A view of Mohenjodaro

Anthropology: The Indus Valley Civilization as the Blueprint to Urban Developed Society

The epitome of human creativity and one of the evidence of urban development during the Bronze age – well known as ‘Indus Valley Civilization’ – is considered the most widespread -among the three early civilizations of the Asian Southern region and the Near East. It developed in the Indus River basin that extends along the length of Pakistan and along a perennial system of river that once coursed near the seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra river.

Excavated in the 20th Century, the Indus Valley Civilization is predominately known as the Harrapan Civilization – based on its type-site- Harappa. It was established from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE and it witnessed its maturity phase starting from 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE respectively. Inus Valley Civilization is considered one among the four greatest civilizations in the world.

Under the Harappan culture, chalcolithic culture in the north western part of the subcontinent extended as a highly standardized urban expression. Developments in specialized craft and craftsmanship reached high levels, where smiths of that time initiated experiments with different metals and alloys -like using tin with copper to produce bronze. And this is how the Indus Valley Civilization got its name as ‘Bronze Age Civilization’.

Who discovered the Indus Valley?

From 1921 to 1922,an excavation campaign was initiated by Sir John Hubert Marshall, then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. It was the first time that the ruins of Harappa came into existence and actually triggered further excavation and discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Photo of John Marshall archaeologist who found Harrapa
Credit: Saqib Qayyum/ CC BY-SA 3.0/ Wikimedia Commons

In 1842, the Indus valley was first described by Charles Masson (pseudonym of James Lewis, a British East India Company soldier and a explorer) in his “Narrative of various Journeys in Balochistan, Afganistan and the Punjab. He is considered the first European to witness the ruins of Harappa ). And later, in 1872-75, Major general Sir Alexander Cunningham published the first Harappan seal. This became a triggering point for Sir John Hubert Marshall to start excavation in 1921.

The first of its ruins were found in Harappa, located in the Punjab region, in 1921 and later Mohenjo daro in 1922. Notably, both sites at present are in Pakistan. UNESCO designated the ruins of Mohenjo daro’ as a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Named after the Indus river, the early IVC traces were found, identified and excavated in the alluvial plains of this river. After comes the Ghaggar-Hakra river present in northwest India and easter parts of Pakistan. Here, an archeologist
found a considerable number of sites, hence the term ‘Ghaggar-Hakra’ is prominently found in modern labels that directly apply to IVC.

Described in early chapters of ‘Rig Veda’, the river Saraswati is also one of the names found close to this civilization, like ‘Sarasvati Civilization’ or ‘Sindhu -Saraswati civilization’. It is due to posited identification of the Ghaggar-Hakra river with Saraswati river. If advanced researchers have to be believed, unlike Sarasvati as described in Rig Veda scripts, it is a snow-feeding river. And also Ghaggar-Hakra as described, was a perennial monsoon-fed river. Hence, these became seasonal and it is assumed that this was the same time when civilization almost declined.

Historical accounts establish that INC was approximately contemporary to other ancient world civilizations like Mesopotamia in the irrigated lands by the Tigris and Euphrates, Egypt along the Nile, the civilization of China in the drainage basins of Yangtze and Yellow River.

The INC extended from the west of Balochistan in Pakistan to western Uttar Pradesh in the east of India, further extended from north-eastern Afghanistan to the south state of India- Gujarat. Among the prominent areas covered by IVC, the largest cites include Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat ,Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir – all states of India. One of the IVC cite is identified at Oxus River at Shortugai in Northern Afghanistan. The southern-most site of INC is Daimabad, an area in Maharashtra state. Also, a few cites are present in Pakistan – Punjab, Sindh and Baochistan provinces.

Stages in the development of the Harrapan Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization development stages are divided into different phases starting from the pre-era to early stages and followed by maturity and late-harappan. The final stage is the Iron Age stage.

The pre-harrapan era – neolithic started with Mehrgarha mountain site in Balochistan, a province of Pakistan. The Mehrgarh site is evident for herding and farming, which seem influenced more by the nearby eastern neolithic.

Named after the Ravi River, the early stage of Harappan civilization lasted from 3300 BCE until 2800 BCE. It began when the population, mostly constituting a farmer community, started moving from mountains between their mountain houses and the lowland river valley. It is also considered to be related with the Hakra Phase, which also predates the Not Diji Phase. It was identified in the Ghakkar-Hakra river valley to its west. Kot Diji is named after a site in northern Sindh of Pakistan, near Mohenjodaro.

