Sudden collapse of Harappan civilization may foreshadow superbug threat to modern humans

Monday, February 03, 2014 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: Harappan civilization, superbugs, antibiotic resistance

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(NaturalNews) The mystery surrounding the sudden collapse of the ancient city of Harappa, a major urban center that was a prominent feature of the now defunct Indus civilization, recently became a little bit less mysterious thanks to new research out of Appalachian State University. An international team of climatologists, archaeologists and biologists found that rampant disease, among other things, played a major role in the swift decline of this primordial people group -- and the same thing could happen to modern humanity as a result of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," believe some.

What exists from the historical record shows that Harappa flourished even before the Indus civilization as a whole reached its peak, spanning 1 million square kilometers in what is now Pakistan and India. Scholars say the city thrived primarily between the years of 2600 and 1700 B.C. but suddenly collapsed for reasons that up until now have remained elusive due to a lack of reliable records and other concrete evidence.

But we now know that the uncontrolled spread of disease played a significant role in the downfall of Harappa, as did the violence and chaos that erupted as a result of a widening social hierarchy. Specifically, the new research found that a combination of socioeconomic inequality and disease -- tuberculosis and leprosy, which were new at the time, are believed to have spread quickly during the final days before the collapse -- were largely to blame for the city's ultimate demise.

"In this case, it appears that the rapid urbanization process in Indus cities, and the increasingly large amount of culture contact, brought new challenges to the human population," says Gwen Robbins Schug, one of the lead researchers involved with the project. "Infectious diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis were probably transmitted across an interaction sphere that spanned Middle and South Asia."

Rapid urbanization spawned disease spread that killed off entire civilization

A recent exhumation of remains from Harappa revealed that, toward the end of the city's existence, violence and disease had reached epic proportions. Because of this, Harappa was essentially being evacuated in droves by its residents during the final days leading up to its collapse, a previously unknown fact about the civilization that came as a surprise to historians.

"The collapse of the Indus civilization and the reorganization of its human population has been controversial for a long time," says Schug.

Though the exact cause of all the violence and corresponding disease that ravished Harappa is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, experts now know that a period of rapid urbanization definitely precluded its undoing. Much like what appears to be occurring in modern society, Harappa "advanced" too quickly and eventually imploded on itself.

"The evidence from Harappa offers insights into how social and biological challenges impacted past societies facing rapid population growth, climate change and environmental degradation," adds Schug, as quoted by Science Daily. "Unfortunately, in this case, increasing levels of violence and disease accompanied massive levels of migration and resource stress and disproportionate impacts were felt by the most vulnerable members of society."

Drug-resistant 'superbugs' threaten to kill off modern civilization

There is a tendency when looking at ancient history through the lens of today to assume that what happened to them could never happen to us. Modern humanity is simply far too advanced to ever just collapse in on itself, goes the assumption. And yet history also has a seemingly sinister way of repeating itself when you least expect it, in modern times with the threat of drug-resistant "superbugs" brought about as a result of so-called advancements in medicine.

"There are few public health issues of potentially greater importance for society than antibiotic resistance," says U.K. chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, as quoted by The Guardian. "It means we are at increasing risk of developing infections that cannot be treated."

Though admittedly different from what the ancient Harappans faced, the problem of antibiotic overuse in today's society -- or what can more accurately be described as an unrealistic reliance on antibiotics as some type of cure-all for disease -- is culminating into an "apocalyptic" threat, to borrow the words of Dame Davies, for modern civilizations.

"We are becoming increasingly reliant on antibiotics in a whole range of areas of medicine," adds Alan Johnson, consultant clinical scientist at the U.K.'s Health Protection Agency, to The Guardian. "If we don't have new antibiotics to deal with the problems of resistance we see, we are going to be in serious trouble."

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