Research Article: ‘Not all that burns is wood’. A social perspective on fuel exploitation and use during the Indus urban period (2600-1900 BC)

Date Published: March 7, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Carla Lancelotti, John P. Hart.


Ancient civilisations depended heavily on natural fuel resources for a wide array of activities, and this had an impact on such resources that can be traced in the archaeological record. At its urban apex, the populations of the Indus Civilisation (2600–1900 BC) produced a wide range of objects and crafts, several of which involved highly specialised pyrotechnology. In the wake of increasing aridity and a period of weakened monsoon rainfall that affected South Asia from 2100 BC, these activities potentially put pressure on the natural resource base that may have had to be counterbalanced by differentiation in fuel use. The combined analysis of archaeobotanical and geoarchaeological remains from four Indus urban phase archaeological sites, has enable an assessment of the mechanisms through which people exploited wood, and diversified their fuel resources to adapt to the arid to semi-arid environments in which they lived. The combined use of local wood species with alternative fuels, such as dung and crop-processing leftovers, are evidence for resilient socio-ecological practices during the 700 years of Indus urbanism and perhaps beyond.

Partial Text

The reconstruction of how people exploited and used fuel resources in the past is one of the tools for exploring human-environment interactions. How societies related to the available natural resources is not only a matter of climate and environmental conditions. There are numerous practical as well as social and cultural motives that compel people to burn specific fuels or apply a determined strategy of fuel exploitation [1]. This paper explores the socio-ecological behaviours that underlie the gathering and utilisation of fuel resources during the Indus urban period (2600–1900 BC) of the Indus Civilisation of northern South Asia. This period corresponds to an expansion phase when large urban centres and small rural settlements co-existed across a wide area that comprises modern Pakistan and north-west India and encompassed several ecological zones [2–5]. In the past, it has been suggested that some aspects of the Indus urban period material culture were highly uniform throughout the area occupied by Indus populations [5–7] although it is increasingly recognised that a certain degree of cultural variability existed [3]. The nature of this regional diversity is particularly evident in the analyses of subsistence practices with recent works stressing the role of ecological variability within the vast area occupied by the Indus Civilisation [e.g. 3, 8–9].

Analyses of charcoal, phytoliths and spherulites were conducted at the George Pitt-Rivers Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, University of Cambridge. All samples were collected and exported with permission from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI–for Kanmer, Shikarpur and Alamgirpur) and the Department of Archaeology, Government of Pakistan (Harappa). The details of the archaeological samples that have been analysed are presented in Table 1. All protocols and raw data used for this study are available as supplementary material.

This paper has explored the relationship between people and their environment during the Harappan period of the Indus Civilisation (2500–1900 B.C.) by analysing fuel exploitation and use strategies. Wood and other plant materials (chaff, straw, etc) played a pivotal role in all Early Civilisations as fuel for domestic and industrial uses. The continuous and extensive exploitation of fuelwood has the potential to negatively impinge on the natural environment, especially in arid countries where woodland is scarce. This is particularly true during periods of rapid urban expansion and population growth when the demand for wood resources is high. In these cases, alternative sources of fuel, such as dung or crop-processing leftovers, become vital and their widespread use, associated to specific variations in the wood assemblage, provide hints to assess the human impact on the environment.




0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments