An Ancient Communist Utopia? The Indus Valley Civilization
In 5000 years time, if an archaeologist was going to analyse the remains of our civilisation, two things would be very obvious. First, that we live in a very very unequal society, there is definitely an upper class, a political class, and a lower class, with me, everyone i know, and probably you too. Second, that we are a society with a large standing army that frequently gets involved in large conflicts. We're very militarised. Both of these things would be very obvious archaeologically and certainly obvious in the historical record. Now this isn't some grand philosophical discovery on my part. War and inequality have been a feature of human civilisation for, I mean basically forever. With one prominent, possible exception.
The Indus Valley Civilization. Can this really be true? Were they some sort of ancient communist utopia? Let's take a look let's take a look at the evidence! Okay, I know this civilization isn't as famous as some so let's just have a super quick, tiny guide to the Indus Valley Civilization aka Harappan. It existed in what is now India, Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan and it's called the Indus Valley Civilization because it was on the Indus.... kind of. Other rivers too, but also the Indus. It's divided into three periods, early, mature, late. Though when we're talking about the Harappan civilization, we often just refer to the mature period. That's when they developed a writing system that we can't read.
Lived in large cities, harappa and mahenjo-daro being the biggest with like 30 to 50,000 people in, that sort of size, um and they generally lived a bronze age lifestyle, you know. They traded with their neighbours, they made fine crafts. Stuff like that, bronze age stuff. At its height the civilisation spanned over 3 million square kilometers, which is bigger than Egypt and Mesopotamia combined. It really was huge, colossal. Aaaaand allegedly was a peaceful,
egalitarian society. Which i've click-baitingly called an ancient communist utopia, because the algorithm rules my life, don't judge me! This accusation has intrigued me so much though I've spent the last three months looking into it, this video is so behind schedule. Can this really be true? Can they really have been so different to uh everywhere else? I'm...
I'm skeptical, I'm.. I'm pretty skeptical. Big thanks to my patreons for uh suggesting the topic! Bish Bash Bosh! let's look at the arguments. Okay, so who says they were peaceful and why? Well this peaceful interpretation of Harappan archaeology goes way back to the earliest days of its excavations. Mackay in 1931 believed that the
weapons he found at Harappan sites were made of such thin metal they would "double up on impact" and he connected this like perceived simplicity of weapons to an absence of war. "Judging from the small number of weapons of offense and defense, the people of mahenjo-daro appear neither to have been a war-like people, nor have feared invasion". This idea really took off. It's been repeated frequently throughout the 20th century but it's coming under increased scrutiny, and i'm doing some scrutinising too. This it seems too good to be true. Harappan weapons were simple, yes, correct. They don't very much in design and the blades don't have a mid-rib. If we compare a typical harappan axe to one from mesopotamia, harappan axes were unsocketed uh and didn't come in specialised shapes or fancy shapes. Does this mean they weren't used in war though? You know, an
axe doesn't have to be fancy to kill you. Egyptian axes were unsocketed until the iron age and no one would say that the Egyptians didn't go to war. As for bending upon impact, i mean, sure they're simple but they're the same thickness as many blades from the near east. I know bronze isn't
the sharpest, it isn't the strongest metal. It'll still stab the crap out of you realistically. I don't want to fight someone with a bronze weapon. Mackay's claim the weapons are also few in number doesn't really add up. Between 30% to 50% of the metal assemblages found across the Indus
could be considered tools/weapons. It could be argued that Mackay was inclined to think of these arrows, and spears, and axes as tools rather than weapons because they're found exclusively in domestic contexts. Whereas in mesopotamia they're found in tombs. So it sort of gives you this idea of a, you know, an important warrior being buried. Whereas if they're just found in the kitchen,
maybe not. Either way, there's loads of bloody weapons across the Harappan civilization. Another strange thing this alleged peaceful civilization was doing was building tons of walls. Almost all Harappan towns were walled. Now walls aren't necessarily for defense. Some could appear defensive but most of the time, you know, could have had an administrative function.
