Vanished Rivers

One of the truisms in geology or environmental history or physical geography is that the river is going to win. Water will win. Erosion wears away mountains faster than they can rise (with a few notable exceptions at least in the current moment). But rivers can and do disappear from time to time, sometimes with a little help from humans, sometimes all on their own. Why is often intriguing.

Climate change and tectonic change are two of the major reasons rivers disappear, never to return. Geographers and geologists have found evidence of numerous rivers in what is now the Sahara Desert in Africa, streams that existed in a far wetter, cooler world with less evaporation and different storm tracks.

See the northwestern most stream? It no longer exists. 17,000 years ago it flowed.

See the northwestern most stream? It no longer exists. 17,000 years ago it flowed.

As flow weakened and the dunes became more active, both caused by increasing aridity, dunes buried some rivers, leaving traces on the surface and groundwater in a few hidden locations.

These may have flowed as recently as 10,000 years ago.

These may have flowed as recently as 10,000 years ago.

Far more important to living cultures is the Sarasvati, or Saraswati River, mentioned in the Rigveda and other very, very early South Asian writings. Hindu tradition maintains that the river continues to flow in spirit and is a powerful source of blessing and a place of pilgrimage where it joins the still-flowing Ganges. For a long time the Sarasvati and another river were thought to be poetic, like the four rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden were considered to be. But the use of remote sensing, some ground checks, and the discovery of a number of Harappan villages where no river flows today revealed the location of the original, water-filled Sarasvati.

The Punjab (Five Rivers) once had seven.

The Punjab (Five Rivers) once had seven.

Teal line is the Sarasvati.

Teal line is the Sarasvati.

So what happened? At the end of Vedic time, around  AD 500 CE or so, the Himalaya and associated ranges rose enough to shift the flow of the waters. Also, climatic changes probably didn’t help as storm tracks shifted north for a time. The villages that had been along the river faded away, as did memories of the stream’s physical location. It was not until the British began poking around in the region in the 1880s and 1890s reported a river too small for its current bed, and proposed that a far larger stream had once flowed there. Modern archaeology and remote sensing, along with oil and gas exploration, has since helped confirm the location of the former glacier-fed stream.

Although still controversial, it is generally thought that the Harappan/ Indus Valley culture came under pressure from Indo-Aryans (aka Indo-Europeans) moving into the region and that contributed to their demise.

Although still controversial, it is generally thought that the Harappan/ Indus Valley culture came under pressure from Indo-Aryans* (aka Indo-Europeans) moving into the region and that contributed to their demise.

The finding of the route of the original river is rather controversial, although not for scientific reasons (other than the usual – great claims demand great amounts of evidence). No, the arguments come from Pakistani sources concerned about Indian claims to where the river had once been and how it might affect international borders and the Kashmir controversy. Also from different groups within Hindu nationalist groups, some of whom contest the idea of the Indo-Aryan/ Indo-European migration and the historical validity of the Vedas.  http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.com/2015/05/ground-truth-of-vedic-river-sarasvati.html  This page gives you a bit more technical imagery and some information about political goings on.

*Since WWII, the English-language convention is to refer to speakers of the languages that became Sanscrit, Bengali, Persian/Iranian, Latin, German, and a few others as Indo-European, and the ancestral tongue as Indo-European. In South Asia, the use of Indo-Aryan remains standard, as it had once been for English, and has absolutely no links to the insanity that developed when H. S. Chamberlin combined bad linguistics with worse biology and a large slug of nationalism to create the blond, blue-eyed Aryan super-race. Aryan in South Asia refers to the peoples who moved into the continent from the steppes around 1700 BC/BCE. They were not blue-eyed, blond, or the least bit “Nordic.”

 

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8 thoughts on “Vanished Rivers

  1. Interesting take on the North Africa area and water issues… Re the Harappan/ Indus Valley culture, why would the Indo-Aryans have crossed the Indus (major river), to push on to a much smaller water source that was ‘questionable’? Doesn’t make sense in light of the ability to move large numbers of people over those distances…

    • They were nomadic herders in search of more grazing for their cattle and horses, and the Harappans had already overtaxed the grazing as well as de-forested the riparian and surrounding resources, as best historians can reconstruct. That encouraged the Indo-Aryans to keep moving. They migrated into the region, probably via the Bolon Pass, starting around 1700 BC, and had gotten to the Ganges by 800 BC or so. A second wave moved off the steppes, through Afghanistan and into the Indus and Ganges watersheds by 1400 BC, adding more push-power to the need to shift east. (This is about the same time that the first traces of the Siberian influences that would lead to the cultures called Scythian and Saka appeared in what is now Kazakhstan, and there was a bit of climatic shift on-going, not as serious as around 800BC that kicked the Scythians west into the Pontic Steppe.)

      • And here I thought the Indo-Aryans had just tired of hearing that darned Harap music, and those Harappers with their profanity, and wanted to put a stop to it. 😉

        Seriously, though, interesting post. Do I recall correctly you also posted on the Amu/Oxus River, which has shifted periodically from both human and natural causes. (One of the branches completely dried up, IIRC.)

      • Yes. in the bit about changing names of places. Oxus was the Greek name, and the area is still called Oxiana in some writing. Amu Darya and Syr Darya are the names for the former Oxus and a smaller nearby stream.

      • Ah… Didn’t think about the depletion of resources! My bad… Considering the Bolon Pass, I can only wonder how many they lost making that 50+ mile transit…

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