Buried Alive? The World’s Oldest Leper Found in India

It’s a sombre tale; one of death, disease and live burial. But the body of a man found in Rajasthan, India reveals much more than an ancient horror story. The disovery in the town of Balathal, 40km north-east of Udaipur, is tying together some of the mysteries surrounding the tribes of the Indus Valley, who lived in the shadows of the mighty Harappans.

The unfortunate man is thought to have been aged between 25 and 45, and predates the earliest-known human leprosy case by around 2,000 years. The previous oldest was an Egyptian dating to 400-250 BC, though the Ebers Papyrusmentions the disfiguring disease as early as 1,550 BC.

The man, who belonged to the agricultural Ahar-Banas culture, may also have met a gruesome ritualistic end. Though bodies in the Harappan region were usually cremated, diseased frames were consigned to the earth – and it was frequent practice to bury those with afflictions alive. The man was buried in the cross-legged samadhi yoga posture, which appears to uphold this morbid notion.

So there’s the death and disease – what of the leper’s little-known tribal provenance? Rarely anything is found from the Ahar-Banas group, and they are regularly confused with their much more illustrious Harappan contemporaries from the twin cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.

Buddhist Stupa , Mohenjo-daro LarkanaYet they were much more than jealous next-door neighbours. Converting from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture around the mid-fifth millennium BC, the Ahars had pottery and copper by the fourth millennium BC, and had created complex road, housing and fortification systems by 2,500 BC. They are even the proud owners of the world’s first burned brick, found in Gilund in 2001.

“Gilund is emerging as an urban centre of the Aharites,” Vasant Shinde of Deccan College told India Today. “The Harappans did help them flourish but the farmers retained their culture intact,” says S.P. Gupta, Chairman of the Archaeological Society of India. The skeleton shows that as well as the Harappans, the Ahars took cultural lines from their neighbours in south and central India. Cow dung ash found in his pit are believed to have come from mounds towards south Deccan and north Dharwar. How much more do you want from one skeleton?