51. What evidence do the experts think helps to explain the origin of the Indus Civilisation?

Group of skeletons in Room 74, House V, Mohenjo-daro, discovered by John Marshall in the 1920s.

Evolution or Revolution? Has recent research (that of the last 20 years ) given any new insights? Submitted by Gharial Abramnova from school student questions

Jane McIntosh
Why civilizations emerge is still very much a matter of debate among archaeologists. In essence, civilizations are the result of societies coping with the managerial needs of the situation that develops as a population grows large and densely settled:

  • many people living together in close proximity inevitably need organisations that will manage disputes and other problems
  • there are often environmental constraints in regions that support high populations eg inadequate or excessive quantities of water for agriculture; lack of certain essential or desirable raw materials; differences in resource potential between different areas
  • there may be environmental unpredictability, such as annually changing river courses, drought or floods, volcanoes and earthquakes, which tends to favour religion to explain why and priests to mediate with deities on the community's behalf
  • there may competition between neighbouring communities, resulting in warfare and/or competitive ostentation
  • there are opportunities for increasing occupational specialisation, including fulltime craftsmen and women, creating the need to manage the circulation of raw materials, goods and food

These and other factors encourage the development of a managerial class (priests, kings, administrators) and managerial tools such as taxation and corvee labour.

In the 4th millennium BC there were towns in the Indo-Iranian borderlands, farming where possible, using quite sophisticated hydraulic systems, raising animals that for part of the year had to be taken to graze in neighbouring lowlands, trading with neighbouring communities to obtain materials from distant regions, and including skilled artisans. People from this region settled in the Indus region and towns developed there too, but because the agricultural potential of the Indus basin was so much greater than in the highlands, there was massive population growth. At the same time, the Indus basin did not have the constraints on community expansion and communications that had constricted growth in the mountainous terrain of the highlands, so it was possible for much larger integrated political entities to develop and much easier for raw materials and goods to circulate. The annual movement of animal herders between the highlands and the lowlands had already established mutually beneficial connections between the people of the borderlands and the indigenous people of the Indus basin, which included hunter-gatherers and fishers and probably farmers, so it seems likely that the indigeous communities became integrated with incoming farmers from the borderlands, creating multifacetted communities. During the earlier 3rd millennium towns developed, some becoming very large and serving and managing a wide area.

Between around 2600 and 2500 BC many of these towns were destroyed, some by fire, and new towns were constructed, following what appears to be a fairly standardised plan, with cardinally orientated streets and a raised area, often walled. Some were constructed as replacements for the destroyed settlements but many were new foundations. At the same time, regional styles of such things as pottery were largely replaced by a style that was uniform throughout the Indus region. This suggests that during this period the Indus basin became culturally, and probably politically, unified.

So, the Indus civilization emerged from the patchwork of Early Harappan regional communities both as an evolution from what went before and a revolution in socio-political organisation. What catalysed this change is still uncertain. Despite the settlement destruction, this seems unlikely to have been warfare, though some researchers still consider this a possibility. An alternative that many scholars now support is the spread of a religious ideology that laid down the proper way to do things, including the layout of towns and cities and the emphasis on clean water and purification, a notable feature of the Indus civilization. The Indus basin, though extremely productive, is also an unpredictable environment, with frequent changes in the course of rivers and considerable potential variation in water volume in the rivers, as well as earthquakes, a situation that has generally been seen to favour the development of religious authority, so a catalyst related to religion seems an attractive possibility.

Other factors were undoubtedly involved in the emergence of the Indus civization. These include the development of systems to manage the growing population and its complex interactions: writing begins in the transition period, implying management and bureaucracy. Also important were the great diversity in resources available in the different regions and the benefits for all to be gained by collaboration between regions. The Harappan civilization seems to be characterised particularly by an efficient and highly developed internal distribution network, that ensured, for example, that the high quality flint from the Rohri Hills was available throughout the Indus realm in sufficient quantities to make it unnecessary to use local flint. Unlike other civilizations, the Indus had access to many of the raw materials it needed from areas within or adjacent to the Indus basin, so external trade was not the catalyst that it was for many other civilizations, but the uneven distribution of these resources acted similarly as a spur to the development of transport and the organisation of procurement, production and distribution.

The recent excavations at Harappa have made a considerable contribution to our understanding of the emergence of the Indus civilization (see Harappa.com for many details of the Harappa excavations). Here there is evidence of the unbroken occupation and growth of the settlement from its initial foundation around or before 3500 BC through the Kot Diji period town c 2800-2600 BC to the emergence of the Mature Harappan city around 2600 BC and its continuation, in contrast to many other Indus towns. As Harappa did not suffer the upheaval that was so widespread, it is possible that it was at Harappa that the impetus for change took place and from there that it spread. Currently, the earliest examples of writing (sequences of signs rather than graffiti) come from Harappa.

The excavations at Dholavira provide a good example of the changes taking place in the transition period: a citadel was constructed over the earliest part of the settlement and existing houses razed to create a paved public space to its north. A new settlement was built beyond these.

Richard Meadow
Increasing elaboration through time, as has been shown by excavations at Harappa by the Harappa Archaeological Research Project between 1986 and 2003. At Harappa there was continuous occupation from about 3600 BC to after 1700 BC covering the Early Harappan, (Mature or Urban) Harappan, and Late Harappan periods. The city grew from being a small village through becoming a town and into a city. The cultural materials recovered from the site show change and elaboration through time, but in some cases cultural expressions like pottery decorations found in the Harappan period can be traced back to the earliest period at the site. This is not to say that there was not more rapid change at some points and slower change at others, but one does not see any revolutionary change, until perhaps the end of the Harappan period when seals and weights disappeared and pottery decoration changed markedly. But even here, because the transition is so badly known, we can not be sure how quick the change was nor what its cause may have been.