The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought in China

Pre-Axial Thought


Harappa: The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization

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Harappan Weights
Harappan weights

Traditionally early civilizations have been ranked in order of importance according to degrees of sophistication in the development and usage of script, agriculture, urbanization, architecture and trade. By all these measures the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization must be ranked as among the most advanced. This mercantile civilization had many progressive features like drainage, sewers and baths. They invented a system of measurement, which may be the first example of a decimal system; town planning made use of geometry and their weights, used in trade, show a geometrical progression with regular increases in ratios.

An ivory scale discovered at Lothal is engraved with close to thirty divisions regularly spaced every 1.704 mm. The Indian archaeologist Dr. Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao states: “It is the smallest division ever recorded on a scale of the Bronze Age. The width of the wall of the Lothal dock is 1.78 m [i.e. 1,000 such divisions ... and] the length of the east-west wall of the dock is twenty times its width. Obviously the Harappan engineers followed the decimal division of measurement for all practical purposes...” (Dawn and Devolution of the Indus Civilization, R. S. Rao, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1991)

Indus-Sarasvati Seals
A collection of Indus-Sarasvati seals. Over 3,000 have been found to date and seem to have served various purposes: some commercial, to identify consignments and ownership, and some possibly used for ritual purposes to invoke deities, perhaps to safeguard items. Indus seals have been found at Mesopotamian archeological sites as well.

Since the Indus script has as yet not been deciphered there is a lot we don’t know about the structure of society in villages or towns, or across the greater civilization. We don't know if there was a central government, a ruler or standing army, but indications are that there were not. It may have been a loose confederation of merchant cities; cities that sprang up as a result of unique, favorable environmental conditions that initially led to agricultural surpluses and subsequently to productivity surfeits, trade and specialization.


Dates BCE Phase Era
7000 - 5500 Mehrgarh I (aceramic Neolithic) Early Food-Producing Era
5500 - 3300 Mehrgarh II - VI (ceramic Neolithic) Regionalisation Era
3300 - 2600 Early Harappan
3300 - 2800 Harappan 1 (Ravi Phase)
2800 - 2600 Harappan 2 (Kot Diji Phase, Nausharo I, Mehrgarh VII)
2600 - 1900 Mature Harappan (Indus Valley Civilization) Integration Era
2600 - 2450 Harappan 3A (Nausharo II)
2450 - 2200 Harappan 3B
2200 - 1900 Harappan 3C
1900 - 1300 Late Harappan (Cemetery H); Ochre Colored Pottery Localisation Era
1900 - 1700 Harappan 4
1700 - 1300 Harappan 5
1300 - 300 Painted Gray Ware, Northern Black Polished Ware (Iron Age) Indo-Gangetic Tradition

Mehrgarh (7000 – 2000 BCE)

Ancient Mehrgarh Village
Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BCE

The Neolithic site of Mehrgarh is located to the west of the Indus-Sarasvati flood plain, in Baluchistan east of the mountain city of Quetta in Pakistan at the foot of the Bolan Pass, one of the major communication routes between the Iranian Plateau, Central Asia and the Indus Valley. According to the lead excavator, the French archaeologist Jean-François Jarrige, “The site covers an area of about 500 acres [200 hectares] with only pre-Harappan remains” and shows “evidence of continuous occupation for more than three millennia prior to the Harappan civilization.”

Nine thousand years ago this was a small farming village consisting of hunters, farmers and herders. Excavated in the 1970s, the French team in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan, found houses of mud brick, some with external walls painted and all built in a similar rectangular design, grouped together, sharing walls and oriented north-south and east-west. There is no sign of doorways so it appears that, in common with Çatalhüyük and Neolithic sites of the Fertile Crescent, entrances and exists must have been through rooftops; there is no evidence of what these roofs were made of, however.

Early Clay Figurines
Early clay figurines, Mehrgarh period l (7000–5500 BCE)

The team also excavated about 360 tombs in Mehrgarh where the dead, sometimes buried with tarred baskets at their feet, had funerary effects including not only utilitarian objects, but also skillfully crafted ornaments. These ornaments used materials that would have had to have been brought in from quite a long distance: such as seashells, lapis lazuli, and turquoise.

“The metallurgical analysis of a copper bead from a Neolithic burial (6th millennium BCE) at Mehrgarh, Pakistan, allowed the recovery of several threads, preserved by mineralization. They were characterized according to new procedure, combining the use of a reflected-light microscope and a scanning electron microscope, and identified as cotton (Gossypium sp.). The Mehrgarh fibres constitute the earliest known example of cotton in the Old World and put the date of the first use of this textile plant back by more than a millennium. Even though it is not possible to ascertain that the fibres came from an already domesticated species, the evidence suggests an early origin, possibly in the Kachi Plain, of one of the Old World cottons.”
Christophe Moulherat, Margareta Tengbert, Jerome-F. Haquet and Benoit Mille: “First evidence of cotton at Neolithic Mehrgarh, Pakistan: Analysis of mineralized fibers from a copper bead.” Journal of Archeological Science, December 2002, Volume 29, Issue 12, pp. 1393-1401.

