Friday, November 16, 2012

New Evidence for the Sundaland Hypothesis

Back in March, Gordon posted an article discussing, among other things, the Sundaland hypothesis. The idea is this - many cultures have stories that seem to indicate the existence of some older civilization that was swallowed up by the ocean, with Plato's tale of Atlantis being the most famous in Western folklore. New Agers have taken the idea and run with it, some imagining a mythical Atlantis complete with all the science fiction technology one could imagine that nevertheless found itself powerless to deal with widespread flooding. I will point out to anyone who finds this concept believable that much of the Netherlands is below sea level and the people who live there have been managing ocean levels for centuries, even before the existence of early industrial let alone modern technology.

Still, the essential idea of a sophisticated ancient civilization that sank into the ocean is not completely ridiculous, just the science fiction bits. At the end of the last ice age, the glaciers that covered much of Europe and the Americas melted, resulting in the ocean rising hundreds of feet in a relatively short time. Enter Sundaland, part of the area that we now call Indonesia. Today it consists of a series of disconnected island, but the seas around those islands are relatively shallow and would have been fertile dry land during the last ice age - a perfect place for a sophisticated civilization to arise. According to the Sundaland hypothesis, this civilization was the world's oldest, and when the sea levels rose its inhabitants migrated to the Indus Valley and rebuilt there. As evidence, proponents of the hypothesis have noted that in the Indus Valley it seemed that civilization came into being quickly and all at once, implying that the people who settled there may have migrated from elsewhere.

The problem with this concept, though, is that up until recently it was believed that the civilization that arose in the Middle East around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was older than the Indus Valley civilization (though not by much). The Middle East is a lot further from Sundaland than India, which would be the logical place for Sundaland refugees to settle. However, new archaeological evidence appears to show that the Indus Valley civilization is at least 2000 years older than previously thought.

The finding was announced at the “International Conference on Harappan Archaeology”, recently organised by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Chandigarh.

Based on their research, BR Mani, ASI joint director general, and KN Dikshit, former ASI joint director general, said in a presentation: “The preliminary results of the data from early sites of the Indo-Pak subcontinent suggest that the Indian civilisation emerged in the 8th millennium BC in the Ghaggar-Hakra and Baluchistan area.”

“On the basis of radio-metric dates from Bhirrana (Haryana), the cultural remains of the pre-early Harappan horizon go back to 7380 BC to 6201 BC.”

This finding gives new life to the Sundaland hypothesis, making it more plausible that the civilization of the Indus Valley might indeed have been built by the inheritors of an older ice age society - one that sank beneath the waves just like Plato's mythical Atlantis. Furthermore, a date of 7380 BCE pushes the settlement of the area nearly back to the end of the last glacial period about 10,000 years ago, meaning that the dates and times are starting to line up. Perhaps sometime soon new evidence will emerge from these archaeological digs that will demonstrate conclusively whether or not the migration from Sundaland happened as its proponents envision, and the mainstream archaeological consensus is already drifting in that direction.

Patrick recently posted an article on the silliness of the New Age Atlantis concept, and why he does not believe in it. I agree, in that the idea of a science-fiction society that arose in the ancient world but somehow left behind no high-technology artifacts or even waste products to attest to its existence is ridiculous. It may be, though, if it can be proven that Sundaland was the original basis of the Atlantis myth a lot of New Agers will feel both vindicated and disappointed - vindicated because it means the story they like to tell is at least partially true, but disappointed because it will allow us to say for certain that the real Atlanteans had no flying cars or interplanetary battle cruisers.

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Anonymous said...

Good stuff. As far as Indus Valley -> Sumer -> Rest of world diffusion goes, I'm no specialist, but the writing systems, if nothing else, don't look related at all (among, say, Indus Script, cuneiform, Phoenician, and Egyptian) except that a sort of Phoenician-in-cuneiform method developed in Ugarit.

Scott Stenwick said...

You're right that it's not clear that Sumer and the Indus Valley had much contact and they very well might have developed largely independently. I was more talking about the idea of more organized civilization in general rather than a particular culture spreading from India to the Middle East.

What's most amusing about this whole thing to me is seeing Sundaland go from the "damned archaeology" of speculative History Channel specials to real archaeology based on these latest discoveries. It just goes to show, some of the time that actually does happen.