History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Indus Valley Culture (Harappa / Sindhu Civilisation) (Bronze Age)
c.3300 - c.1700 BC

As the first great civilisations took shape in Sumer and Egypt, a people of unknown origin who were centred in the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan and India began constructing their own series of cities. These were as remarkable as any the world had yet seen, and at the same time trade flourished, and a system of writing evolved.

The Indus Valley civilisation emerged out of the pre-Indus South Asian Neolithic period (and a Vindhya Neolithic sub-set) which included a large type site at Mehrgarh. This location had been the result of the arrival of Pre-Pottery Neolithic B farming by about 6500 BC as the Levant's early farming boom brought about a large-scale population increase and outward-migration into South Asia and many other locations. The subsequent Pottery Neolithic would also have an impact, especially in the form of rectangular dwellings which were build around a courtyard.

The Indus Valley civilisation was the sub-continent's first urban civilisation. Its two biggest cities were Harappa (another way of naming the civilisation) which had a population of up to thirty-five thousand, and Mohenjo-daro which had a population of well over thirty-five thousand, although it also included over a hundred towns and villages, often relatively small.

FeatureAt its height, it encompassed nearly 1.3 million square kilometres of territory, more extensive than its older contemporaries in Sumer and Egypt. Its boundaries stretched from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea and from the Ganges watershed to the Gulf of Cambay (see feature link for a general overview of this civilisation and its later years).

The two main cities were each perhaps originally about 1.6 kilometres square in terms of overall dimensions. That magnitude suggests political centralisation, either from the two cities as twin states or within a single great state with alternative capitals, a practice which has analogies in Indian history. It is also possible that Harappa succeeded Mohenjo-daro, which is known to have been devastated more than once by exceptional floods. Southern regions around the Kathiawar peninsula and beyond appear to have developed after the main centres had been created.

Unfortunately, the full story of the development of this civilisation is extremely elusive. Its pictographic script has yet to be deciphered, although it does show a remarkable degree of civilisation-wide uniformity. Many of the carved stone seals carry stamps which serve as property markers (some of these have been found in Mesopotamia), and each seal also bears an inscription in pictographic characters which do not correspond to anything which is known from the other early civilisations.

The Indus people left no surviving histories, religious texts, literary epics, or king lists. No kings are known from any other sources (and no palaces have been found), but there was a priesthood which may have played a role in governing the civilisation.


(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of India, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between August-September 2007 (covering the Indus Valley culture and the migration of Indo-Europeans into India), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from the Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds, 1997), from Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, Tony Joseph (Juggernaut, 2018), and from External Links: Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Indus Valley (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

4000 - 3300 BC

The earliest known inhabitants along the Indus valley are nomadic herders from the hills of Baluchistan, not far to the west of the valley. Their stays in the valley are generally seasonal, even if at least some of them use the same sites year after year. By the mid-fourth millennium BC the pattern begins to change, with some family groups planting small garden plots. This develops into more permanent communities which remain in the valley all year round.

The ruins of Harappa
The ruins of Harappa were rediscovered in the 1920s, almost four thousand years after India's first true civilisation disappeared amid a general collapse of ancient civilisations that was due to climate change

One of the earliest is Amri, on the river's lower reaches. Seemingly emerging out of the preceding Vindhya Neolithic, this involves a single tribal group which encompasses twenty villages. The Indus Valley culture or civilisation quickly flourishes.

3300 - 2600 BC

One of the earliest cities to form begins modestly around 3300 BC as a village on the banks of the Ravi, a major tributary of the Indus in eastern Punjab. The city comes to be known as Harappa, and it gives the civilisation its name (or at least one of its names).

c.2600 BC

The city of Mohenjo-Daro ('Hill of the Dead' in Sindhi), is built and is laid out almost identically to Harappa, and even grows in time to house a larger population than its twin. The civilisation reaches its height at this time.

c.2350 BC

Trading posts are established far beyond the valley's fringes. One such settlement is at Sutkagen Dor, west of Baluchistan and within reach of the Persian Gulf. To the south of the valley, a large sea port is located at Lothal on the Gulf of Cambay (in the modern district of Ahmedabad). Trade routes from there to Sumer and Akkad are established from this date.

