Dental enamel reveals surprising migration patterns in ancient Indus civilizations

April 30, 2015 by Gigi Marino, University of Florida

University of Florida researchers have discovered that ancient peoples in the Indus Valley apparently did not stay put, as was previously thought. Equally surprising is how they found out: by examining 4,000-year-old teeth.

When forms, it incorporates elements from the local environment—the food one eats, the water one drinks, the dust one breathes. When the researchers looked at remains from the ancient city of Harappa, located in what is known today as the Punjab Province of Pakistan, ' early molars told a very different story than their later ones, meaning they hadn't been born in the city where they were found.

Much of what modern researchers have gleaned about our common ancestors, particularly those from Egypt and Mesopotamia, comes from well-studied tombs and burial sites. Discovering the narrative of peoples from the Greater Indus Valley—which comprises much of modern-day Pakistan and northwest India—is more challenging. The text of the Indus Valley Civilization remains undeciphered, and known and excavated burial sites are rare.

A new study, published in today's PLOS ONE, illuminates the lives of individuals buried more than 4,000 years ago in those rare grave sites by providing a novel comparison of the dental enamel and chemical analyses of the water, fauna and rocks of the time, using of lead and strontium.

In its heyday, Harappa held a population of 50,000, although the number of individuals represented by skeletal remains across the entire culture area totals in the hundreds.

The UF research team was led by Benjamin Valentine, who was finishing his doctorate in anthropology at the time (and is now a post doc at Dartmouth); biological anthropologist John Krigbaum, his dissertation adviser; and geological sciences professor George Kamenov, an isotope geologist.

"The idea of isotope analysis to determine the origin of individual migrants has been around for decades. But what people haven't been doing is looking at the different tooth types, essentially, snapshots of residents during different times of individuals' lives," said Valentine. "We didn't invent the method, but we threw the kitchen sink at it."

The researchers discovered that the people in the Harappa grave sites weren't born there, but migrated there from the hinterlands. Said Krigbaum, "Previous work had thought the represented local, middle-class people. There was no notion that outsiders were welcomed and integrated by locals within the city. It's not clear why certain young hinterland people were sent to the city

"All told, these novel methods provide windows into the life history of past people and underscore the role of interdisciplinary approaches to illuminate dynamics of human migration."

Explore further: Study: Violence, infectious disease and climate change contributed to Indus civilization collapse

More information: "Evidence for Patterns of Selective Urban Migration in the Greater Indus Valley (2600-1900 BC): A Lead and Strontium Isotope Mortuary Analysis." PLoS ONE 10(4): e0123103. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0123103

Related Stories

Team unlocks clues in unidentified human remains

April 15, 2015

Like something out of "CSI" or "Bones," researchers at Arizona State University are working to solve the mysteries of unidentified human remains - and just as on those TV shows, science plays a key role.

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Apr 30, 2015
Not only sent but stayed until they died. Implies that they were actually part of the city having been temporarily sent inland.
not rated yet May 01, 2015
"Our common ancestors" ?
Well, I'm not so sure that modern Europeans have too much in common with ancient Mesopotamians.
1 / 5 (2) May 01, 2015
what people haven't been doing is looking at the different tooth types

Most people haven't acknowledged the fact that the different tooth types are nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled. That fact is known to serious scientists, but evolutionary theorists tend to ignore it, and their pseudoscientific nonsense about mutations and natural selection has tainted works from other disciplines.

See: System-wide Rewiring Underlies Behavioral Differences in Predatory and Bacterial-Feeding Nematodes http://linkinghub...12015000

"...information flow correlates perfectly with the predatory feeding behaviour of the worm."

The predatory worms are ecologically adapted to feed on other worms because the predators have teeth.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.