Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Prehistory: The Indus Valley Civilization

In the early part of the twentieth century, largely through the work of Sir John Marshall, the remains of a long-forgotten civilization were discovered in the Indus Valley. The two great cities of this civilization, known as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, were built around 2600 BC in the Punjab and Sindh regions along the Indus River. The Indus Valley Civilization began to decline around1800 BC and many of the cities were soon abandoned. It is now believed that some sort of climate change may have forced residents to move elsewhere.

The Indus Valley Civilization provides evidence, if any was needed, of the importance of writing in historical work. Simply put, we lack any understanding of the culture’s written record, rendering it effectively pre-historical. As Gregory Possehl notes, we “do not know what these people called themselves or their cities… We have no king lists, no internal chronology… no historical account of commerce, production… no historical record of the internal social organization.”[1]

This is a shame because, as Robert J. Wenke notes, the 500,000 square miles that the Harappan civilization covered was, “considerably more territory than any other Old World civilization of this point.”[2] Archaeologists have located at least 300 Harappan cities and many more villages. The Harappan city of Mohenja-daro covers at least 2.5 square miles and may have held a population of 40,000. The city was built on a grid pattern and had fairly uniform houses and a complex sewage system and city planning that rivals that of the later Romans. The city of Harappa was as large as Mohenja-daro, and three other cities of similar size have been found, but not yet excavated. For such a large territory, Indus Valley culture was also surprisingly homogeneous; for instance, all of the bricks were made to the standard proportions 4:2:1. And many archaeologists believe Harappan society was considerably more equitable than other civilizations of the time.

The civilization actually made use of irrigation from both the Indus River and the Ghaggar-Hakra River, now extinct. Unlike the Nile, both rivers were fairly unpredictable and floods could be devastating. The hydrologist Robert Raikes believes that the society was devastated by crop-drowning floods related to the shifting plates of the earth’s crust. Past scholars have blamed an invasion of Indo-Europeans, the Aryan invaders mentioned in the Rig Veda, for crippling Harappan culture; however it is now believed that the Harappan culture declined before the Aryans arrived. Harappan architecture, metallurgy, agriculture, and pottery styles appear in later cultures, even as the centre of power in the subcontinent shifted towards the Ganges River. And yet, whatever the cause, the civilization seems to have fallen as quickly as it rose.

[1] Gregory Possehl. ‘Revolution in the Urban Revolution: The Emergence of Indus Urbanism”, p. 262.
[2] Robert J. Wenke, Patterns in Prehistory, 485.

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