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How climate change destroyed one of the world's largest civilizations

Located in present-day India and Pakistan, the Harappan civilization fell victim to shifting monsoon patterns, a new study has found. 

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"Until now, speculations abounded about the links between this mysterious ancient culture and its life-giving mighty rivers," Giosan said.

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Now Giosan and his colleagues have reconstructed the landscape of the plain and rivers where this long-forgotten civilization developed. Their findings now shed light on the enigmatic fate of this culture.

"Our research provides one of the clearest examples of climate change leading to the collapse of an entire civilization," Giosan said. [How Weather Changed History]

The researchers first analyzed satellite data of the landscape influenced by the Indus and neighboring rivers. From 2003 to 2008, the researchers then collected samples of sediment from the coast of the Arabian Sea into the fertile irrigated valleys of Punjab and the northern Thar Desert to determine the origins and ages of those sediments and develop a timeline of landscape changes.

"It was challenging working in the desert — temperatures were over 110 degrees Fahrenheit all day long (43 degrees C)," Giosan recalled.

After collecting data on geological history, "we could reexamine what we know about settlements, what crops people were planting and when, and how both agriculture and settlement patterns changed," said researcher Dorian Fuller, an archaeologist with University College London. "This brought new insights into the process of eastward population shift, the change towards many more small farming communities, and the decline of cities during late Harappan times."

Some had suggested that the Harappan heartland received its waters from a large glacier-fed Himalayan river, thought by some to be the Sarasvati, a sacred river of Hindu mythology. However, the researchers found that only rivers fed by monsoon rains flowed through the region.

Previous studies suggest the Ghaggar, an intermittent river that flows only during strong monsoons, may best approximate the location of the Sarasvati. Archaeological evidence suggested the river, which dissipates into the desert along the dried course of Hakra valley, was home to intensive settlement during Harappan times.

"We think we settled a long controversy about the mythic Sarasvati River," Giosan said.

Initially, the monsoon-drenched rivers the researchers identified were prone to devastating floods. Over time, monsoons weakened, enabling agriculture and civilization to flourish along flood-fed riverbanks for nearly 2,000 years.

"The insolation — the solar energy received by the Earth from the sun — varies in cycles, which can impact monsoons," Giosan said. "In the last 10,000 years, the Northern Hemisphere had the highest insolation from 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, and since then insolation there decreased. All climate on Earth is driven by the sun, and so the monsoons were affected by the lower insolation, decreasing in force. This meant less rain got into continental regions affected by monsoons over time." [50 Amazing Facts About Earth]

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