Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Disease and Healing in the Indus Civilisation

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, England

Cover of Disease and Healing in the Indus Civilisation by Robert Arnott

The Indus (Harappan) civilisation was one of the three contemporaneous ancient civilisations, the others being the Egyptian and Mesopotamian. First excavated by the British in the 1920s, it existed from 3300–1300 BC, extending from the south in Gujarat to northwest India and Pakistan across the Indus and the now often dried up Ghaggar-Hakra rivers. Settlements included the city of Harappa and the Mohenjo-daro areas, extensively excavated during the last century.

Professor Robert Arnott, a distinguished archaeologist and medical historian, has done field studies in that region and has produced a book describing our current knowledge of this civilisation. The book synthesises the original field studies done by scholars, archaeologists, palaeontologists, and medical historians over the last century.

The opening chapters describe the early civilisations and population of the pre-urban, mature urban, and late post-urban Harrapan periods. Field researchers have found both urban and rural settlements, as depicted in seals and tablets. They described early sanitation, farming, the development of crafts, early trade, and a peaceful existence with little evidence of conflicts or wars. Little is known about the organisation of early leadership or religion, but there possibly may have been fertility goddess worship.

Information about the health of the population comes from studies of skeletal remains. Malnutrition was common, as were infectious diseases, tuberculosis, and leprosy. The diet consisted of meat, cereals, pulses, and dried fruits. Women were of short stature, malnourished, and often died young in childbirth. Dysentery would have been common in urban areas.

Sickle cell disease and malaria were also present. There is little skeletal evidence of neoplastic diseases. The life span of humans would have been low. There is skeletal evidence of various different types of trauma, and treatment would have been primitive. There seems to have been little surgical practice other than trepanation of the skull. In urban areas dentists would have extracted teeth and carried out drilling. Dental health was poor, caries and abscesses being commonplace. Research from Mohenjo-daro reveals baths, early sanitation, and a good freshwater supply system.

A wide range of occupational conditions were present, including anthrax in wool workers, byssinosis in cotton workers, skin disease in metal workers, chronic arsenic poisoning in smelters, and accidental injuries in miners.

Medical treatments were limited. Healing and religion and cults were all intertwined. Medical drugs were scarce, limited to plants such as neem, pipal, henna, poppies for opium, and hemp. Cumin and coriander were also used. Apart from trepanation, little surgery was done, but rudimentary surgical instruments from copper or bronze were possibly used.

The monograph is well written and illustrated, with tables and figures. The subject has been extensively researched, as evidenced by the comprehensive reference list and footnotes. The book is attractively presented, a delight to read, and is a serious and scholarly tome. The author has made an outstanding contribution to knowledge of this ancient civilisation.

Disease and Healing in the Indus Civilisation
Robert Arnott, Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2024
ISBN 9781803277387

DR. ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

Spring 2024



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