The Forgotten Indus Civilization

The first civilization in South Asia is cloaked in mystery. It emerged in the valleys of the Indus River and the now dried up Saraswati River in present-day Pakistan and India. Although it originated earlier, Indus Valley civilization flourished from about 2500 B.C., to about 1800 B.C.. Its once-prosperous cities were only rediscovered in the 1920s, unearthed by archaeologists' picks and shovels.

Archaeologists have not fully uncovered many Indus Valley sites. Still, we do know that the Indus Valley civilization covered the largest area of any civilization until the rise of Persia more than 1,000 years later. We know, too, that its great cities were as impressive as those of Sumer.

Well-Planned Cities Reveal Organized Government

In recent years, archaeologists have discovered more than 1,000 settlements along the Indus River and the dry bed of the Saraswati. At least eight of the settlements are larger cities that archaeologists believe may have been prominent during the course of the civilization's history.

Since their discovery in the 1920s, the Indus cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (moh HEN joh DAH roh) have been considered possible twin capitals of the civilization, or cities that ruled the area one after the other. Both were large, some three miles in circumference. Each was dominated by a massive hilltop structure whose exact purpose is unknown. Both cities had huge warehouses to store grain. Clearly, farmers produced enough surplus food to support thousands of city dwellers.

Black and white photo of a man studying an excavated ancient settlement in the desert, with stone walls and a stone well.

Archaeologists discovered cities of the ancient Indus civilization in the 1920s. This excavated drainage system is in the city of Lothal, discovered in 1945.

The most striking feature of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro is that they were carefully planned. Mohenjo-Daro was laid out in a grid pattern, with long, wide main streets and large rectangular blocks. Houses were mostly built with baked clay bricks of a standard size.

Indus houses had surprisingly complex plumbing systems, with baths, drains, and water chutes that led into sewers beneath the streets. Merchants in the marketplace used a uniform system of weights and measures—additional evidence of careful planning.

From this evidence, archaeologists have concluded that Indus Valley cities were planned by a well-organized government. The rigid pattern of building and uniform brick sizes suggest government planners at work. These experts must have been skilled in mathematics and surveying to lay out the cities so precisely.

Farming and Trade

As in other early civilizations, most Indus Valley people were farmers. They grew a wide variety of crops, including wheat, barley, melons, and dates. They also may have been the first people to cultivate cotton and weave its fibers into cloth.

Some people were merchants and traders. Their ships carried cargoes of cotton cloth, grain, copper, pearls, and ivory combs to distant lands. By hugging the coast of the Arabian Sea and sailing up the Persian Gulf, Indus vessels reached the cities of Sumer.

Scholars think that contact with Sumer may have prompted the people of the Indus Valley to develop their own system of writing. Still, Indus script bears no resemblance to Sumerian cuneiform.

Indus Religious Beliefs

From clues such as statues and images on small clay seals, archaeologists have speculated about the religious beliefs of the Indus people. Like other ancient peoples, they appear to be polytheistic. A mother goddess, the source of creation, seems to have been widely honored, along with a male god.

Indus people also seem to have viewed certain animals as sacred, including the buffalo and the bull. Some scholars think these early practices influenced later Hindu beliefs, especially the veneration of, or special regard, for cattle.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments