The Human Story – The Indus Valley Civilisation

Today we are going to take a close look at civilisation and a closer look at the oldest civilisation of them all, the Indus Valley Civilisation.

A civilisation is any complex society characterized by urban development, social hierarchy which is controlled by a social elite, symbolic systems of communication such as writing and a supposed separation from and command over the natural environment. You will recall from the last instalment of the Human Story series that the proto-cities of Jericho in the Levant and Jiahu in the far east had some of these characteristics but failed in possessing all of them: hence why they are not considered civilisations. Another way to look at the prerequisites for the status of civilisation is whether a society possess at least four of the following:

• Surplus of food
• Specialisation of labour
• Social stratification and centralised government
• Shared values (e.g. religion)
• Writing

Born of Water


The Indus Valley Civilisation, sometimes known as the Harappan, named after the first site of their discovery (Harappa), was a Bronze Age civilisation that lived and thrived in the flood plains of the north western regions of South Asia in what is modern north east Afghanistan, Pakistan and north west India. Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (both of which we will cover soon) the Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the three early cradles of human civilisation and the most widespread of the three.

This was just about the best place in the world to set up an ancient civilisation. The rivers reliably flooded twice every year and provided the most calories available per acre of land of almost anywhere on the planet. The slow southward migration of the monsoons across Asia initially allowed the Indus Valley villages to develop by taming the floods of the Indus and its tributaries. This flood supported style of farming led to large agricultural surpluses which, in turn, accommodated the development and growth of cities. It is likely that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation did not develop irrigation technology as they did not need to, instead, relying mainly on seasonal monsoons leading to floods. This is what made the ancient Indus Valley region such a desirable piece of agricultural real estate: nutrient rich silt deposits were naturally spread across the flat, well-watered floodplains. Ironically, this reliance upon the monsoon and lack of irrigational knowledge may have led to the eventual downfall of the Harappan civilisation when the climate changed drastically, but we will come to that soon.

An Egalitarian Architectural Wonder

Everything that we know of the Indus Valley Civilisation has been discovered through archaeology. This culture did have a symbolic written system, however, no one, yet, has been able to decipher it and the secrets of the Harappan civilisation continue to remain a mystery. Want to make a name for yourself amongst the archaeo-linguistic scene? See if you can decipher the writing below:

IVC Language

What archaeologists and researchers have been able to uncover though is absolutely astonishing. The Indus Valley Civilisation created incredible cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa being the two most well-known. As of 2018, archaeologists have discovered over 1,000 sites and settlements belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is estimated that Mohenjo-daro alone could have been the home to 50,000 residents.

These sites indicate that the Indus Valley Civilisation knew about advanced urban planning. The cities were laid out in dense multi-storeyed homes using standardised bricks stretching along perpendicular streets, rather than the usual erection of buildings in a hodge podge fashion found throughout history the world over. This level of urban planning would have required some form of city civic planning. Perhaps even more incredible than the standardised layout of the cities was the orientation of the layout. The larger cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation were designed in such a way as to catch the wind and create a natural form of air-conditioning! It amazes me to think of the forward planning and ingenuity that must have gone into these cities at such an early stage of their development.

The advanced architecture of this civilisation is shown in the impressive dockyards, warehouses, granaries and protective walls. The massive walls of the Indus Valley Civilisation were most likely used to protect the people from floods and may also have dissuaded military conflict.

There is one huge cultural architectural anomaly of the Harappan that sets them in stark contrast to their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries. There is a serious lack of monumental structures to be found in the Indus Valley. There is no conclusive evidence of temples or palaces which suggests that there was possibly not even kings or priests and amazingly there is a lack of evidence for armies too.

The largest building discovered at Mohenjo-Daro is not a temple, nor was it a palace. It is a giant public bath known as the Great Bath and it is the earliest known water tank of the ancient world. No one knows for sure what the Great Bath was used for, but scholars generally agree that it was most likely the centre piece in religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers. Perhaps it was some sort of large baptismal pool. Later Indian culture placed huge emphasis on ritual purity which is the basis of the caste system still in use today. I don’t think that it is a massive leap of faith to assume that this may have its origins in the Mohenjo-Daro Great Bath rituals…. although it probably does not.

Great Bath

Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans living with others pursuing the same occupation in well defined neighbourhoods. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Valley Civilisation cities are noteworthy for their apparent egalitarianism. It appears that almost every home had access to water and drainage facilities, including flushing toilets which were connected to a sophisticated sewage system that carried waste away from the cities using big sewer ditches that ran under the main streets. (The sewerage and drainage systems that developed in this region was far more advanced than any found in urban cities in the contemporary Middle-East and even more efficient than those found in many parts of modern Pakistan and India.) This gives the impression of a society with a relatively low wealth concentration, though there are clear signs of social levelling seen in personal possessions and decorations. Perhaps the wealthy of the Harappan were content to keep it to themselves and not flaunt it in the faces of the less well off.

Peaceful Traders

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Harrapan traded far and wide. Archaeologists have discovered materials from distant regions used in the Indus Valley for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Soapstone seals with images of animals, people (perhaps deities), and other types of inscriptions (including writing that has yet to be deciphered). Some of these seals were used to stamp clay onto trade goods as identification markers and have been found as far afield as Mesopotamia in the Middle East. Bronze and the materials used for making bronze have been discovered in the Indus Valley region. So, what I hear you ask? Well, neither bronze, nor the materials used to manufacture it are native to the Indus Valley region, so they must have been traded for.


What exactly did the Indus Valley Civilisation have to trade? Their main export was cotton cloth. The farmers of the Indus Valley were the first people to spin and weave cotton. In 1929 archaeologists recovered fragments of cotton textiles at the Harappan city of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to between 3250 and 2750 BCE. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some of the methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be used until the industrialisation of India in the early nineteenth century. That’s over 5,000 years!! Well, I guess if it’s not broken then don’t try to fix it.

Toys IVC.jpg

The Indus Valley Civilisation, aside from being incredible city developers and cotton merchants, were an unbelievably peaceful society. Over 1,000 sites have been uncovered but very little evidence of warfare or even weaponry have been found. Archaeologists have discovered more children’s toys than swords or spears in the Indus Valley region. I think that there is a lesson for the whole world here.

What Happened?

Around 1900 BCE the Indus Valley Civilisation began to decline until it eventually faded into historical obscurity 200 years later. So, what happened to these peaceful people? Several theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance of the ancient Indus Valley people. The first is that they were conquered. It is possible that the Harappan were overrun by people invading east from the Caucasus and they had little weapons with which to fight back. The second theory is that an earthquake changed the course of the rivers so much that many of the tributaries dried up. Without the adequate water supply for irrigation the cities could not sustain themselves, so the people simply left. The third (and most probable) explanation is another type of environmental disaster: aridification. It is quite possible that aridification of the region in the third millennium BCE may have been the initial spur for urbanisation. However, this drying of the region never ceased and eventually reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise and forced the population to migrate further eastward in search of water supplies.

Whatever caused the eventual decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, it is one of history’s great tragedies that such a peaceful, innovative, egalitarian and prosperous people succumbed at such an early stage of the human story.

The Rest is History

Next time we will be travelling west to the ancient lands of Mesopotamia where we will learn of the epic struggle between urban life and wild life. See you then.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement

One thought on “The Human Story – The Indus Valley Civilisation”

  1. As usual, very interesting and well-written. I’m not a big fan of ancient history, but I found this article fascinating. Looking forward to future posts. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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