Others are to separate ritual areas from everyday areas, like the torii gates of Japan. You'll often find the walls at harappan sites described in these terms, particularly in older sources. "Close consideration of the walls around Indus cities has shown that they cannot have been constructed for defense against people. In particular, the gateways were not designed to impede the entrance of enemies or give military advantage to defenders. Instead they provide an outer bulwark supporting the massive platforms on which Indus towns and citadels were often constructed". Cannot have been constructed for defense against people, that's a pretty bold claim. I mean sure, many of the walls may have been a part of a flood defense
system. Harappan cities were built on these huge mounds of mud bricks presumably to rise them above flood waters and the walls could have played a part in that, no doubt. Can we argue that that was the only function that the walls had? I don't think so. At a Surkotada the city walls contained bastions at several points around the walls. These would be totally unnecessary as
flood protection but would be bloody brilliant if you needed to, you know, bosh someone on the head with a rock or an arrow or whatever. Their gateways are pretty complicated, they have these L shapes and and possible guard rooms. That design certainly seems like it was uh created to impede the movement of people. Another town, Dholavira, also had an elaborate gateway with uh possible guard rooms but interestingly this town's city walls were up to 18 meters in thickness. Which is really pretty unnecessary for defense. Were they part of, you know, some sort of flood system? Probably not. The town was not by any major rivers and was unlikely to have been at
risk of flooding. It's possible that as Dholavira was a coastal town they built these extra thick walls as protection against a tsunami, which can happen in Gujarat where the town is. But still, it has elaborate gates it has bastions, this suggests that this huge wall, whatever its purpose, was not entirely for controlling water. Let's quickly compare this to another contemporary civilization.
The lion gate in Mycenae is not complicated at all, just walk straight into the bloody town. Yet we know that the mycenaeans certainly participated in war. So, for me, i'm not personally 100% convinced that the sophistication of gateways is an indicator or not of whether a civilization went to war. There are obviously more Harappan towns than that but i think these two examples show that
not all Harappan walls could be considered solely flood defenses. Why build bastions to protect yourself against water? Makes no sense. Anyway a lot of harappan towns actually show signs of burning not flood damage. At the juncture between the early harappan and the mature harappan an interesting pattern emerges.
Kot diji, Gumla, Amri Nausharo, Kalibangan, all of these towns whose names I've no doubt butchered, they all show major signs of burning. Complete destruction of the towns between these two periods. Accidental fires can happen but rarely at a large scale. We might not see a pattern if they were accidental. At Kalibangan there's possible evidence of an earthquake, so a huge natural
disaster can't be ruled out but the pattern is really striking. According to Greg Possehl, of 523 harappan sites found so far, 324 were abandoned before the mature harappan period. 71% of mature towns were founded on virgin land, unlike say in the near east where towns are used for so long they create these man-made hills called tells. I mean, why such a huge change between these two periods? Sadly, the mists of time have obscured exactly what happened, but i think, personally, it's probably unlikely that the transition between the early harappan and the mature harappan was entirely peaceful. That's a lot of burning that's a lot of abandoned towns. Bones, bones, bones! Excavations outside the city of Harappa itself recorded injuries to nine of the 58 cranium recovered. That's over 15 percent! That's a high rate, that's a high
percentage of boshes on the noggin. Now these are just a few examples, of course. We have to bear in mind that this is an extremely small sample of all the people who ever lived and died during the Indus Valley Civilization, but nevertheless it shows that some Harappans participated in, witnessed, or were victims of violence. Organized warfare might have been a factor in their deaths, no reason to rule it out. Now as I said earlier, we can't read their writing. Even if we could, it is probably not going to be that illuminating. The longest inscription is only 26 characters long, there's a limit to how much information can be revealed in such short inscriptions. However,
harappans did trade with mesopotamia and we can read their writing. So did they ever say anything about war with harappa? Well only once and it's a massive maybe, absolutely massive maybe. "Rimush, king of the world, in battle, was victorious over AbalgamaI, king of Parabgum. Zabar, Elarn, Glupin, and Meluhha assembled in Parabium for battle". It's believed that Meluhha, mentioned in this text was the mesopotamian name for the Indus civilization but we're not 100% on that. We could definitely be wrong. And we have to bear in mind that the author, whoever they were, could have been lying, exaggerating, wrong, misinformed.
But if Meluhha does mean the Indus valley and if the author wasn't lying or wrong then that is one source describing a conflict with harappa. That's one minor point in in favour of war! I think the only major point in favour of harappan's living peaceful lives is the lack of artwork depicting war or violence. I could only track down one seal which seemingly shows two people spearing each other. There may be more that i couldn't find, but if they exist they're certainly not discussed in any of the books about harappa, even when they're talking about conflict and violence. This is obviously really different to the rest of the ancient world where
representations of war are much more common. So, I suppose even though i don't think that they lived peaceful lives, I think this peaceful harappans is is a bit of a myth, it could be that harappan civilization was more peaceful than other regions and that being a warrior was not a core feature of someone's identity. They're not choosing to represent it in art, they're not burying themselves with weapons. So they could have just been part-time soldiers, just on the weekends. They might not have fought pitched battles involving thousands upon thousands
of people. Maybe they participated in raiding or ritual conflicts, just violence that would leave less of an archaeological trace. It's not just war that isn't illustrated in their artwork though, we're also missing any images of rulers, or monarchs, or kings or queens. After 100 years of excavation, it's fair to say we still have no idea how their society was organized! There are certain things we expect to see in the archaeological record if a society has a strict hierarchy. Monumental tombs are obviously a sign of hierarchy, but the graves in harappan culture are remarkably similar. The most variable item is pottery.
