Science & Tech

Lost underwater 'city' discovered in India could rewrite the history of civilisation

Lost underwater 'city' discovered in India could rewrite the history of civilisation
Archeologists Discover Underwater City With Stone Roads Dating Back Thousands of Years
ZMG - Amaze Lab / VideoElephant

The vestiges of what many believe to be a lost, ancient civilisation have been discovered off the coast of western India.

What has been described as a vast city, stretching more than five miles (8km) long and two miles (3km) wide, was discovered 36 metres (120 feet) underwater in the Gulf of Khambhat (previously known as the Gulf of Cambay).

The most exciting part of the discovery, which was made by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) back in December 2000, is that it could rewrite human history as we know it.

However, more than two decades since the landmark find, experts are still at loggerheads over the age and significance of the archaeological site, which has come to be known as the Gulf of Khambhat Cultural Complex (GKCC).

The city-like structures were uncovered by NIOT by chance as they performed routine pollution surveys in the region.

Using sonar technology, the team identified huge geometrical structures deep down on the seafloor.

Debris recovered from the site included pottery, beads, sculptures, sections of walls and human bones and teeth, with carbon dating finding these to be nearly 9,500 years old, BBC News reported at the time.

Announcing the discovery on 19 May 2001, India’s then science and technology minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, said that the ruins belonged to an ancient civilisation.

He said this would have been even older than the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilisation (also known as the Harappan) – the hitherto earliest known urban culture of the Indian subcontinent and one of the world’s three earliest civilisations, along with Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.

In other words, this discovery looked set to have massive repercussions on our view of the ancient world.

The Indus Valley civilisation flourished in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent between c.7000 and c.600 BCE.(Andrzej Nowojewski via World History Encyclopedia)

Badrinaryan Badrinaryan, who was chief geologist for NIOT’s scientific team at the time, wrote in a piece for Archaeology Online: “For decades archaeologists have argued about the origins of the mysterious ‘Harappan’ (Indus Valley) civilisation that flourished across what is now Pakistan and northwest India from about 3000 BC.

“Now, [our new findings] suggest that the Harappans were descended from an advanced mother culture that flourished at the end of the last Ice Age that was then submerged by rising sea levels before ‘history’ began.”

He went on: “It was generally believed that a well-organised civilisation could not have existed prior to 5500 [before the present day]. Many were reluctant to accept that the flood myths mentioned in many ancient religious writings held some grains of truth.”

However, he insisted, that the discovery made by his colleagues and him “clearly established the existence of an ancient civilisation that was submerged in the sea.”

And yet, he said, “conservative archaeologists found it hard to accept” that modern scientific techniques had succeeded in making such a major discovery.

“Initially, when the sidescan sonar images of underwater structures were shown, some called it a magic of computer software,” Badrinaryan recalled.

“When hundreds of artefacts were collected and shown, they opined that the ancient river could have transported it!”

Stressing the rigour of his team’s work, he continued: “Detailed scientific studies were undertaken to prove that the artefacts are in situ.

“The criticism has driven us to adopt the most modern technologies and scientific methodologies available in the world, which have completely substantiated our findings, and the results have been published as research papers in reputed international journals.“

Sidescan sonar can produce incredibly high-resolution images of objects on the sea floor(lcocean)

And indeed, other experts have validated at least some of the conclusions drawn.

Speaking to Frontlinein 2002, Indian civil servant and the country’s leading expert on the ancient Indus script, Iravatham Mahadevan, acknowledged that the sonar photos revealed structures that were most likely built by men.

“First, there are a series of squares which [Badrinaryan and his fellow scientists] interpret as a settlement in a grid pattern,” he said.

“I am not an archaeologist, much less an underwater archaeologist,” he conceded, but still: “It is very difficult to imagine a series of square plinth areas, with grid-like structures, running for several kilometres, occurring in nature.”

And, he continued: “Again, there is a long rectangular structure with something similar to steps leading downward, which is clearly man-made.”

And yet, when it comes to many of the artefacts, including precious stones, Mahadevan and others agree that these could have “washed in” from elsewhere.

Perhaps the most contentious piece of “evidence” takes the form of a single piece of wood.

This wood was carbon dated to an age of 9,500 years – which many experts used to establish the age of the entire site.

And yet, another Indus specialist – Akso Parpola of the University of Helsinki – pointed out that key questions needed to be asked here.

In a separate interview with Frontline, he said: “First, can the age of the wood found under the sea be correlated to the antiquity of the site?

“Secondly, is this one piece of evidence enough to conclude the antiquity of the site?

“Thirdly, is the underwater site a secure context to gauge the antiquity of the site?”

He then asked: “Can radio carbon dating (that is used in this case) and thermoluminescence (that is to be used for pottery found at the site) give reliable dating for ancient periods?”

He then conceded: “I have seen some interesting materials that seem to occur only in this place; not in the surrounding areas. But the problem with this site is that there is very heavy tidal influence and the sands are shifting all the time.

“So when we find flat objects here it seems to me perfectly possible that this flattening is done by sand activity - erosion by the sand.

“Even the holes that we found in the stones got from this area may not be due to human drilling. A flat object could have been stuck on a stone and started rolling around because of water activity (currents). So, these holes may have occurred naturally."

Author Graham Hancock said the discovery implied we'd have to totally rethink the origins of civilisation(Netflix)

And yet, despite the scepticism of the likes of Parpola and Mahadevan, many enthusiasts have jumped on the discovery with great excitement.

Controversial film-maker Graham Hancock insisted to BBC News that the evidence was compelling:

"The [oceanographers] found that they were dealing with two large blocks of apparently man made structures,” he said.

"Cities on this scale are not known in the archaeological record until roughly 4,500 years ago when the first big cities begin to appear in Mesopotamia.

"Nothing else on the scale of the underwater cities of Cambay is known. The first cities of the historical period are as far away from these cities as we are today from the pyramids of Egypt.”

This, he stressed, could cause massive disruption to our current historical timelines.

"There's a huge chronological problem in this discovery,” he said. “It means that the whole model of the origins of civilisation with which archaeologists have been working will have to be remade from scratch.”

Nevertheless, archaeologist Justin Morris from the British Museum said much more work was needed before the site could be categorically classified as belonging to a 9,000-year-old community.

"Culturally speaking, in that part of the world there were no civilisations prior to about 2,500 BC. What's happening before then mainly consisted of small, village settlements," he also told BBC News.

Morris also pointed out that the C14 carbon dating process used to establish the age of many of the site’s artefacts is not without its fallibility.

Still, 23 years after the discovery was made, a firm conclusion has yet to be reached.

This is partly because exploring the site is very difficult owing to its location in highly treacherous waters, with strong currents and rip tides.

And yet, Joshi and others have insisted that the truth must be established.

"We have to find out what happened then,” he said. “Where and how this civilisation vanished.”

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