Journey From the Big Bang to the Harappan and Mesopotamian Civilizations

Author: Himanshu Ranjan


A sense of identity begins with curiosity. The questions that are fundamental to human life often do not have one precise answer. Yet, the same questions such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where do I belong?”, ‘What’s my past?’ are shared by humanity. There are a large number of forces that shape the answers to such questions. What’s the history of Indian people? How has it shaped their thoughts? The answer to such questions requires a detailed account of studying history in the first place.  

Charles Darwin in his book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ states that small inherited variations that are meant to increase the competitiveness of species shaped by forces that preserve the favoured species in the struggle for life are the key to understanding the evolution of species. Common biochemistry of DNA, RNA, the same set of enzymes, and an identical genetic code in life forms suggests a common ancestor. All life forms could have evolved from single-celled organisms that came into existence some 3.8-4 billion years ago. These single-celled organisms continued to evolve into simple organisms until the event called the Cambrian explosion happened some 541 million years ago. This led to the evolution of the vertebrates such as fishes and in the subsequent millions of years led to the evolution of Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, and Birds. 

     Fishes → Amphibians → Reptiles → Mammals and Birds 

The below table illustrates the probable timeline of the cosmological and evolutionary events.

Timeline (Years ago) Event
13.8 billion yearsBig Bang
12.6 billion yearsFormation of Milky Way Galaxy
4.6 billion yearsFormation of our Solar System
4.4 billion yearsFormation of Earth’s water and atmosphere
3.8 billion years Single-celled Prokaryotes
3.5 billion yearsEarliest atmospheric oxygen
1.5 billion yearsEukaryotes, Meiosis (Reproduction)
670 million yearsWorms and Jellyfish
500 million yearsJawless conodonts
330 million yearsAmniote-Egg laying vertebrates
200 million yearsMammals with fur and warm-blood
65 million yearsExtinction of dinosaurs
55 million yearsPrimates such as lemurs
36 million years Primates such as monkeys
25 million years Primates such as apes 
4.2 million yearsAfrican Hominids (Bipedal)
2.5 million years Quaternary ice-age, earliest stone tools
2.1 million yearsHomo habilis (tool makers)
1.5 million yearsHomo erectus (upright posture, probable use of speech) 
1.2 million yearsExtinction of Australopithecus (probably due to the effects of ice-age)
1 million yearsMigration of Homo erectus from Africa to Europe and Asia
300 thousand yearsHomosapiens in Africa (wise man, fire use)
130 thousand years Neanderthals in Europe and Asia
90 thousand years First modern man (Cro-magnons)

Hominids evolved from hominoids 

Skeletons of the ape superfamily (Hominoids) 

Hominoids Hominids
Smaller brain sizeLarger brain size
Quadrupeds (Walk on four legs) Bipedal locomotion
Hands lack precision gripSpecialized hands used for tool making

Hominoids → Hominids → Hominins → Australopithecus → Homo (Erectus, Sapiens, ..)

As evolution happened, the size of the brain, weight of jaws, teeth size changed with time. 

For example, Australopithecus (the southern apes) have a smaller brain, heavier jaws, and larger teeth than the Homo. 

Australopithecus            Homo Habilis        Homo Ergaster       Homo Erectus        Homo Sapiens

There is evidence of Homo Habilis (the tool-making man) occupying the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (East African Rift Valley) some 1.9 million years ago. In 1982, a skull cap belonging to Homo Erectus (Narmada Man) was discovered in Madhya Pradesh, near Hathnora village. It was about 0.5-0.6 million years old. Although, it is contentious that the fossil may not be of homo Erectus but Homo Sapiens. Many stone tools were also discovered in Hunsgi and Kibbanahalli in Karnataka, Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu. 

Bipedal locomotion freed the hands of early ape-humans and gave them a greater field of vision to detect dangers. The freed hands can now make tools, lift objects. Also, they can now walk longer distances on the ground and would become hunter-gatherers until agriculture would bring a transformation in their lifestyle. 