An elaborate grave might contain 30 pots, 50 pots, 70 pots about that amount. A less elaborate grave maybe none or two. Presumably the guy with 70 pots is richer than the guy with none, but 70 parts, that's hardly the height of luxury. That's nothing compared to a pyramid or anything like that! Over in mesopotamia, sometimes over 100 people would be sacrificed when a monarch died.
That's luxury, that's hierarchy. 70 pots what's that!? If you're a king and you've only got 70 pots, that's that's pretty pitiful in my opinion. It's worth pointing out that burial itself could be an identifier of some sort of social rank possibly. For example a Kalibangan I believe they only found 88 graves. Now this town probably had a population of at least a thousand people and was occupied for 600 years, so 88 graves is way less people than lived and died there. So perhaps, regardless of how many pots were included in your burial, the fact that you were buried alone might be some sort of indicator of rank. Or perhaps the
opposite? Perhaps the graves don't vary that much because we're only finding the graves of peasants and something else happened to the really special, elite people. But problem with that idea is that there's probably a lot more than 88 peasants as well. So it's a tricky issue, it's a tricky issue, but either way they have nothing on the scale of the burials of the near east, mesopotamia, or europe even. Nothing approaching the scale of these ancient burials.
There are no great monuments to any rulers uncovered. No monuments at all in fact, absolutely none! There are no obvious temples or palaces. Instead we find houses that are very uniform in size. Here's some examples from mohenjo-daro. Not much variation, just a few extra rooms. Life in these houses uh would have been pretty comfortable though. Many houses had toilets, bathrooms, sewer systems.
"There is nothing that we know of in prehistoric egypt or mesopotamia or anywhere else in western asia to compare with the well-built baths and commodious houses of the citizens of mohenjo-daro. In those countries, much money and thought were lavished on the building of magnificent temples for the gods and on palaces and tombs of kings but the rest of the people seemingly had to content themselves with insignificant dwellings of mud. In the Indus valley the picture is reversed, and the finest structures are those erected for the convenience of the citizens. Temples, palaces and tombs there may of course have been but, if so, they are either still undiscovered or so like other edifices as not to be readily distinguishable from them". Really, if you think about it, considering the scale of their civilization, it is truly incredible that after 100 years we haven't unearthed an obvious temple or palace. Now you might be thinking "oh Stefan there's this bloody round thing at Mohenjo-daro". I thought that too.
That is a later edition, it's a buddhist stuppa. It's not contemporary to harappan civilization, just in case you're wondering. Not only were these towns and houses well equipped in terms of water management, between them they shared a universal system of weights and measurements and they could support a large population, you know, 50,000 people, that's not small. How do we explain this complexity without hierarchy? Who decided
the towns should be this way? Could their society really have been so egalitarian, were there a bunch of commies like old Lenin here. Or was social rank signified in more subtle ways? One artifact which has probably come to represent harappan culture more than any other is the so-called "priest king of mohenjo-daro". Found in 1925 it was interpreted by excavators as representing some form of priest-king, hence the name. But modern archaeologists have basically rejected this title. Realistically we have no idea who this person is. We don't know if it even is representing a real person, or it could be a mythological figure, or a god, we just don't know. As well, the statue is a mere 18 centimeters tall. It is seemingly snapped in half, so let's say the original was 30 to 40 centimeters.
That's still a very modest statue of a king. Similar statues anyway have been unearthed in Iran. So it could be evidence of trade and cultural exchange rather than any one ruler. Another possible indicator of rank are the over 200 seals that have been found throughout the Indus valley, and even as far away as Gonur Depe, in Turkmenistan. These tablets are carved out of
steatite, or soapstone. Very soft stuff! Soft, crumbly, it's the butter of rocks, but they were baked and glazed to increase their hardness. It's not believed they represented any specific rulers, though, you know, as we can't read the bloody writing it's hard to say for sure. Could they represent corporate groups, oligarchies, merchant guilds? The number of animals on the seals does not vary that much. Only 17 different animals are represented. What did each animal represent? a family? a tribe? merchant guild? trade guild? god? We can't say for sure. The fact that they're
made out of soft stone means that they probably weren't used often as stamps and were maybe worn as a badge of office. They do have loops on the back to hang them from something. The existence of corporate groups, or a system for distributing labour is not proof in of itself that harappan society was hierarchical but there could have been some differentiation between the groups. For example, if one group was represented by this unicorn symbo,l then these unicorn guys (what are these unicorn guys....) these bronies, they were by far and away the most numerous. Though again, these stamps are made out of the butter of rocks. What we think of as as
being a more numerous group might in fact just be a huge bias in the archaeological record. Intriguingly these signs are remarkably uniform over time. Perhaps the fact that they don't vary much could be evidence of hierarchy? "The use of these standardized seals within a hierarchically regulated structure of officially established and liaising socioeconomic and possibly political roles. might explain the persistence of a restricted set of symbols and material expressions, spread with minor variations".
