An Ancient Communist Utopia? The Indus Valley Civilization

An Ancient Communist Utopia? The Indus Valley Civilization

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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

2021-02-04 13:51

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