Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Lost Civilization

Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro 

Generally the first great civilizations are considered to be Mesopotamia and Egypt. Mesopotamia is considered to be earlier but Egypt was civilized by 3000 B.C.E. In Mesopotamia the process by which civilization developed seems to have been, from the archaeological data both long and “slow”. And it is a process that we can chart through archaeological digs. The process by which farmers settled in the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia, congregated in villages that later coalesced into towns that became city states is a process that took many centuries.1

In Egypt the process from Neolithic farming villages, whose development can be traced back a few thousand years to a civilized, unified state is one that was overall quicker. Further the process by which scattered Neolithic villages on the Nile became a centralized single, civilized state was far quicker. Basically in c. 3500 B.C.E., the people of the lower Nile valley, (Egypt), lived in small scattered Neolithic farming villages along the Nile. Quite unlike the towns and proto-cities in Mesopotamia. Then by 3000 B.C.E., Egypt was united towns had emerged and all the panoply of the state existed, along with writing, a bureaucracy, monumental architecture, towns etc. 500 years earlier none of that existed even in embryonic form. Archaeology gives us a pretty good guide to the various stages of this transformation, which seems to have been largely internally generated with some stimulus from abroad.  The whole “dynastic race” idea has been largely abandoned. I may explore this at some other time.2

However even by comparison with Egypt another transformation from pre-civilization to civilization is even more abrupt. That of the Indus valley.

Now the Indus civilization is without a doubt the least well known and the least popularized of the great early civilizations. That is due to several reasons but three are the most important.

1. The lack of inscriptions. Although we have found many examples of what appears to be writing in the sites of the Indus Civilization, ( It is questioned by some that the marks on the seals are in fact inscriptions.) the inscriptions are very short, most of them are on seals, and it has not yet been deciphered. Of course given the rather brief nature of the surviving inscriptions it is not likely that even if they are deciphered that these inscriptions will truly open up the world of the Indus civilization. That will be the case unless we find a huge stash of tablets.

2. The lack of monumental buildings. Now that is not strictly true there are some monumental constructions by the Indus valley civilization, however huge constructions like the pyramids of Egypt or the ziggurats of Mesopotamia seem to be lacking. In other words the culture seems to lack the huge impressive religious structures of the other civilizations.

3. The lack of art. Now again this is not strictly speaking true. There are for example thousands of carefully carved seals and pottery figures are abundant. But the civilization generally lacks the huge monumental art of the other civilizations. In fact depictions of real live human beings seem to be rare to a degree that must indicate a cultural bias against human images at least in non-perishable materials.

And of course the newness of the discovery also plays a role. After all the Indus valley civilization was only rediscovered in the 1920’s even though previous researchers had noted the various sites and made comments on them.3 The result is that the Indus valley civilization has not gotten the sort of long and widespread publicity that either Mesopotamia or Egypt has gotten. And of course the Indus valley civilization does not have anything as visually impressive as the huge, and numerous remains of the stone temples and burial places of the ancient Egyptians.

This being the case the Indus valley civilization is unknown to most people, including most people who have a fair knowledge of the ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.

That is rather unfortunate given that the Indus civilization has features that make it both unique and more of an enigma than any of the other ancient civilizations.    

One of the reasons for the enigma is that so little is known about it. Even with the extensive and intensive number of excavations that have been done since the 1920’s the civilization remains little known.

One of its most distinctive features is the very wide area it covered. The civilization covered all of the modern day Punjab, in both India and Pakistan, the Sind area of Pakistan, part of the upper Ganges plain, most of the areas of modern day Kutch and Gujarat in India. It also included areas of modern day Afghanistan. It in other words occupied an area that was by far much larger than Mesopotamia and Egypt combined and therefore was the largest in geographic area of the riverine civilizations.4

Its vast geographical extent, at least compared to the other civilizations is one reason for the civilization being enigmatic. So too are three reasons I listed above for this civilizations lack of popularization but perhaps the most important reason for the enigmatic character of the civilization is its rise and fall.

Bluntly the civilization arose pretty suddenly. The pre-existing Neolithic village culture suddenly was transformed into a seemingly fully civilized state with great speed. For example the great centres of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa arose suddenly. At various sites there is evidence of preexisting Neolithic settlements but then suddenly they are transformed into fully functional cities!

And what cities. The two listed above follow a pattern is evident in site after site in the Indus valley civilization. The cities laid out on a grid like pattern of streets, each house a copy of the rest in geometric duplication. Each street with its drains and each house with its cookie cutter bathrooms. The cities look like each one was designed from scratch and then built according to a blueprint. And aside from the preexisting Neolithic farming culture nothing prepares you for the sudden building of these large carefully planned cities. And many of the cities had near them carefully planned “citadels” with massive walls and huge granaries.

It appears that c. 2800 B.C.E.; the people of the Indus region were living in thousands of Neolithic farming villages at a level of social and technical development that was c. 1000 years behind the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. Then by c. 2700 B.C.E., they had massive cities, long distance trade a script and apparently the state. All of this happened with surprising abruptness.5

And just like the rise of the Indus valley civilization was abrupt so was its fall. Although it is now clear that the fall of the Indus valley civilization was not the sudden out of the blue event that it was previously thought to be. Still its fall is enigmatic.

