Science Unmasks New Knowledge about the Indus Civilization

Posted on July 20, 2008
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Culture & Heritage, History, Society
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Adil Najam

Cover, Science June 6 2008, Unmasking the IndusA recent cover story in the prestigious journal Science reports that the scientific view of the Indus Civilization, of how it compares to its other two contemporary civilizations (Mesopotamia and Egypt), and of what might have happened to it is undergoing a stark and important reconsideration. That scientists consider it to be “Boring No More” and, indeed, the emerging new understanding of the Indus Civilization suggests that it might have been “a powerhouse of commerce and technology in the 3rd millennium B.C.E.”

I must confess that I am late in reporting about, and nearly missed, the June 6 cover story by Andrew Lawler, titled “Unmasking the Indus” (Science, Vol. 320, p. 1276-1285). I have been traveling out of the country, nearly non-stop, for the last seven weeks and only just got to the stack of Nature and Science (two of my favorite magazines) that had piled up in the unread mail. Of course, one look at the cover – which depicts a “bearded, horned terra cotta mask, about 5 centimeters in height, found at Mohenjo Daro, Pakistan” – had me hooked on what is unusually detailed (10-page long, with 6 sub-reports) and gripping report on the exciting new knowledge and understanding of the Indus Civilization that is beginning to emerge; knowledge that is beginning to question our long-held assumptions about what the civilization was, or was not.

Of course, there is much written about the Indus Civilization, including fascinating and detailed reports in National Geographic, etc., but this Science report is different because it highlights how our scientific – in this case archaeological – knowledge on the subject is not only expanding, but changing. It really is worth reading in the full and I would encourage readers to do so.

Great Civilizations, Egypt, Indus, Mesopotamia

The opening few paragraphs of the lead essay – “Boring No More, a Trade-Savvy Indus Emerges” – give a flavor of the key argument:

THAR DESERT, PAKISTAN–Egypt has pyramids, temples, and mummies galore. Ancient Mesopotamians left behind the dramatic saga of Gilgamesh, receipts detailing their most prosaic economic transactions, and the occasional spectacular tomb. But the third of the world’s three first civilizations had, well, good plumbing. Even the archaeologists who first discovered the Indus civilization in the 1920s found the orderly streetscapes of houses built with uniform brick to be numbingly regimented. As recently as 2002, one scholar felt compelled to insist in a book that the remains left behind by the Indus people “are not boring.”

Science June 6 2008, Unmasking the IndusStriking new evidence from a host of excavations on both sides of the tense border that separates India and Pakistan has now definitively overturned that second-class status. No longer is the Indus the plain cousin of Egypt and Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Archaeologists now realize that the Indus dwarfed its grand neighbors in land area and population, surpassed them in many areas of engineering and technology, and was an aggressive player during humanity’s first flirtation with globalization 5000 years ago. The old notion that the Indus people were an insular, homogeneous, and egalitarian bunch is being replaced by a view of a diverse and dynamic society that stretched from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Himalaya and was eager to do business with peoples from Afghanistan to Iraq. And the Indus people worried enough about the privileges of their elite to build thick walls to protect them. “This idea that the Indus was dull and monolithic–that’s all nonsense,” says Louis Flam, an archaeologist at the City University of New York who has worked in Pakistan. “There was a tremendous amount of variety.”

… Even well-combed sites are still full of surprises: The city of Harappa may be 1000 years older and Mohenjo Daro far larger than once thought. And the dramatic “Buddhist stupa” adorning Mohenjo Daro’s high mound may in fact date back to the Indus heyday around 2000 B.C.E.

However, the problems remain serious. As the author points out:

…piecing together a cohesive new picture is hampered by the political discord between India and Pakistan. Many foreign archaeologists steer clear of Pakistan because of political instability, while India’s government–scarred by colonialism–often discourages researchers from collaborating with European or American teams. A virtual Cold War between the two countries leaves scientists and sites on one side nearly inaccessible to the other.

Science June 6 2008, Map of the Indus Valley CivilizationOne key in this new wave is the knowledge that was unleashed with the discovery, in the 1970s by a French-led team, of Mehrgarh “dating to 7000 B.C.E. in the Baluchistan hills on the western fringe of the Indus valley.” The Science article points out:

[Mehrgarh] is now widely accepted as a precursor to the Indus and clear proof of the indigenous nature of the later civilization. That idea gets new support from surveys here in the Thar Desert, on the eastern edge of the Indus valley. This area was long assumed to have been largely uninhabited before the rise of the Indus cities. But hundreds of small sites now show that humans lived here on the plains, not just in the Baluchistan hills, for several millennia prior to the rise of the Indus, says archaeologist Qasid Mallah of Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur.

Moenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan - Indus Civilization

Of course many mysteries remain – the largest probably about language and civilizational collapse – however, there is a key, and exciting difference:

For the first half-century after its discovery, the Indus was virtually synonymous with Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. No other major cities were known. But along with 1000 smaller sites, archaeologists now count at least five major urban areas and a handful of others of substantial size. These sites reveal new facets of Indus life, including signs of hierarchy and regional differences that suggest a society that was anything but dull and regimented.

