Sunday, January 21, 2018

5700 Year High Resolution Record Of Indian Monsoon From Uttarakhand Cave Deposit

..continuing on the topic of environmental changes and Harappan Civilization. Gayatri Kathayat and colleagues have teased out an intra-decadal record of variability of Indian monsoons from a cave deposit in Uttarakhand.  This they did by measuring the O18/O16 ratio in the mineral calcite (CaCO3) which grew incrementally to form a speleothem. The lighter isotope of oxygen is preferentially retained in the vapour phase. Less and more amounts of rainfall thus results in less or more amounts of O16 in rain and groundwater and eventually in the mineral calcite that precipitates from that groundwater. This is known as the amount effect. A chronology of speleothem growth was established using thorium 230 dating method.

The record for the past 5700 years is summarized in this figure. The time period of the growth and consolidation of urban Harappan society coincides with a period of accentuated monsoons.


Gayatri Kathayat et. al. 2017: The Indian monsoon variability and civilization changes in the Indian subcontinent

Here is their conclusion:

The hydroclimate conditions during the evolution and subsequent decline of the IVC have remained a subject of debate (for example, 9, 14–19). On the basis of the Sahiya d18Orecord, the Early and Mature Phases occurred during a fairly wet/warm and climatically stable period. The Mature Phase began around an abrupt intensification of the ISM at ~4550 yr BP (Fig. 3) and sustained for nearly ~700 years to ~3850 yr BP, corresponding with the late portion of the mid-Holocene Climate Optimum, during which the ISM reached its maximum over the past 5700 years. It is plausible that the optimum (warm/wet) climate might have allowed the civilization to develop a farming system with large and reliant agricultural surpluses, which in turn supports the development of cities.

Previous studies have attributed societal collapses in the Middle East and in the Indus Valley to a climate event, the so-called “4.2 ka BP event” (or ca. ~4.2–3.9 ka BP event) (15–21, 42–45). The 4.2 ka BP event in the Sahiya d18O record manifests as an interval of declining ISM strength, marked by a relatively higher-amplitude d18O variability and a slow speleothem growth rate, rather than as a singular prominent abrupt event (Fig. 2). A lack of an abrupt change in our record around the time is consistentwith the idea that the 4.2 ka event did not influence the Deurbanization Phase (14) in contrast to the more severe societal impact it had on the Old Kingdom in Egypt and the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia (42–45). 

Some commentators have already pointed out that this sample is well removed from the Harappan realm and we need to understand regional variation in monsoons before drawing any firm link between monsoon variability and Harappan civilization phases. In that context, let me put up another figure from a study of the Kotla Dahar lake sediments from Haryana. This site falls within the Harappan region. Yama Dixit and colleagues measured oxgyen isotopes of carbonate lake sediment as well as from gastropod (snail) shells. Take a look at the figure below.


Source: Yama Dixit et.al. 2014: Abrupt weakening of the summer monsoon in northwest India ~4100 yr ago

The variation in oxygen isotope ratios is due to variation in intensity of evaporation. Greater evaporation during dry phases results in the lake water getting enriched in the heavier isotope (the lighter isotope goes into the vapor phase more readily). Sediment and shells precipitated from this water will therefore get enriched in the heavier isotope during dry phases. Their sampling is coarser than the Sahiya study. But, if you look at the time period from around 5000 BP to around 3800 BP, there is no clear persistent trend towards monsoon intensification (should show up as a centuries long shift towards more negative dO18 values since evaporation will be less during wet phases). A fine resolution local record is needed to fill in the details and explain this apparent contradiction.

Finally, I came across a talk by archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar on environmental changes, river history and the Harappan Civilization. She does not like the theory that climate change was responsible for the decline of the Harappan Civilization. Instead, she prefers a social sciences approach, arguing that factors like the over-extension of empire and social dynamics need to be taken into account. Well, I am not sure that these are mutually exclusive. Civilizations may be in a phase of political and social cohesiveness whereby they could prove resilient against environmental changes. In times where their capacity for collective action is weak for internal reasons of polity and demography, exogenous factors like climate change may trigger disruption and decline.

She spends a lot of time criticizing a study by Liviu Giosan and colleagues on the fluvial history of that region. That paper showed that during Harappan times there were no glacial rivers flowing in the region between Yamuna and the Indus. Ratnagar points out that there might have been tributaries of the Yamuna and overspill of the Sutlej that may have provided water to the channel of the Ghaggar river and so there was no severe water shortage. But Giosan's work has not claimed that! They too point out that higher rainfall in the Siwaliks would have kept the Ghaggar perennial through most of the urban Harappan phase. They find that sedimentation continued through the late Harappan phase as well. The study suggests that continued monsoon decline and drying resulted in migration away from the Ghaggar-Hakra belt. However, they don't argue for a direct link between abrupt climate change and civilization decline across the entire Harappan extent. Anyways, the talk is worth listening too, especially her analysis of the wonderful water management strategies at the Harappan age site of Dholavira in Kutch, Gujarat.

Here is the link to the video

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Note On The Sutlej Paleochannels

The topographic relief rendition posted below shows beautifully the incised valleys of the glacially sourced Yamuna and Sutlej rivers. This rendition has been derived from the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTMv3) DEM (Digital Elevation Model) with a 1 arc-second or 30m spatial resolution. The region depicted in the figure is immediately west of the Himalaya frontal ranges covering parts of Punjab and Haryana.


Source: Ajit Singh et. al. 2017 - Counter-intuitive influence of Himalayan river morphodynamics on Indus Civilisation urban settlements.

This incision began during the early Holocene, beginning about 10,000 to 8700 years ago and continuing over the next few thousand years, as proposed in an earlier study by Liviu Giosan and colleagues. A decline in monsoon strength over northwest India resulted in low sediment load carried by the rivers. Under such conditions, starved of sediment, the river starts cutting down or incising into its older deposits. Over time they carve out large valleys as the Yamuna and Sutlej have.

During the mid Holocene, from about 6000 years to 3800 years ago, the region between the Yamuna and the Indus was extensively settled and farmed by the Harappan people. The river Ghaggar flows through this region. One popular theory supported by many geologists was that during Harappan times the river Sutlej flowed into the river Ghaggar, switching to its present course only about 4000 years ago. However, Giosan and colleagues had argued that had that been the case, a large incised valley should have been carved by the Sutlej from the point it exits the Himalaya to the point it joins the Ghaggar. The absence of a wide NE-SW oriented incised valley in the interfluve between the Yamuna and the Indus indicates that the Sutlej did not flow into the Ghaggar during most of the Holocene.

 A recent study led by geologist Sanjeev Gupta (Ajit Singh et. al. 2017)  has validated this scenario using geochemical criteria. They have shown that the Sutlej river once did flow into the Ghaggar but changed course and joined the Indus in the late Pleistocene -early Holocene between 15000- 12,000 years and 8000 years ago. Additional data from Giosan and colleagues shows (SI Text) fluvial deposits of Late Pleistocene-Early Holocene age (latest being 10,000 years old) along the present day Sutlej floodplain. These staggered dates imply that a major channel of the Sutlej avulsed or changed course as early as 15000 to 12000 years ago. A smaller strand of the river continued to flow into the Ghaggar until about 8000 years ago or so.

All this means that the Harappan settlements and agriculture in this region was not sustained by a large perennial glacial fed river. Rather, the Harappans adapted their water usage strategy and farming practices to exploit a smaller and maybe an ephemeral river and more distributed water sources.

The geochemical  work by Gupta and colleagues has been rightly praised and highlighted in many media reports. What did go unnoticed and unappreciated was the relief rendition of the incised channels. They provide a very powerful visual representation of the Holocene fluvial history of this region.

The modified relief rendition below also shows the course of the abandoned Sutlej incised valley. Note that this valley is much narrower than the Sutlej and Yamuna incised valleys. Also, trace these narrower incised valleys upstream and you can see that they originate in the Siwaliks. There are no deep extensive incised valleys along the route I have marked in blue. The Sutlej would have carved a prominent incised valley roughly along the blue route had it been flowing into the Ghaggar during most of the early and mid Holocene. Its absence suggests to me that the valley annotated as the abandoned Sutlej incised valley was really carved out in the earlier part of the Holocene by the smaller Ghaggar river originating in the Siwaliks.


Modified from :  Ajit Singh et. al. 2017 - Counter-intuitive influence of Himalayan river morphodynamics on Indus Civilisation urban settlements

Aside: After Liviu Giosan's paper came out, the archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar asked me whether incised valleys are diagnostic of glacial rivers. She was puzzled because the monsoonal rivers Marakand, Ghaggar and a number of smaller streams which originate in the Siwaliks have also carved incised valleys. The answer is no, they are not. What Giosan's work was pointing out was that wide incised valleys of a particular telltale orientation were absent, thus providing a clue as to when the Sutlej changed its course.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Geology Excursion To Tamhini Ghat And Korlai - India West Coast

On December 16 and 17, I took part in an excursion to the village of Korlai. This place is about 150 km west of Pune. The trip was organized by Deep Dive India, a venture started by my cousin Shirish Kher. The idea is to offer participants an immersive experience into one or two specialized fields.  On offer for this trip was geology and archaeology. I was the designated geology expert. The accompanying archaeologist was Sachin Joshi, a researcher from Deccan College Pune.

It was a lot of fun!

The group was mostly made up of working professionals with an interest in nature. Many of them came to know of this trip from my Twitter feed.  We drove westwards along the Deccan Plateau. Then, we descended the Western Ghat escarpment along Tamhini Ghat.  On this section, we made several stops to survey the landforms and to examine lava flows. I also gave the  group an introduction to Deccan Volcanism. After crossing the coastal plain we ended up at the village of Korlai, where there was more geology on offer.

We stayed in a home stay in the village of Chaul, a few kilometers away from Korlai.

