. Dated to between 2500 and 2200 B.C.E., the finds are the first time either spice has been identified in the Indus.

Even bananas, not known to have been cultivated here until late medieval times, have turned up at three scattered Indus sites. A team led by Marco Madella, a Barcelona archaeologist with the Spanish National Research Council, found phytoliths of banana on grinding stones at Farmana. Phytoliths at the site of Loteshwar in Gujarat and at Kot Diji in the Indus heartland in Pakistan were also found. “I’m not confident in saying it was cultivated,” Madella says. “But clearly the Indus people were in direct contact with people to the east,” where the plant grew wild.

Indus farmers also grew a surprisingly wide array of grains and beans. Many archaeologists once thought that the society depended primarily on crops such as wheat and barley, which were planted in winter. But new data from rural villages challenge that idea. Examining two sites near today’s Masudpur, west of Delhi, University of Cambridge archaeologist Jennifer Bates compared carbonized seed and phytolith density per liter of soil near hearths to determine the relative abundance of crops by period and site. Bates found that both villages practiced summer and winter cropping, and both ate wheat, barley, millet, and rice from early Indus times, as shown by nearby pottery; she also identified lentils and mung beans. Rice has long been assumed to be only a late addition in the Indus, yet one village apparently ate more rice than wheat or barley, although millet dominated.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 22, 2012 at 5:09 am

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