One of the most fascinating aspect is about international trade:

Indus Valley CivilizationWhile evidence accumulates from Indus cities, other insights are coming from beyond the region, as artifacts from Central Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan show the long arm of Indus trade networks. Small and transportable Indus goods such as beads and pottery found their way across the Iranian plateau or by sea to Oman and Mesopotamia, and Indus seals show up in Central Asia as well as southern Iraq. An Indus trading center at Shortugai in northern Afghanistan funneled lapis to the homeland. And there is strong evidence for trade and cultural links between the Indus and cities in today’s Iran as well as Mesopotamia.

…”These people were aggressive traders, there is no doubt about it,” adds [Gregory] Possehl [ of the University of Pennsylvania], who has found Indus-style pottery made from Gujarat clay at a dig in Oman. Archaeologist Nilofer Shaikh, vice chancellor of Latif University, takes that assertion a step further, arguing that “the Indus people were controlling the trade. They controlled the quarries, the trade routes, and they knew where the markets were.”

She points out that although Indus artifacts spread far and wide, only a small number of Mesopotamian artifacts have been found at Indus sites. Evidence suggests that some Indus merchants and diplomats lived abroad, although the trade was certainly two-way. An inscription from the late 3rd millennium B.C.E. refers to one Shu-ilishu, an interpreter from Meluhha [a reference to the Indus civilization], reports NYU’s Wright in a forthcoming book. What may be Shu-ilishu and his wife are featured on a seal wearing Mesopotamian dress. There is some evidence for a village of Indus merchants between 2114 and 2004 B.C.E. in southern Iraq. And “a man from Meluhha” knocked out someone’s tooth during an altercation and was made to pay a fine, according to a cuneiform text, hinting at a life that was neither faceless nor boring.

Indus Valley CivilizationThere is much more in the full report to keep the reader engrossed. How archeaologists are chronically short of resources. How archaeologist Farzand Masih from Punjab University, Lahore, who is excavating at Ganweriwala, Pakistan, and Vasant Shinde from Deccan College, Pune, who is excavating at Farmana, India, work a mere 200 kilometers apart but cannot collaborate on their findings. How part of the last remains of a 5000-year-old city known as Lakhanjo Daro has been lost to “development” and a factory is being built over the site. How the politics of religion threatens to undermine scientific integrity and matters of archeology are being played out in the Indian parliament as well as the courts. How looters and thieves are running away with treasures of the Indus civilization. And much more.

I do hope our readers will find the Science report as fascinating as I did.

35 Comments on “Science Unmasks New Knowledge about the Indus Civilization”

  1. Hamza says:
    July 20th, 2008 7:23 pm

    Does sound like a fascinating report from the excerpts you have included, I guess I will have to read up the full report now!

  2. Hamza says:
    July 20th, 2008 7:30 pm

    By the way, I do think the Indus gets much less attention than the other civilizations. I always thought that was maybe because it did not leave behind any fancy large monuments like the other ;-)

  3. Zia says:
    July 20th, 2008 9:19 pm

    Thanks Adil for the article.

  4. Derelict says:
    July 20th, 2008 9:38 pm

    May Talibans burn in hell forever for destroying beautiful pieces of buddhas statues, part of ancient history.

    If the tourist or international expertise dont have the “access” or willingness to these places, new ideas wont come in on how to safely preserve or excavate ancient monuments.

  5. Amina Jaleel says:
    July 20th, 2008 11:29 pm

    Prof. Najam, thank you for this informative post and for telling us about this article. I think this is the type of posts that make this blog so popular, we can actually learn new things.

    In reading this, I was most happy to see the quotes from the Pakistani archaeologists and the good work being done at the Shah Latif University. Makes on feel good to read all this in a journal like Science.

  6. Eidee Man says:
    July 21st, 2008 12:06 am

    Good post, Adil; saw the feature in Science some time back and thought that it would be only a matter of time before ATP posted something about it. Hopefully in the future we will have more Science and Nature articles on the Indus Valley civilization–authored by Pakistanis.

  7. Greywolf says:
    July 21st, 2008 12:41 am


  8. Naseer says:
    July 21st, 2008 1:33 am

    - Adil Najam/ other commentators-
    We are rather ”dependent” on Professor Sahib to fish out such treasures for us from the piles of material he receives.
    As a matter of fact, what I do is just click on the highlighted word and go to the referred page to find new info’s and sometimes rather attractive things.
    Thanks to him and this is what makes this blog a ”parha likkha ” blog !!
    What is needed is marketing and a few movies to make Indus more talked about, whereas our media has its own agenda.

  9. Qizalbash says:
    July 21st, 2008 3:46 am

    Wow. SO much here that I did not know. Thank you for this.

    I was specially struck by the trade links that this ancient civilization had set up. I guess, we really should learn a thing or two from our ancestors!