The pre-harrapan stage was immediately followed by the mature stage. The southward movement of the monsoon across Asia, helped populations of Indus civilization to tame floods. And subsequently it turned out the flood water was used for cultivation, and helped in producing surplus agriculture. It has become a major reason for the overall growth, support and development of cities. Scholars believe that the major population was relying on the seasonal monsoon. But this was not sufficient to fulfil the needs and hence it resulted in triggering reorganization and reformation of larger urban centres. The urban centres include Mohenjodaro, Harappan ,rupar, Rakhigarhi and Ganeriwala, besides other important establishments.

Harrapan language and script

There are no significant traces or sources to well-establish the kind of language used by humans ,as a way to communicate in the Harrapan civilization. For language, scholars have reduced it to loanword and substratum influence. Here the substratum denotes vedic sanskrit with the influence of Sumerian cuneiform. These marked facts were based on hypotheses by mainstream scholars and academics.

Square seal depicting a nude male deity with three faces, seated in yogic position on a throne, wearing bangles on both arms and an elaborate headdress.
Credit: https://www.harappa.com/

Dr. SR Rao, an Indian archeologist, suggested an Indo-European language that is found close to Proto-Indo -Iranian, but his suggestion gained lesser relevance and acceptance by mainstream academics. Another factor related to a lesser accepted concept is – a Sematic language that identifies Harrapan culture with the Asura Empire.

The Harappan script, also known as the Indus script, is considered as a corpus of few symbols produced during the Bronze age. Scholars believe that signs and symbols available from the Indus Valley Civilization are undeciphered, making it difficult to ascertain whether it constitutes a script. Despite studies, no significant change was witnessed. However, little syntax depends entirely upon location.

Mohenjodaro Seals
Credit: https://www.harrapa.com

What factors made this pre-historical period more relevant and close to archeologists are its noted new techniques in handicraft like seal-carving, its baked-brick houses and its concept of urban planning. Besides this, it has also attracted a lot of interest due to its water supply and drainage system and metallurgy.

Archaeologists are of the belief that this is a civilization where a system of standardized weights and measures was developed with precision and accuracy. Well-known art forms of pottery, jewellery and sculptures made their way during this civilization.

What did the Indus Valley Civilization invent?

During the excavation, archeologists found traces of ornamental buttons, bow drills, public baths, signboards and public litter bins. These were few among the eminent discoveries of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Drainage System

The Indus Valley Civilization has a well-flourished drainage system accompanied with advanced sewerage system in cities like Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Lining the, significant streets, the waste water was directed directly to the gravity sewers- which according to archeologist is considered an advanced attempt of that time.

Anthropology: Evidence of ancient drainage system in Mohenjo Daro
Credit: https://www.emaze.com


On a wooden board, the Harappans set pieces of mineral gypsum forming ten substantial letters. This is known as ‘Dholavira signboard’. One of the most significant attempts was found on the northern gateway of Dholavira. With passing time, the signboard fell flat. But the letter arrangement remained intact, except its wooden part decayed. The sign board was approximately 15 inches (37 cm) high and the board that inscribed letters itself was about 9.8 ft (3m)long.

Dholvira sign boards in ancient history Indus Valley Civilization
Credit: https://www.harrapa.com

Hydraulic Engineering

The Harappans of Dholavira developed a unique water conservation system of reservoirs and channels -built only with stones. The probable reasons for developing this kind of efficient system, which was considered one of the advanced hydrologic engineering of third millennium BCE were considered to came in existence as response of desert like climatic conditions and geographical situation of kutch.

Anthropology: Evidence of hydraulic engineering in the Indus Valley Civilization
Credit: https://www.harrapa.com

Public bath

British historian and journalist, John Stanley Melville Keay has described public baths found in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, at present in Pakistan.

were of modest ‘swimming pool’ size that were complemented with stairs leading to the bottom.


It is Harrapan civilization that attains credit for developing stepwell with its earliest signs discovered by archeologists at Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan and Dholavira (India). The main three features of the pool constitute the main bathing pool, with steps leading down to the bottom surface and three religious structures of religious importance. Evidence shows that it was further adopted by Jains and Buddhists into their architectural plans. From where it made its way to other parts of the world.

Anthropology: Indus Valley Civilization Stepwells
Credit: https://www.archaeology.org/

Indus Valley Civilization Buttons

By 2000 BC, the buttons produced from seashells came into existence in the Indus Valley Civilization. The buttons were mostly carved in geometric shapes and had holes, most probably used to attach clothing by using thread. The earliest known button is 5000 years old and was found in Mohenjo daro of Indus valley.

