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 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

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