African Migration and the Toba Explosion

About 74,000 years ago, a supervolcanic eruption took place near Lake Toba in Indonesia. It was so huge that it deposited a 15 cm thick ash layer almost all over South Asia. The explosion brought about a thousand-year-long cooling period in the world’s climate. As a consequence, the early-human population vastly diminished.

In Jwalapuram, Andhra Pradesh, stone tools have been found both above and below the ash layer created by the Toba eruption. It suggests that even before the Post-Toba Southern Coastal dispersal, India could have been inhabited by migrants who might have come before the catastrophic event. Recent findings at Dhaba in the Middle Son River Valley also points to the same evidence. 

However, it is widely accepted that the early humans (Homo Erectus) migrated from Africa to India along the coasts of the Red Sea, through Arabia and Persia post the Toba catastrophe which is supported by genetic evidence. The Neanderthals took the path of the Mediterranean coast (Levant) to settle in Eurasia. The changes in the climate might have had adverse effects and could have acted as one of the driving forces for the migration.  

One possible reason for the differences in the genetic and palaeoanthropological evidence could be the absence of a surviving lineage. 

Apart from the replacement model, there is another model which is known as the regional continuity model which asserts that the transformation of Homo Sapiens happened at a different pace in different regions of the world. However, the great homogeneity in the genetics of modern humans goes against this view. 

Cave Paintings

One of the oldest paintings of animals (about 40,000 years old) were found in the limestone caves of Lubang Jeriji Saleh in Indonesia’s Borneo island. In the Altamira cave in Spain paintings of bison are found that are about 20,000 years old. The Chauvet cave in France has paintings of rhinoceros that are about 30,000 years old. Such paintings are also found in Russia, Mongolia, Namibia, Australia, India, and other parts of the world.

The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka in India is a UNESCO world heritage site. It consists of seven hills and more than 750 rock shelters spread over ten kilometers situated in the state of Madhya Pradesh near the city of Bhopal. The paintings depict animals, dance, and hunting scenes that are as old as 10,000 years. From the Stone Age to Copper Age to even paintings dated to recent medieval times have been found. Cave paintings about 3,500 years old have been found in Tamil Nadu’s Kilvalai and Nehanurpatti. Paleolithic cave paintings are also found in Odisha’s Gudahandi and Yogimatha. 

     Painting on the limestone cave of Lubang Jeriji Saleh, Indonesia

End of the Last Ice Age

The Last Ice Age ended about 13,000 years ago. This led to temperatures and humidity suitable for agricultural crops. The grasslands expanded which meant fodder for the cattle, sheep, and goats. The fertile crescent region along the Mediterranean coast and the Persian Gulf in the Middle East (region drained by the Tigris-Euphrates river system) would see the rise of Mesopotamian civilization due to the evolution of farming and domestication of animals leading to a more settled life. It is also known as the Neolithic Revolution. Rivers played a major role as a source of water and irrigation and other major civilizations also originated alongside them. For example, the Ancient Egyptian civilization flourished along the river Nile, the Indus valley civilization flourished alongside the Indus river system and Ghaggar-Hakra river, the ancient Chinese civilization flourished alongside the Yellow and Yangtze river. 

A comparison of the Mesopotamian civilization with the Indus valley civilization can be made as the two civilizations were quite contemporary and had trade relations. 