The amount of burial goods decreased over time, becoming limited to ornaments and with more goods left with the female dead. Separate cemeteries near houses were created for children who died between birth and three or four years of age. Their corpses were placed in a flexed position, in the early period facing south with their heads toward the east and feet toward the west and at a later period a change in the orientation of skeletons was found with heads towards the southeast and feet towards the northeast. Evidence of proto-dentistry was found in Mehrgarh: using flint tips eleven drilled molar crowns from nine adults were discovered that date from 7,500 to 9,000 years ago.

Barley and wheat remains at the site and an uncovered part of a room or a yard with two intact storage jars surrounded by several grinding stones and pestles, lead archeologists to conclude that people were dependent on the cultivation of these grains to substitute hunted meat such as gazelle, wild sheep and goats; the latter the inhabitants began to domesticate along with the Indian zebu (Bos indicus) which became more common than its wild counterpart. By approximately 5000 BCE simple farming and hunting had been superseded by cattle, sheep and goat herding.

Figurines from the Later Period Mehrgarh
Figurine (1) from later period Mehrgarh, c. 3000 BCE (Musée Guimet, Paris)

Technologies included stone and copper drills, updraft kilns, large pit kilns and copper melting crucibles. From 5,500 – 3,500 BCE ceramic pottery was manufactured with motifs on Mehrgarh pottery ranging from woven vines and leaves to simple animal figures. Later periods feature sacred fig or Pipal (Hindi and Urdu; P I pal, from Sanskrit Pippal) leaf designs. Sacred fig or “Ficus Religiosa” is also known as Bo-Tree (Sanskrit; Bodhi or “wisdom”). Glazed faience beads were produced and terracotta figurines became more detailed. Figurines of females were decorated with paint and had diverse hairstyles and ornaments.

Male terracotta figurines
Male terracotta approximately 2700 BCE

Around 4300 BCE small-scale agricultural settlements began to proliferate. From Kandahar, Afghanistan to Baluchistan in Pakistan, we see widespread, well-organized sites like Mehrgarh, cultivating barley and wheat, engaging in cattle domestication and craft production. The pottery being produced, called Togau, shows a similarity of signs and motifs across the region and beyond, as far as Iran and Turkmenistan.

Togau Ware
Togau ware; black designs on red pottery approximately 3800 BCE

The style was characterized by geometric shapes and stylized animal figures. One particular characteristic is a band of hooks ‘S’ shapes, one after another, that look something like wavy grass.

Togau phase pottery shard illustration
Togau phase pottery shard illustration, showing band of ‘hooks’ or ‘S’ shapes.

By about 4000 BCE we begin to see early signs of urbanization. Earliest examples are Kot Diji in the Rohri Hills of Khairpur province in Pakistan, and Rehman Dheri on the west bank of the Indus River in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, the latter grew from a farming settlement to become home to over 10,000 people. It shows clear signs of the urban planning typically found from then on. The city was built inside large protective walls, with spacious streets laid out on a grid oriented from north to south and east to west, dividing settlements into blocks which were sub-divided by lanes which provided access to homes. The site was situated on a rectangular mound covering about 55 acres.

Very little is known about the agricultural methods of farmers who supported these cities. Some of them undoubtedly made use of the fertile alluvial soil from the various rivers flooding, but scholars don’t think this would have produced enough food to support the larger city populations. There’s no evidence of irrigation, but this may well have been completely destroyed.

Keep in mind that throughout Asia to this day, generations of rice farmers produce significant agricultural surpluses from terraced, hillside rice paddies. Relying on monsoon weather patterns in which the bulk of a year's rainfall occurs in a four-month period, the Indus-Sarasvati people may well have had similar farmlands and they certainly harvested rainfall: archeologists have excavated massive reservoirs hewn from solid rock that were designed to do so.

About this same time we see the beginning of the migratory push eastward from across the Indus River and into the Indus-Sarasvati plains, and a new form of pottery begins to emerge known as Hakra ware.  Mehrgarh remained continuously occupied until 2600 - 2000 BCE – about 5,000 years, after which it seems to have been abandoned, the inhabitants most likely also migrating to the fertile plains as Baluchistan became more arid, some likely joining those already settled at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

Hakra Ware pottery
Mehrgarh, Hakra Ware approximately 3300 BCE

While many areas saw continuous occupation and growth, the five major regional urban centers which have been identified to date from the civilization’s mature phase are: Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro both on the banks of the Indus, Ganweriwala and Rakhigarhi in the area where the Sarasvati once flowed, and Dholavira in the Indian state of Gujarat. Again, the quality and similarity of municipal town planning indicates that these communities had some method of coordinated administration, but we have no idea what form this took. Their streets were laid out like modern towns, all on a similar rectangular grid pattern. Mud bricks were used to build houses on either side of streets, usually on a stone foundation. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus-Sarasvati cities do not show the kind of massive gulf between wealthy and poor dwellings that is found in other ancient civilizations. Each site appears to have had a controlled water supply and elaborate drainage system with reservoirs for rainfall collection and storage, as well as sewage and waste systems; homes had access to water, many had baths, with drains leading into underground sewers or septic jars, some of which had inspection holes for maintenance. We are left with the impression of a society where even the poor had a decent standard of living - though of course there may have been more fragile facilities for the less fortunate of which there is now no trace. Public baths have also been found, such as the now famous one at Mohenjo-Daro.


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