University of Tasmania
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Feeding the herds: Stable isotope analysis of animal diet and its implication for understanding social organisation in the Indus Civilisation, Northwest India

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-20, 17:39 authored by Lightfoot, E, Penelope JonesPenelope Jones, Joglekar, PP, Tames-Demauras, M, Smith, E, Muschinski, J, Shinde, V, Singh, RN, Jones, MK, O'Connell, TC, Petrie, CA

The way that people manage their livestock tells us about their interactions with the landscape, particularly the nature of adaptation to specific environments, social organisation, resilience and long-term farming sustainability. Globally, there is considerable variation in how these practices are manifested, due to differences in water availability, levels of environmental diversity and aridity, and also the nature of cultural choices. South Asia's Indus Civilisation (c.3000–1500 BCE) provides an important opportunity for investigating how populations managed their animals, because the region shows considerable diversity in rainfall distribution, seasonality and intensity, which results in marked environmental variability that is susceptible to change over time. The latter is particularly significant when it comes to consideration of the impact of the 4.2 ka BP event and its relation to the deurbanisation of the Indus Civilisation.

This paper presents carbon isotope data from animal teeth from nine archaeological sites distributed across northwest India that are suitable for exploring how diverse practices were, and how animal management strategies changed through time. These data show clear differentiation in feeding practices between species, with cattle and water buffalo consuming very high proportions of C4 plants, while sheep and goat ate varying quantities of C3 and C4 plants. This pattern is generally consistent across sites and throughout different periods, suggesting that the strategy was adapted to a range of environmental conditions and settlements of different sizes. We suggest that humans controlled cow and water buffalo diets, and they were likely provided with fodder. In contrast, sheep and goats had a less controlled diet, and were presumably more likely to roam the landscape. These animal management strategies must have involved some separation of tasks, although it remains unclear if this was on a household, settlement or population level.


Publication title

Archaeological Research in Asia



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Menzies Institute for Medical Research


Elsevier BV

Place of publication


Rights statement

Copyright 2020 The Authors. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Repository Status

  • Open

Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding Asia’s past; Climate change adaptation measures (excl. ecosystem)