Both Mesopotamia and Egypt went through periods of decline and crisis but once established civilization did not shift into a more or less permanent state of de-civilization. With the Indus civilization things are different. By c. 1900 B.C.E., the archaeological evidence indicates severe crisis and by c. 1700 B.C.E. it is over. The cities have been abandoned or are reduced to large Neolithic style villages. The script has been abandoned and international trade largely dead. Instead the area of the Indus valley civilization has become again the preserve of thousands of self-governing Neolithic villages. In other words civilization has been abandoned. The state is gone and would not truly reemerge in India for almost 1000 years. The surviving remains from this period are far less, common, far less sophisticated than the remains of the Indus valley civilization’s remains. Life had apparently become far simpler again.6

Since we can’t read the records of the Indus peoples and frankly even if we could those records, if all we have is what we have so far found, are unlikely to be a great help in explaining the fall of the Indus civilization.

We have in Mesopotamia written records that refer to people from Meluhha, which is now identified with the Indus civilization. We even read of Mesopotamian kings fighting people from Meluhha. The trade was both by land and by sea. In fact the trade was in luxury items like carnelian stones along with other semi-precious stones, along with ebony and gold. The Mesopotamian records record trade with Meluhha and even merchants and what appear to be people from Meluhha in Mesopotamia.7

By c. 2000 B.C.E., the mentions of Meluhha and traders from there ceases in Mesopotamia. Which is apparently an indication of crisis in the Indus valley or at least significant changes in trade patterns.8

In the Indus valley itself we see in site after site a growing disorganization in the formerly well-ordered cities, as dwellings and streets become disordered and slovenly. What can accurately be described as slums spring up. As mentioned above this process continues until the former urban culture vanishes, the cities are largely abandoned and life reverts to Neolithic simplicity in most places the only serious even partial exception being parts of Gujarat and Kutch in India. A civilization had ended and the question is why?9

The old answer was that supposedly the civilization had been overthrown by Aryan invaders invading in horse drawn chariots. This supposedly occurred c. 1500 B.C.E. Aside from the fact that it appears that the Indus civilization was over by 1700 B.C.E. There is the problem that the evidence indicates a society in serious decline before then. There is no evidence for the abrupt termination of a thriving civilization by ruthless barbarians. In fact the evidence for any large scale intrusion of invaders at this time is minimal. Some other time I may explore the whole Aryan invasion mythos, but for now it appears to be the case there was no massive invasion that destroyed the Indus Valley civilization.10

This being the case what are the reasons? Well we can’t be absolutely sure but it appears that it was due to combination of external factors, basically the land rising and changes in climate and changes in river courses.

It appears that the land was rising in coastal areas and this may have seriously disrupted farming and trade in large areas.

But probably the most disruptive change was climate change. Why because it appears to have seriously disrupted farming practices in much of the Indus region possibly producing intolerable stresses on the body politic. It appears that changes in water flow changed both the timing and amount of yearly flooding. Possibly this produced dislocation and famine. It appears that changes in water flow significantly reduced the amount of water in the stream now called the Ghaggar-Harka, with disastrous consequences for the many communities along it. Further in an age in which a high degree of variability in water flows occurred the stresses on society were apparently quite severe.

The resulting social dislocation was hard to handle. We do know that the huge site of Mohenjo-Daro, experienced before the end a series of severe floods that it appears the inhabitants had a hard time coping with. We also know that it appears to be the case that rivers were altering their courses along with unusual variability from year to year in water flows and flooding.11

What this produced was a situation of stress on society. It appears that more or less people decided that “civilization” was not worth it. The cost of dealing with these recurring and simultaneous crises and maintain the civilization was deemed too high and bit by bit it was abandoned until only a Neolithic culture was left.

It is here that we can speculate about the nature of Indus valley civilization. It is perhaps a possibility or even a probability that the Indus valley civilization lacked the full panoply of coercive power held by the state societies that existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia and therefore could not coercively mobilize the resources necessary to face the challenges while preserving the civilization. In other words when people decided to opt out there was little that could be done to stop them.12

The above is simply a theory, certainly it does appear likely that compared to the other civilizations the Indus valley one was more fragile and hence less able to survive a series of stresses.

Civilization would not reemerge in India for c.1000 years after the fall.  
1. See Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Third Edition, Penguin Books, London, pp. 33-84.

2. Hoffman, Michael A., Egypt Before the Pharaohs, University of Texas Press, Revised Edition, Austin, 1991, pp. 105-166, Rice, Michael, Egypt’s Making, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2003, pp. 20-39.

3. Wright, Rita A., The Ancient Indus, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 4-11. For the idea of the Indus inscriptions not being writing see Farmer, Steve, Sproat, Richard, Witzel, Michael, The Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis, pdf - Here. For a view of how the ancient Indus was politically organized see Possehi, Gregory L., Sociocultural Complexity Without the State: The Indus Civilization, in Editors, Fienman, Gary M., Marcus, Joyce, Archaic States, School of American Research Press, Santa Fe NM, 1998, pp. 261-291.

4. Daniel, Glyn, The First Civilizations, Penguin Books, London, 1968, pp. 94-105, Wright, pp. 25-29.

5. Wright, pp. 71-79, Hawkes, Jacquetta, The First Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, London, 1973, pp. 291-308, McIntosh, Jane R., The Ancient Indus Valley, ABC CLIO, Santa Barbara CA, 2008, pp. 80-91.

6. Wright, pp. 309-320, McIntosh, pp. 91-108, 396-402.

7. Wright, pp. 215-232.

8. IBID.

9. McIntosh, pp. 396-402, Wright, pp. 308-325, Hawkes, pp. 307-308.

10. IBID, Wright, Thapar, Romila, The Penguin History of Early India, Penguin Books, London, 2002, pp. 105-106.

11. Wright, pp. 29-44, 312-315, McIntosh, pp. 396-402,.

12. Possehi, pp. 287-290.

Pierre Cloutier.

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