ECONOMICS OF THE INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION

by Chad Greenwood

 

The Indus Valley Civilization, beginning sometime around 2300 BC, developed in two major city areas along the river valleys of the Indus, Ravi, and Sutlej, just beneath the Himalayan Mountains in modern Pakistan and Northeast India. Though these two cities have been excavated and exposed to the world, much is still unknown of the culture of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. The Indus people did not engrave inscriptions on stones or place papyrus scrolls in the tombs of their dead; all we know of their writing is derived from the simple inscriptions on their seals. Several efforts have been made to decipher the Indus seals, but none have truly succeeded this far; there is some notion that these seals could have been used as markers in trade situations, or that some may have represented family names.

 

What we do know of this civilization comes from the intense archaeological excavation of the area (Basham 1963:14). Anthropologists do know that these cities were highly developed for their period in history; the structure of their cities were so far advanced that it was not surpassed until the late nineteenth century in Europe (Heinz 1997:68). The genius behind the advanced architecture of the Indus civilization carried over into a thriving agricultural and trade based economy. The Indus people used the plentiful rivers surrounding them much to their advantage, the Indus the most spectacular of the three rivers.

How did this civilization make its living? Like the older civilizations proceeding Indus in Egypt and Mesopotamia, these ancient people farmed. The people of Indus prospered on the foundations of an agriculture based system of irrigation and fertility, maintained by silt-bearing floods (Hawkes 1973: 267). Wheat and six-row barley were grown, as were melon seeds, oil crops like sesame and mustard, and dates (petrified dates have been found in the excavation of the Valley). As for vegetables, the only apparent source was the field pea. The earliest traces of cotton known anywhere in the world have been found in the Valley. The people of Indus may have cultivated rice on the west coast, though this is not exactly certain (there is not enough evidence to prove this statement entirely true). They domesticated a number of animals from local wild species, including dogs and cats, zebu or the humped cattle, short-horns and buffaloes, and possibly pigs, camels, horses and asses (the later three used as transport). They may have domesticated the elephant too, but the evidence for this is also vague; the elephant was represented on several of the excavated Indus seals and its ivory was used for crafts (Wheeler 1966:64).

From every crop that a farmer grew, a large portion of it had to be paid into public granaries. At the Mohenjo-daro site, there was a high loading platform above a lower spot intended for carts where the farmers would dump their grain. It is assumed that this cart was small and powered by an ox or bullock, similar to those used in the area today. Terracotta models of bull driven carts have been excavated from the Mohenjo-daro site, and it appears that these carts have changed very little over some 4000 years. This cart would be taken and unloaded at a central granary where all farmers of the city gave up their wheat and barley. There are guesses that this centralized granary might have been the economic equivalent of our modern State Bank. This system is not found in Harappa; grain was brought into the city by boat (Hawkes 1973:267).

It appears that the people of Indus did in fact hunt the abundant wildlife in their midst. It is impossible to know if these people fished on a full time basis, but there is evidence that fish were caught with barbed hooks and line, and nets. Many of the local animals (including elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, buffalo, antelope and gharial) were represented on the seals so readily that they must have been a significant part of these peoples' diets. According to Hawkes, it is reasonable to believe that tigers may have taken the place of lions "in providing the sport for the princes...

One seal shows a Gilgamesh-like figure standing between two upreared tigers and another a man tackling a buffalo with a barbed spear" (1973: 268). In any respect (along with the grains, vegetables and fruits grown), animal meat was a factor of the ancient Indus diet.

 

Aside from the subsistence of agriculture and hunting, the Indus people supported themselves by trading goods. Through trade, the Indus Civilization expanded its culture, coming into regular contacts with far away lands. The long coastline and many rivers provided the people of the Indus territories with consistent trafficking by water. Archaeologists have turned up imports including gold from southern India, copper from Afghanistan, jade like fuchsite probably from southern India, and turquoise from Iran. Trade with Mesopotamia has been noted, as Indus pottery has been discovered in the ancient city of Tell Asmar (Wheeler 1966:64).

A number of typical Indus seals have also been found in Sumer, seals dating back to between 2300 and 2000 BC. The finding of Indus seals in Mesopotamia suggests that people of Indus may have resided in this territory; possibly merchants who were keeping up a constant trade with the Mesopotamian people (cotton was a staple export of Indus, and could have been the crop that brought these two civilizations into contact). As mentioned before, these seals are thought to have been a representation of personal names. With these seals turning up in some many locations, it seems that in spite of the totalitarian casts associated with the Indus state, trade may have been in the hands of private merchants rather than regulated by a form of governmental authority (Hawkes 1973:270).

 

The Indus seaboard has been commended by anthropologists for its efforts of oversea commerce. According to Hawkes, the people of Indus sailed in "high-prowed, single masted" boats, sound for carrying the trafficked goods (Hawkes 1973:270). The excavated site at Lothal (another ancient city within the Indus Valley) has revealed harbour works, and the Harappan people may have been more advanced in their nautical skills than was originally perceived. It is probable that the people of Lothal were in regular contact with peoples much farther south. As for the Harrapan culture, it is plausible to assume that their influences touched people as far as south India (Barham 1963:19).

Nearing the end of the Indus Valley Civilization, the cities began to wither and the strong economy slowly deteriorated. It was most likely the intermittent floods that tore apart and put and end to this civilization. Floods wiped out the irrigation system that supplied water to the crops, and many of the buildings were smothered. The people lost their drive to keep the cities orderly and prosperous. The constant flooding simply broke them of their morale as a proud people of such an advanced civilization. If it is true that the Aryans invaded the Indus Valley at the time when the civilization was withering, it was no wonder that they had no trouble forcing the people of Indus out of the area. But, it is certain that these people were powerful, determined, and advanced; easily seen through their strong willed and successful economy (Wheeler 1966: 76-9).

 

WORKS CITED

 

Basham, A.L.
1963 The Wonder that was India. New York: Hawthorn Books
 
Hawkes, Jacquetta
1973 The First Great Civilizations. New York: Random House
 
Heinz, Carolyn
1997 Asia, A New Introduction. 4th Ed. Chico: AS BKST
 
Khan, Omar
1997 Harappa, http://www.harappa.com. Date accessed: 12/03/97
 
Wheeler, Sir Mortimer
1966 Civilizations of the Indus Valley and Beyond. New York: McGraw-Hill
 
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