Examination, investigation, and consideration of evidence of the earliest history and origins of the diverse peoples of today’s nation of Bangladesh, present the history and heritage detective with numerous difficulties.
Not the least of these is a thick mantle of alluvium that lies across most of the lands, deposited by hundreds, even thousands, of millennia, since human life may have first existed hereabouts.
The annual deposits are made by the Himalayan meltwaters and the monsoon rains. That rich, fertile mantle may well lie at the roots of the agricultural plenty of today, but inhibits revelations of what is, certainly, an extraordinarily rich history, and an equally rich heritage that derives from it.
Then, there is the evident diversity of origins of such peoples. From north, south, west, and east, there is empirical evidence of the origins of migrations, from the earliest, to fairly recent times.
Warehouses full of documentation, both in Dhaka and in other parts of Bangladesh, may provide some documentary evidence of that rich past. After all, one of the earliest forms of written language developed in these lands. Those documents that survived the vandalism of the Pakistan Army in 1971, and the ravages of time and neglect, could probably also reveal as much. Only time will tell.
Then there is the lack of resources and official, and even academic, interest in archaeological investigation.
Beneath the alluvial mantle lies tangible, archaeological, and possibly even geological evidence of earliest human habitation hereabouts. But why should we suppose so?
Certainly, such few pieces of tangible evidence as we do have, covering at least the most recent 5,000 years, with a few, faint traces, in the forms of crude stone tools, may take us back over 100,000 years.
As our archaeologists, lacking resources, slowly reveal more recent times, with such discoveries as the pit dwelling, beside the ancient course of the Brahmaputra at Wari Bateshwar, which evidences Bronze Age dwelling thereabouts around 4,000 years ago, we should not hold our breath. Ancient history, and especially that which predates Islam, is not much valued here, despite its enormous potential value representing a world leading history and heritage in the world tourism market.
Discoveries in lands in proximity to Bangladesh, however, do not suffer from the same alluvial challenges, and what has been found in countries such as Nepal and Myanmar, certainly suggests there is much more to be found under the plains, especially in the hills, of Bangladesh.
It is unfortunate that the Bandarban district has not been subjected to detailed archaeological investigation.
The stone tools found in the hills of Bangladesh and at Wari Bateshwar, on the low ridges, suggest that there were both Palaeolithic, and, certainly, Neolithic residents of these lands, between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago.
The Bronze age pit dwelling at Wari Bateshwar represents, not only a more recent settlement, but, in particular, one on a site with clear evidence of craftsmanship and international trade from about 3,000 years ago.
But the circumstantial evidence of the human history of Bangladesh lies not only in such very ancient archaeological pieces. There is, for example, well before documentary and empirical evidence of trade and probable cultural exchange that may well date back over 10,000 years, questions about migratory peoples.
We know, for example, from local archaeological evidence, that rice was probably first domesticated for cultivation about 12,000 years ago in Yunnan Province of China -- could it be migrants, or was it traders, who brought such rice to the Ganges basin, 10,000 years ago? Or was such development, in such global proximity, simply coincidental?
Much more recent evidence from the archaeology of Yunnan Province in China reveals the presence of money cowries, sourced from the Indian Ocean, in third century BCE tombs, close to the Yangtze River.
But it is, of course, the migration of peoples of the very ancient Harappan civilisation, with origins about 10,000 years ago, and Aryans from Central Asia, who combined to develop the culture in the Ganges Basin, of a strong, agriculturally-based, industrialised society, that was the origin of trade through the Ganges delta.
Was it, we may well wonder, that development that enticed the great migratory tribal peoples who appear to have arrived from further north into the Himalayan territories and beyond, to settle around, and within the lands of Bangladesh, probably beginning as much as 7,000 years ago.
And it was, of course, that development of trade that probably lay behind the development of an early, sophisticated, culture that was originally animist, evolving into shamanic, into those of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist, all of which certainly had roots hereabouts.
As we come closer to the birth of Bangladesh, in 1971, the circumstantial evidence accumulates.
If there were no Gangaridai, of which, today, we may reasonably decide, whatever the Indians claim, that the huge, largely unexcavated site at Wari Bateshwar was the eponymous capital mentioned by the first century Roman geographer and historian, Strabo. Then why, in the third century BCE would the Greek writer Apollonius of Rhodes, in his famous re-writing of the even more famous legend of Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece, have included a character named Datis, “a Chief of the Gangaridai”? Or, possibly the most famous of Roman poets, Virgil, in one of his famous Georgics, in the context of a Roman victory in Asia Minor, about 80 BCE, praise the “men of Gangaridai,” who evidently contributed to the victory, presumably as mercenaries in the Roman Army. That he “would celebrate in gold and ivory” that victory, may give a significant clue to the bounties amongst which, the Roman’s valued the deltaic Kingdom for!
The significance of these references, of course, being, especially in Apollonius’ case, not simply the mention, but that ancient writers and scholars, remote from the lands that are now Bangladesh, should very evidently, be familiar with the martial skills of ancestors of today’s people of Bangladesh?
In fact, there is unarguable circumstantial evidence for today’s Bangladesh encompassing the existence of very early, civilised human habitation, rich, not only in wealth, but also in culture -- developed through the generation of wealth, and international cultural exchange that is part of international trade.
Without doubt, if those alluvial deposits are not all carelessly excavated for commerce and urban development -- the archives left to rot and museum material to be exported, together, they potentially represent powerful evidence, both tangible and circumstantial, of one of the world’s earliest crossroads of human development -- here, in Bangladesh.