Reconstruction of a Sumerian temple
This reconstruction of a Sumerian temple provides some idea of how such religious buildings would have connected with the city around them

c.2300 BC

At the height of its civilisation, Harappa is home to thirty-five thousand people. The civilisation endures without perceptible change for the following four centuries. Its territory expands eastwards towards the Ganges and southwards into Gujarat, where new cities are founded such as Dholavira.

c.2200 BC

An indigenous Bronze Age culture emerges in Central Asia between modern Turkmenistan and down towards the Oxus (otherwise known as the Amu Darya), the somewhat nebulous region called Transoxiana. It is known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, or Oxus Civilisation (in Bactria and Margiana).

c.1900 BC

The beginnings of decline can be seen, while Sumer is also suffering from a general collapse. Mohenjo-Daro is abandoned around this time. The Cemetery H culture begins to emerge out of the northern part of the Indus Valley civilisation (which includes Harappa).

Allahdino village
The small village of Allahdino lies forty kilometres to the east of Karachi City in Sindh province, not too far from the coast, having been abandoned by its Indus Valley occupants around 2000 BC

This culture can be linked to the Indo-Aryan migrations, but can also be claimed as a late expression of Indus Valley culture. Possibly its a combination of both, with refugees from the Indus collapse joining the Indo-Aryan migration.

c.1800 BC

In this century the cities slip into terminal decline. No one cause seems responsible, but a combination of climate change, over-cultivation, and changes in the course of the Indus may contribute. The weakening of the monsoon is probably the most important single cause. Scribes in Sumer record that rich shipments suddenly cease at around 1800 BC.

c.1700 BC

The Indus culture dies out, alongside a similar fading for the Oxus Civilisation. Its people move east into Rajasthan and the Ganges watershed. Others head south to Gujarat, where the sea port at Lothal continues to flourish for a time before also being abandoned.

Gonur Tepe in Margiana
Ancient Merv, the capital of Persian and Greek Merv/Margiana, was eventually abandoned just like its even more ancient forebear shown here, Gonur Tepe (Gonordepe), which was a major city of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex until the River Murghab changed its course to leave it high and dry (click or tap on image to view full sized)

Its inhabitants blend into the Mesolithic tribes of the Deccan plateau in central India and others in southern India. Squatters take over the abandoned citadels, living in slum dwellings, and village life continues in the countryside.

The urban heritage is passed on to the east and engenders the emergence of cities in the Ganges valley and northern India, and the civilisation's reverence for animals is also passed on. Southern regions around the Kathiawar peninsula and beyond appear to survive this collapse, at least to an extent. They also pass on their knowledge through the Chalcolithic period and into the Iron Age.

Mohenjo-Daro remains inhabited but in decline until around 1500 BC, when its inhabitants are attacked and slaughtered, bodies left lying where they fall. The culprits are presumed to be newly-arriving Indo-Aryans, entering India with their pantheon of lively, often aggressive gods. They soon form small states of their own, with Magadha perhaps being the greatest.

Map of Central Asia & India c.700 BC
Following the climate-change-induced collapse of indigenous civilisations and cultures in Iran and Central Asia between about 2200-1700 BC, Indo-Iranian groups gradually migrated southwards to form two regions - Tūr (yellow) and Ariana (white), with westward migrants forming the early Parsua kingdom (lime green), and Indo-Aryans entering India (green) (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Due to the same climate change which ends the Indus Valley culture, the small, settled populations of Central Asia have recently begun to mobilise, notably from the area of modern Turkmenistan. Indo-Aryans from the Iranian plateau have begun infiltrating the Baluchistan hills at this time, and they may well intermix into village cultures.

In time, the Sindh region of the Southern Indus is conquered by the Persian empire and is formed into two satrapies, Thatagush and Indus, after which its history is shared with many other regions to the north and west.

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