In other words, it's possible whoever controlled the seals controlled the economy. Until we decipher their alphabet this debate just is not going to end. It really is the missing piece of the puzzle. In my own personal opinion, this is still pretty poor evidence for a strict hierarchy and social control. Even if the seals did represent some sort
of oligarchy or controlling group, you know some ruling bureaucracy of scribes, then why didn't they use their position to further their wealth in other ways? Why just the seals? If this really is the case, if this civilization was really egalitarian, then we need some way to explain their motivation for constructing these cities. This was no small job! These mounds are made up of hundreds of thousands of mud bricks which people would have had to have made in the hot sun. You know, that's not a fun job, they had to have some reason to do it. Greg Possehl believes that we can get a glimpse of the ideology that might have united the harappan peoples. The abandonment of towns at the transition to the mature period, the city life, the importance of water, the craft specialization that they would have had to have had to just be a bronze age, mercantile society. These could offer a peek into their founding ideology. Was this ideology the uniting factor, the motivating factor? Did perhaps
a specific religious conviction cause these people to unite into creating these great works? It's possible. It's an incredible thought but it's possible! Alright a-mundo! Let's wrap this video up, you've been listening to me and my spoon long enough. Were the harappans peaceful? I think you know my answer to that question. I don't think we can honestly say that. They had weapons, lots of them. They had city walls with bastions, lots of them. Towns were abandoned and burned, lots of them. They had cemeteries with people who were wounded,
many bosh on the noggin victims. What further evidence could we want for violence? The only missing piece is that artwork but everything else suggests that they were violent, and again i'm not saying they necessarily fought huge pitched battles on the regular, but they were fighting someone some of the time. I think there's plenty of evidence to say that. As for the charge that they were egalitarian, that seems to me harder to dispel. If they had an elite, they certainly didn't flaunt their wealth anywhere near as much as other contemporary societies on their scale. I mean king 70 pots, that's really not a lot. So where does this leave us. Well, in my opinion,
there are three possible options. Number one, there was an aristocracy, monarchy, hierarchy, but for whatever reason it's become archaeologically invisible. Wankowski argues that harappan civilization maybe was like anglo-saxon England. Cities full of merchants but an aristocracy that pretty much exclusively lived in rural areas, and we just haven't found or excavated their palaces.
Number two, the seals are a symbol of some sort of mercantile oligarchy, some sort of ruling cast, that for some reason has just become hard to identify archaeologically in any other way. And number three, Harappa was truly an egalitarian society or as egalitarian as it's possible to get! Maybe they were some sort of bronze age republic. It's certainly not impossible! I'm going to throw a cheeky fourth option at you as well. Massimo Vidali believes that we have uh misinterpreted the evidence for palaces. Sort of how i believe we've misinterpreted their evidence for how peaceful they were. He argues that the large buildings at mohenjo-daro which we have sort of labeled as marketplaces, public baths, could be better interpreted as palaces. Though we need to excavate
more to determine if that is true or not, but he argues that we have misinterpreted the evidence. So option number four, we're wrong! At the minute, as the evidence for social hierarchy is sparse, what side of this debate that you come down on really depends on your ideology. Do you think all of this complexity that we see is possible without hierarchy? Or are we all just fundamentally a bunch of bootlickers down to our very core? I won't tell you what i think comrades! Golly gosh that video took forever to make! Hope you enjoyed it though. What do you think? Do you agree with me that they weren't peaceful but probably egalitarian? Let me know down in the comments. A big thanks to Anna from the podcast the dirt for doing the voice overs for me. Even though i forgot to send her a few, but the links to the
dirt are down below. You'll love it! If you're into archaeology you're gonna love it! There's no doubt about it it's an archaeology podcast. Tremendous thanks to my patreons for supporting me. they actually picked this topic uh which really sort of pushed me out of my comfort zone. I didn't know anything really about the Indus valley civilization before this. So much thanks to my patreons, their names are all flying by as we speak.
Their support is incredible and if you want to hang out with me talking about archaeology then hop onto the patreon. We do a live stream every month it's super cool i gotta go to bed