The 2,800-year-old settlement would make Vadnagar the oldest city in India

India's rich and complex history just got a new chapter as a human settlement dating back 2,800 years was discovered in Vadnagar, Gujarat, the birthplace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This find, made in collaboration between the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Physical Research Laboratory, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Deccan College, marks a turning point in our understanding of India's ancient history. The results of this research, published in the journal Qincluding scientific reviewsemphasize the interplay between climate change and the cultural dynamics that have shaped India since the Iron Age.

Cultural layers that reveal a rich history in India

Archaeological excavations in Vadnagar have revealed a historical panorama through seven different cultural layers. Each layer illustrates a key era ranging from the Mauryan era to British colonization, including Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, Hindu-Solancan, Islamic and Gaekwadi-British periods.

The Maurya era, led by the Maurya dynasty, revolutionized ancient India with a centralized administration and an extensive empire. During this period, infrastructure, trade and culture developed under the leadership of kings such as Ashoka the Great. British colonization introduced a new administrative system and social reforms in India that profoundly changed the traditional structure. It also introduced modern technologies and infrastructure that transformed India's economy and urban landscape.

These layers reveal a rich history and reflect the continuous development of society in different historical periods. Within these layers, the discovery of one of India's oldest Buddhist monasteries is particularly noteworthy. This relic illustrates the role of Vadnagar as a crossroads of various traditions and faiths. This discovery sheds new light on the complex and layered history of the region. It reveals a rich and diverse social and cultural fabric that has survived and evolved over the millennia.

Abhijit Ambekar, ASI archaeologist and co-author, adds: “ We found distinctive archaeological objects, pottery, items made of copper, gold, silver and iron, and intricately designed bracelets. We also found coin molds of Greek king Appoldatus during the Indo-Greek rule in Vadnagar “.

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Remarkable cultural continuity throughout Indian history

The revelation that Vadnagar may date back to 1400 BCE. Dating back to the 1st century BC, its existence is attributed to the late phase of the Indus civilization. The latter flourished between 2600 and 1900 BC. BC and was well advanced in the areas of urban planning, crafts and trade. Its cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had sophisticated drainage systems and buildings organized in a grid plan. However, at the end of this period there was a decline in urban trade. There was a marked decline in sophisticated craftsmanship and a simplification of cultural and administrative practices. This period is often referred to as the “Dark Ages”.

However, the results suggest that this is more of a myth. Cultures have existed in the region continuously for 5,500 years without complete annihilation. This perspective reveals a resilient and adaptable society. It can maintain its cultural cohesion despite political and environmental changes. This continuity over more than 5,500 years thus formed the basis of contemporary Indian cultural identity.

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Climate Change and the Rise of Kingdoms in Ancient India

The authors reveal a close connection between climate fluctuations and the fate of the civilizations that succeeded each other in Vadnagar. Droughts in particular appear to have been crucial moments. They triggered major political and social changes. These harsh climatic conditions likely posed a challenge to agricultural systems and water management infrastructure. Resources became scarce, leading to internal tensions and population movements. There were even conflicts over control of fertile land and water sources.

As a result, droughts may have weakened existing kingdoms and left them vulnerable to invasion. They then facilitated the emergence of new powers. In addition, Central Asian warriors also faced dry climatic conditions in their own regions. They were often pushed to invade more fertile areas such as India. Due to its strategic location, Vadnagar witnessed several such invasions. These invasions often coincided with periods of favorable climate in India, during which strong monsoons favored agriculture. These recurring invasions influenced India's political and cultural history. Over the centuries, environmental factors have shaped not only socioeconomic development but also geopolitical movements.

A continuously inhabited walled city in India

Vadnagar attains the status of the oldest and continuously inhabited walled city in India. It is a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, particularly when it comes to particularly efficient water management. This is essential in a region subject to extreme climatic fluctuations. Excavations have uncovered sophisticated hydraulic systems such as wells, reservoirs and canals. They demonstrate an advanced understanding of hydraulic engineering.

These infrastructures ensured a regular water supply. The city was able to thrive during periods of drought, attracting diverse populations and encouraging further urban development. Archaeological remains of water storage and irrigation systems illustrate this successful adaptation to a changing environment. Vadnagar is a remarkable example of urban sustainability over millennia and is crucial to the study of ancient urban planning and the resilience of civilizations.

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Source: A. Sarkar et al., “Climate, human settlement and migration in South Asia from early history to the Middle Ages: evidence from new archaeological excavations in Vadnagar, western India“, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 324, January 15, 2024, 108470