Indus Valley Civilization

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The Indus Valley Civilisation (also known as the Harappan Civilisation) was a civilised society that flourished between 2600BC and 1900BC in what is now Pakistan and north-western India, in the valley of the Indus River. It was characterised by highly developed urban life, particularly in the two main cities to have been excavated, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, and the port city of Lothal. The basis on which the cities could exist was agricultural surplus, and this was ensured by a widespread and advanced system of irrigation and land drainage.

It was the third literate urban civilisation - after those in Mesopotamia (from c. 3500 B.C.) and Egypt (c.3200B.C.) – and arose like its predecessors (and China over half a millennium later) as a result of the organisation required to meet a very similar set of challenges. All were in areas of low rainfall where a flood plain existed, bereft of all the requirements of settlement except for the annual renewal of fertility as the great rivers, fed by snow-melt and spring rains hundreds or even thousands of miles upstream spread their nutriment in time for summer planting. All were also within a practical proximity of regions where the building necessities of stone and/or timber and clay were plentiful, along with metals, summer grazing lands, and other necessities of a sophisticated urban culture.

Recent excavations in the Kachi plain, between the hills of modern Baluchistan, Western Pakistan, and the Indus basin, have revealed evidence of farming, independently developed in the area and of a comparable level to Iran, millennia before the rise of cities. The cultivation of barley is evident, and the herding of sheep, goats and cattle had replaced hunting as a source of meat and clothing. The remains of mud-brick houses have been found, along with tools and even adornments made of materials only found a long distance from this area, signifying trade. The partially excavated settlement of Mehgarh, dated to well before 6000B.C. contains houses, storehouses, burial places and evidence of an increasing sophistication in the path towards organised agriculture in the region.

At some stage around the middle of the 4th millennium B.C. groups of these people began colonising the Indus basin. Here they found a largely treeless, unwooded, stoneless plain which was, however, extremely fertile from its annual inundation from the floodwaters of the Indus River and its tributaries. During the next 1000 years (the Early Indus Period) there developed walled towns, roads, increasingly fine craftsmanship, and extensive trade.

By 2500 B.C. - the start of what is known as the Mature Indus Period - a sophisticated civilization of a standard equal to those in Egypt and Mesopotamia had developed, throughout the region covered by the Indus basin, between the Thar desert and the mountains to the north and west; and along the coast for hundreds of miles on either side of the mouth of the Indus. Earlier diversity within the area had been replaced by a culturally uniform society covering the whole of the above region. About 100 settlements have been discovered so far - walled towns of baked brick, many of them containing a citadel surrounded by a residential area; some with evidence of town planning. No palaces have been found, and no evidence of a king or emperor. There may have been a priestly elite but nothing is known of the religion of this culture. There must have been some sort of central authority however, because of the sameness of the script found throughout the region, the complete uniformity of standards in weights and measures (ranging from heavy enough to require ropes for lifting to tiny weights used by jewellers), and even a standardised brick size. As well as its literacy and these practical applications of standardisation, the following aspects are notable:

  • The larger towns had sophisticated sewerage and drainage systems, complete with what would now be called “inspection openings” at intersections for checking and cleaning purposes.
  • Personal mirrors have been found, also etched jewelry, perfumes, and white lead skin cosmetic similar to that fashionable in 5th century Athens and, later, in Rome.
  • Toys, including models of ships, a little cart hauled by two bullocks, and other small objects testify not only to a regard for children but a focus on trade and the use of the wheel.

A network of trade routes existed both within the borders of the culture and without. Indus cargo seals have been found in Mesopotamia, and Sumerian cylinder seals in Morenjo-daro. There were also overland routes into what are now Afghanistan and through Iran. There is evidence of an Indus trading post on the Amu Darya River, in south-central Asia.

The reasons for the eventual decline and collapse of the Indus Valley society are unclear. A shift in the course of the Indus River left the city of Marenjo-daro – one of the two centres of the culture – and its surrounds dry and agriculturally unviable. There are theories that, elsewhere, chronic flooding may had the same devastating effect, that disease and disruption to trade helped the decline. The end of a much-weakened culture may have come with the arrival in the region of (Indo-Aryan) Sanskrit speaking people – part of that general migration of people (“volkerwaderunge”) starting with the arrival of the Hittites in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about the turn of the third millennium B.C. (c.2000 B.C.) that, over the next millennium would populate most of Europe, Persia, much of the Indian sub-continent and as far east as what is now western China with peoples with common linguistic roots that we call Indo-European and Indo-Aryan.

The Indus Civilisation was the last of the great truly ancient civilisations to come to light. British engineers used bricks from some ancient towns whilst working on a new rail line in the 1850s not realising the antiquity of these places, and in the following decades inscribed seals and other finds aroused interest. It was not until well into the 20th century that modern archaeological techniques were used and only since the Second World War has the full extent of the civilisation been realised.

Its origins appear to be indigenous, like the other three founding civilisations. The script, which has not been deciphered, and other cultural finds have no similarity with other cultures. The society that followed in the region, and would spread through most of India – the culture of the Rig Veda that is still a prime part of the Hindu culture today – was completely different.


  • The Times History of Archaeology
  • ”Empires of the Indus” – Alice Albinia
  • "The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World"; Ed.Brian M Fagan