Mesopotamian CivilizationIndus Valley Civilization
Region: Tigris-Euphrates river systemRegion: Indus river system and Ghaggar-Hakra river
Spread over 65000 square kilometersSpread over 1.2 million square kilometers
Population: 2,90,000 in 2500 B.C Population: Peak population of 5 million 
Time period: 4500 -1900 BCE (Sumerian)10000 BCE (Pre-Pottery Neolithic)Time period: 3300 – 1300 BCEMehrgarh: 7000-2000 BCE
Writing system: Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform (wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets) Writing system: Undeciphered Indus script
Cities: Uruk, Akkad, Assur, Babylon, Nimrud, Nineveh, PersepolisCities: Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, Ghaneriwala, Rakhigarhi, Mehrgarh, Kot Diji, Kalibangan, Lothal, Rupar, Banawali, Pabumath, Surkotada, Pathani Damb, among others.
First excavated by Paul Emile Botta in 1842First excavated by Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni in 1921
Town Planning: groups of congested blocks with parting walls made the housesTown Planning: Houses on both sides of the streets, drainage system made up of baked bricks, brick on edge platforms
Occupation: metal-smiths, potters, weavers, carpenters, and labourersOccupation: Pottery and sculptures
Ornaments: rings and banglesOrnaments: bangles and necklaces
Polytheistic religionPolytheistic religion, Worship of nature, Pashupati
Trade: food, clothing, jewelry, wine Trade: Imports: Silver and Sapphire           Exports: Ivory works, combs, pearls 
Agriculture: Wheat, Barley, Dates, Grapes, Figs, Apples, BeansAgriculture: Wheat, Barley, Peas, Lentils, Cotton, Mustard, Rice
Animals: Sheep, Goats, Cows, Oxen, Donkey, PigsAnimals: Sheep, Goats, Buffalo, Pigs, Elephant

Horse bones have been rarely found in the Indus valley civilization and evidence of horse bones is only found in Surkotada. 

Few Indus Valley Civilization sites and findings

IVC siteFindings
Amri, SindhRemains of rhinoceros
Balu, Haryana The earliest evidence of garlic.  Wheat, barley, green gram, wild rice, peas, among others.
HarappaGranaries, artifacts
Mohenjo-DaroGreat bath, Granary, Bronze Dancing Girl, Bearded man, Pashupati seal
Pabumath, GujaratUnicorn seal, beads 
RakhigarhiTerracotta wheels
Surkotada Bones of a horse
Rangpur, GujaratSeaport
ChanhudaroLipstick, only Indus site without a citadel
Kerala-no-dhoro (Padri) in GujaratSalt production center
Kunal, HaryanaCopper smelting

A timeline of Mesopotamian civilization

Time Event
7000-6000 BCEAgriculture began in the northern plains of Mesopotamia
5000 BCETemples built in Southern Mesopotamia 
3200 BCEFirst writing in Mesopotamia
3000 BCEExpansion of Uruk city, bronze tool
2700-2500 BCEEarly kings such as Gilgamesh
2600 BCECuneiform script
2400 BCEReplacement of Sumerian by Akkadian
2370 BCESargon, King of Akkad
2000 BCEThe spread of Cuneiform writing to Syria, Turkey, and Egypt. Mari and Babylon emerge as important urban centers
1800 BCEMathematical texts composed
1100 BCEAssyrian kingdom established
1000 BCEUse of iron
720-610 BCEAssyrian Empire
668-627 BCERule of Assurbanipal
331 BCEAlexander conquers Babylon
1850s Cuneiform script deciphered


  1. WHAT IS IDENTITY (AS WE NOW USE THE WORD)? James D. Fearon Department of Political Science Stanford University Stanford, CA 9430
  2. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection – Charles Darwin
  3. Last universal common ancestor
  4. Common descent
  5. Vertebrate Evolution
  6. Evolution of fish
  7. Timeline of the human condition
  8. NCERT History Books
  9. Australopithecus
  11. The loneliness of Narmada Human
  12. Toba catastrophe theory
  13. 75000-Year-Old Artifacts of Jwalapuram Demolish 11000 BC Mesopotamia Agriculture Theory!
  14. Who Were the First Humans in India
  15. Early Humans Lived in Northern India 80,000 Years Ago
  16. Human occupation of northern India spans the Toba super-eruption ~74,000 years ago
  17. Who Were the First Settlers of India
  18. Cave Paintings in India
  19. Mesopotamia and Indus Valley Civilizations
  20. Neolithic Revolution
  21. Ancient Lives: An Introduction to Archaeology and Prehistory by Brian M. Fagan
  22. Mesopotamia Relations


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here