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Protein and Lipid analysis of Ancient Ceramics in South Asia

Protein and Lipid analysis of Ancient Ceramics in South Asia
South Asia has a rich and varied culinary past, with evidence of the domestication of a range of plants and animals in the Neolithic period as well as the adoption of new crops and animals throughout prehistory and history. Techniques in...

Research Aims
PLACeS aims to directly study ancient foodstuff cooked, stored or served in pottery vessels from South Asia’s Bronze Age civilisation (c. 3000-1300 B.C): the Indus Civilisation in Sindh, Pakistan. The specific research aims of the project are: 

  • To use exploratory proteomic analysis and lipid residue analysis 1,2,3 of ceramic vessels to identify proteins, fats and oils absorbed during the use of the ceramic vessels.
  • To characterise the nature and variation of dietary practices at key Indus Civilisation sites in Sindh, Pakistan.
  • To investigate long-term dietary practices over periods of cultural and environmental change, such as the 4.2k climatic event.

The project will be based at the Culture and Socio-Ecological Dynamics (CaSEs) research group and Proteomics Unit, Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona with the secondment institution the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, University of Ljubljana, and Jozef Stefan Institute (IJS), Slovenia. An external secondment at CEPAM (Cultures et Environnements, Préhistoire, Antiquité, Moyen Âge), UMR7264-CNRS, Université Nice Côte d'Azur, Nice will also take place.

The study of proteins from pottery at the Proteomic Unit, UPF, together with the archaeobotanical work and research environment at the CaSEs group, and the ceramic lipid analysis conducted at the secondment institutions will reveal novel insights into the archaeology of food. These can offer further understandings of sustainable agricultural practices in semi-arid lands that could be inspirational for policy-makers in present-day South Asia.
Relevance and added-value of proposed research The Indus Civilisation, South Asia’s first urban civilisation, extended across nearly a million
km 2 of modern Pakistan and northwest India, and spanned varied landscapes made up of arid, semi- arid and temperate climate zones, which were watered by winter and summer rainfall systems 4 . Complex processes led to the development of small-scale farming societies in the pre-urban period (late fourth-early third millennium BC), which eventually gave rise to urban settlements 4 . During the urban period (c.2600/2500-1900 BC), five large
Indus cities flourished, as well a large number of towns and villages. Urbanism led to increased specialisation, resource-intensive craft production, the creation of public monuments and infrastructure, and long-distance exchange systems 4 .The process of urbanisation in the Indus Civilisation occurred within the context of increasing monsoon weakening which culminated in a specifically abrupt arid phase in 4.2 ka BP or c.2150 BC and lasting several centuries 4,5 . This climatic ‘event’ coincided with the decline of the civilisation, such as the abandonment of settlements and dramatic changes in the scale and extent of exchange systems 5,6 . Although our understanding of how increasing aridity affected human populations is unclear, it is likely they were faced with decreasing water availability for crops and animals, unpredictable rainfall and/or extreme events, which may have affected food production and availability 7.

Evolution of foodways during development of urbanism PLACeS will investigate lipids and, for the first time, proteins, in ceramics from different
Indus settlements dating to the pre-urban and urban periods in Sindh, Pakistan. Out of the five Indus cities that developed, Mohenjo-daro, located in Sindh, was the largest. However, smaller settlements in the region have not been investigated in detail. PLACeS will fill this lacuna by investigating smaller sites in Sindh that were occupied over the pre-urban and urban periods. This study will provide a long-term perspective into the evolution of foodways
during the development of urbanism in the region, as well as a comparison of foodways between different settlements in diverse geological and climatic settings.
Relationship between environment, food habits, and material culture Investigating food archaeologically provides a lens to investigate the relationship between humans and the environment, plants, and animals, as well as gain insight into socio-political relationships. Food habits are intricately connected to the environment. The chosen sites are located in unique environmental zones in Sindh, such as the main Indus river plains; at the edge of the Thar desert; and near the Kirthar mountain range, enabling an examination into the relationship between the environment and different subsistence strategies adopted by Indus populations. This approach will also allow for a nuanced understanding of the changes or continuity of foodways in the face of environmental change in specific environmental contexts.
Regional foodways and vessel-usage During urbanism, Indus agriculture was dominated by the exploitation of particular domestic (zebu cattle, goat, sheep, water buffalo) and wild (e.g. fish) animals, and a range of winter and summer crops 7,8 . Two broad cropping zones are usually differentiated, with the predominant use of winter crops (wheat, barley, pea, lentil, chick-pea) in the core Indus plain, and the predominant use of summer crops (millet, rice, tropical pulses) in others areas, though it is also likely that crops were used in mixed ways where possible 8 . Although our knowledge of the animals and plants being exploited is increasing, we still know little about how this evidence relates to Indus diet. 

Previous research has investigated lipid residue in pottery vessels from the Indus Civilisation in northwest India 9 , located nearly 1,000 km away from the current proposed study region in Pakistan. The study revealed direct chemical evidence for the preparation of a range of meat, dairy and possible mixtures of plant and animal products in Indus vessels.
Surprisingly, there was little evidence for processing of dairy products in the vessels.
Similarly, lipid residues in pottery from Indus settlements in Gujarat 10 , western India indicated the use of ruminant and omnivorous meat products and possible mixtures of plant and animal products in different types of vessels across a wide time period. Interestingly, dairy products were not identified in any of the vessels, but in a different study 11 , they were detected in a small rural settlement within the same region. This suggests that regional/ local
variations in food practices within the civilisation are important to investigate.
Knowledge of foodways and vessel usage in the core region of the Indus Civilisation is however still lacking. PLACeS is therefore timely as it will be able to reveal new insight into regional or site-specific culinary practices that were previously unknown. Furthermore, many of the sites that will be part of the current proposal are under threat of destruction, making this study even more critical. The development of specialised agricultural or pastoral
practices during urbanism, such as dairying, will be core to this investigation. The results will also allow a comparison of foodways and vessel usage of different domains of the Indus Civilisation.


(1) Evershed, 2008, Archaeometry 50, 6; (2) Regert, 2011, Mass
Spectrom. Rev. 30, 2; (3) Hendy, Colonese, et al., 2018, Nat. Commun. 9, 1;
(4) Wright, 2010, The ancient Indus: Urbanism, economy, and society; (5)
Staubwasser, Sirocko, et al., 2003, Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, 8; (6) Dixit, Hodell,
et al., 2014, Geology 42, 4; (7) Madella & Fuller, 2006, Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 11;
(8) Petrie & Bates, 2017, J. World Prehist 30, 2; (9) Suryanarayan, Cubas, et al.,
2021, J. Arch Sci, 125; (10) García-Granero, Suryanarayan, A. et al., Front.
Ecol. Evol. 10; Chakraborty, Slater, et al., 2020, Nature: Sci. Rep. 10.

Principal researchers

Marco Madella
Akshyeta Suryanarayan


EUTOPIA-SIF Science and Innovation Fellowship (2021-2023) This programme has received co-funding from the European Union’s Horizon
2020 research and innovation Maria Slodwska-Cutie Actions, under grant agreement number 945380.