Anthropology: Buttons from the Indus Valley Civlization
Credit: https://historyten.com/

Seven stones

Still played in rural areas, the seven stone game known as ‘Pitthu’ in the Indian subcontinent ,is actually known to originate during the Harappan civilization.

Anthropology: The ancient game of Seven Stones is still played today.
Credit: https://indiantraditionalgames.wordpress.com/

Other : Besides the main discoveries made by archeologists, the Indus valley civilization also witnessed the development of Bow drills, circular saw, grid plan, distillation, dentistry , lost wax casting and touchstone.

Population of the Indus Valley Civilization

Around 5000 inhabitants, most of them were accomplished artisans and traders. Considered a highly sophisticated civilization, most of the population was found in villages. Densely populated, the culture and lifestyle of human civilization are not easy to describe. As villages almost diminished over a period of time, leaving behind no traces. Among the Indus Valley Civilization, Mohenjo-Daro was considered the largest city, covering an area of 3000 hectares and a population of about 4000, respectively.

Trade and transportation

Besides showcasing their extraordinary skills in producing and discovering new tools and inventions. The Harappans also got involved in trading and transportation. Scholars established that there was a well -knit system of trading which was spread externally and internally. The trading of goods from one place to another helped them to expand their culture and tradition. For the purpose of business transactions, they were known to use weights that included cubed-stones. The cubes were made from limestone and steatite. Harappans manufactured goods from available local material or material brought by traders and the finished goods were then taken to other areas for selling purposes. The main goods used for trading were metals like gold and silver, colorful gem stones, terracotta pots, flints, seashells and pearls.
Jade was brought from China, minerals from Iran and Afghanistan. Copper and lead came from India. Trade was carried internally ,within the area. And also covered other adjacent countries too, like Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia. It is believed that this civilization used wheeled transportation like bullock carts and boats as well. For land, Harappans used camels, elephants and oxen. The carts used to transfer goods had wooden wheels. Since there was no proper system of currency, the Barter system was used, where goods and services were exchanged with other goods and services without any exchange of currency.
Sea routes also have their own importance for the purpose of trade. The trade routes ran along the coast, into the gulf of Omen and also the Persian Gulf.
Today, it is considered as the small Harappan port located on the southwestern coast of Kutch that provides shelter and provides ships sailing between the Indus estuary and the Gulf of Cambay.
The earliest sheltered harbor is Lothal, which Harappan developed as a large emporium and serving station. Located on the eastern margin of the township, the largest structure ever constructed by Harappans of baked bricks is the one laid bare at Lothal. The trade regulations between Egypt and Kathiawar have two terracotta figurines. Out of two, one resembles a gorilla, whereas the other is a mummy. These structures were found at Lothal.

Food in the Indus Valley Civilization

According to scholars, the Harrapan civilization’s population fed on main staples like wheat and barley, which they apparently further used to prepare breads and also cooked with water to form porridge and pudding. Also, for their day to day needs, they cultivated pulses and lentils like green gram, black gram, chickpeas and peas. Also, it was noted that in places like Gujrat, they cultivated native millets, with a possibility of broom corn millets.

For these domesticated animals, they probably started cultivating wild rice. But rice didn’t become a major crop until the beginning of Post-Harappan times.
The Harappans cooked on hearths and used rounded stones for crushing grain into flour.

Not only this, scholars believe that Harappans may have consumed a variety of fruits ,vegetables and spices like coriander, dates, walnuts, mangoes, okra, sugarcane, garlic, ginger; spices like turmeric, cinnamon and cumin. Sesame oil and linseed oil may have been used by populations. But the evidence for this is bleak and cannot be authenticated.

Also, Harrapan survived on meat derived from cattle, sheep, pig and buffalo. Dairy products were also consumed and its main source was domesticated animals.

Harappa Archeological Research Project (HARP)

HARP involves scholars from throughout the world and it is considered as one of the first multi-disciplinary excavation projects that started in the year 1986. Started by Late Professor George F.Dales and Dr. JM Kenoyer in Harappa, Punjab province (now in Pakistan).The HARP excavation project was carried out in direct collaboration with the Department of Archeology and Museum and the Government of Pakistan.

Significance in Anthropology

The Indus Valley Civilization has a lot to give to the present world. It is somehow considered to be the blueprint of current civilized society. Whether it is structural innovations or artefacts. Scholars and archeologists are still researching several aspects that led to the secrets of the Indus Valley Civilization. Not only archeologists and scholars, it has also fetched the interest of tourists from the entire world.

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