The next day, Sachin Joshi gave us a fascinating walk-through the Portuguese forts at Korlai and Revdanda. These two villages are on opposite banks of the Kundalika estuary. It is quite a beautiful location. The forts were established by the Portuguese in the 1520's,  a couple of decades after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and established trading contacts with rulers and merchants of the Indian west coast.

The satellite image below shows the backwaters of  Mulshi and Varasgaon dams on the edge of the plateau, Tamhini Ghat, the coastal plain and the locations of Korlai and Revdanda villages. The sinuous N-S trending white dotted line seen along the Tamhini Ghat just west of the backwaters is the Western Ghat escarpment.


..and here are more pictures from our trip.

I gave a brief preview of the trip and explained the physiography of our traverse which took us along the Deccan Plateau, down the escarpment and to the coast along a broad coastal plain.


Along the way at Tamhini Ghat, I stopped to point out a lava flow contact. You can see pipe vesicles at the base of the upper flow.


 In Tamhini Ghat, unrolling a satellite imagery, I explained the landforms and structure of the Western Ghat escarpment to geology enthusiasts young and younger!


 At Korlai coast the group is looking down at a dike.


I demonstrated the use of a Brunton compass at this dike.


And here is a view of some of the many dikes intruding the basalts along the west coast.


The rampart and walls of Korlai fort along the rocky coast. You can see a cannon protruding through an opening in the wall.


The group standing on the surface of a lava flow showing columnar jointing. You can make out the polygonal shape of basalt blocks.


Korlai village fishing fleet moored in a back bay with the open Arabian Sea to the right. View from top of Korlai fort.


A beautiful view of Revdanda Fort, built on a sand bar, with waves crashing on to the walls and ramparts.


A watchtower in Revdanda Fort


An entrance with icons of a saint and official markings carved on stone.


 Through a broken wall of Revdanda Fort, a view of the Kunadalika estuary. Korlai Fort is on the stretch of land seen on the opposite side of the river.


The group enjoying themselves, exploring the fractured basalts of the west coast.


A picturesque home in Revdanda village.


This was the first time I had taken a group out on an organized trip like this. I was a bit nervous to begin with. But the atmosphere was informal and the participants enthusiastic and curious. That led to many long and enjoyable discussions on geology and archaeology.

We will be doing a repeat trip along the same route in late January... more pics then.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Lamarckism Continues To Cast A Shadow Over The Archaeological Survey Of India

A friend mentioned that she was planning to visit the famous rock shelters at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh. These sandstone caves are famous for rock art and stone tools ranging in age from Paleolithic to more recent times. The site is looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

I remembered my own trip there over three years ago. Diving into my picture collection I  came up with this gem. This plaque was in front of a cave where Paleolithic stone tools had been found. It describes the grand story of human evolution.


Underlined in yellow is the explanation for the evolution of our dexterous hands. I am not highlighting the language but the very Lamarckian-sounding mechanism. If the claim is that hands capable of making sophisticated tools evolved just by continuous handling of stone, then this is evolution occurring through inheritance of acquired characteristics. Just like a blacksmith passing on his musculature to his children. This is not a viable mechanism of evolution. Physiological changes acquired due to a life experience are not passed on to progeny. Our gametes are sequestered from our somatic cells. I strongly suspect that a lot of people still conflate inheritance of acquired characters with natural selection.

The very first sentence "Millions of  years after Ramapithecus the species Australopethecus and its subspecies came into existence" is confusing too.  As is another plaque which shows the classic linear march of hominin evolution from a more primitive looking ape to modern humans. In it, Ramapithecus appears to be an early ancestor of humans.


Australopithecus (genus, not species), did appear millions of years after Ramapithecus, but there is no ancestor-descendant relationship between the two. Ramapithecus was initially identified as a Miocene ape and a possible ancestor of humans. Its range was the Himalaya foothills, leading to some excitement that the human family roots can be traced to the Indian subcontinent. More fossil finds have changed this early interpretation. Ramapithecus is not even considered a valid taxon anymore. The fossils named Ramapithecus are now subsumed under the genus Sivapithecus. This latter genus includes a great variety of Asian ape species. The lineage is more closely related to the ancestors of the Orangutan and not to living African apes and the hominin family.

This is just a poor show by the ASI. They need to urgently upgrade the information they are providing the public.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Remotely India: Structural Control On Drainage

 Remotely India #10

Check out this amazing example of fracture controlled stream flow. Follow blue arrows.


The stream originates on the steep west facing slopes of Tamhini Ghat (west of Pune) and flows a north westerly course in a NW-SE trending fracture, then makes an abrupt left turn and flows south west into a NE-SW trending fracture. It then exhibits a number of right angle turns. Finally, it turns sharply and flows north along a N-S trending fracture before joining the larger Kundalika river near Mhasewadi.

This area comprising the edge of the Deccan Volcanic Plateau and the coastal plain has been shattered by several fracture systems which formed due to tensile forces affecting the western margin of India during and post Deccan volcanism.


Take some time looking at this image above. You will see scores of small streams flowing along fractures and making sharp turns at fracture intersections. The geomorphology of this part of the Deccan Volcanic Province is a joy to explore.