  10. Rafay Kashmiri says:
    July 21st, 2008 4:25 am

    @ well done ! interesting tonic subject, let us all
    bring our contribution on various levels where ever
    we are living, atleast on the level of Pak Associations to
    hold seminars and invite once in a blue moon an
    archaelogists to inform the public and Pakistanis as well.

  11. Deepak says:
    July 21st, 2008 4:59 am

    Excellent and educative

  12. momers says:
    July 21st, 2008 6:35 am

    Interesting …but one word…SUBSCRIPTION!

    Cant read Science without a subscription and I am no longer at my university so as to be able to get direct access to the journal!

    I Guess more excerpts would be needed…or a special donation to Science so that they open up the article…like the one done by a Qatari foundation I believe, to Nature. their sponsorship allowed for free public reading on their report on Islam and Science.

  13. Ayaz Siddiqui says:
    July 21st, 2008 8:34 am

    Great article….There was an article about 10 years back in the Time magazine (if my memory serves me right) claiming the fact that they have found certain scratchings on pots in Harappa which is now being regarding as the first writing. This in fact proves that writing was invested in the indus valley long before Mesopotemia. I never heard anything after it. Does someone know anything about it

  14. Usman.Kadiri says:
    July 21st, 2008 9:22 am

    “May Talibans burn in hell forever for destroying beautiful pieces of buddhas statues, part of ancient history.”

    Can’t we discuss anything here without cursing Talibans? While everyone is waxing eloquent on Buddha statue, does anyone care what happened to Babri mosque?

    Let us admit the fact that however advanced Indus civilization might have been in its times, ultimately it was a civilization of idol worshippers. It may be good for academic interest however it should not be confused with our cultural identity.

  15. Qizalbash says:
    July 21st, 2008 11:29 am

    Yes, I also realized that the full journal access is by subscription. But there was the option to buy on-line access to just this issue, which I have just done and am enjoying the other articles there.

  16. Qizalbash says:
    July 21st, 2008 11:33 am

    On the language issue, the article actually talks about it in some length. My understanding of their point is that the symbols or language seen on the seals is possibly the oldest in the world but there is scientific debate on whether it is a language or a set of religious or social symbols. Since the language has not been deciphered and since they do not have too many artifacts with the symbols they have not been able to determine that yet and there is still lots of debate on that.

  17. wasiq51 says:
    July 21st, 2008 1:31 pm

    Absolutely fascinating topic. I just returned from a trip to Cairo and found quite a bit of lapis used in funerary art there — all of this lapis came from Afghanistan and I assume that it must have passed through the Indus in order to get to Egypt.

    I will find the exact citation, but there was an article a few years back by someone with the last name Thompson titled “An Ancient Stateless Civilization” which argued that the Bronze Age Civilizations of the Indus Valley were characterized by an absence of military architecture — this has lead some to argue that the people of the Indus Valley did not live under centralized government systems and that, instead of states, you had confederations of guilds and merchant oligarchs loosely bound together in a largely peaceful set up. The complete absence of barracks, military equipment, forts, and the relative scarcity of thick walled compounds for a ruling elite seems to confirm this description of this civilization in the Bronze Age. Anyhow, I’ll find the exact citation and post that here soon.

    Thanks for letting me know about the article!

  18. PMA says:
    July 21st, 2008 3:08 pm

    Thank you Professor Najam for bringing this article by Andrew Lawler,

  19. Rafay Kashmiri says:
    July 21st, 2008 3:20 pm

    @Adil Najam
    jazbaat beqaboo ho jaein to kia kijiaey !


    Meri tehzib jaha’n he, aur jaha’n meri tehzib,
    utha kar dekh lo har eent ko, wo jehan bhi he

    jab bhi shor-o-ghul hoga, kaun he ye zer-e-zami’n,?
    To pukar uthey gi har eent, keh mein yehan hoon !

    Rafay Kashmiri

  20. Humaira Naseem says:
    July 22nd, 2008 1:18 am

    It is because of topics like this one that this blog is so much head and shoulders above all the other Pakistani sites. Topics that make us feel Pakistani and which are informative and dealt with in a polite and sincere way. Thank you for highlighting this.

    I am also delighted to read about the Pakistani researchers mentioned in this story who are working in Pakistan in a far flung university but still doing cutting edge research on a topic for which society and govt give them very little credit. Hats off to them for their efforts and to you for highlighting this.

  21. Usman.Kadiri says:
    July 22nd, 2008 6:52 am

    “Topics that make us feel Pakistani and which are informative and dealt with in a polite and sincere way.”

    Well. I don’t think there is anything ‘Pakistani’ about a pagan way of life. Just because something happened on this land in some distant past does not mean that it becomes our cultural heritage.

  22. Arif Jadoon says:
    July 22nd, 2008 3:35 pm

    The Indus civilization has always intrigued me. The relics are not flashy at all and until you realize just how old they are you do not appreciate just how far ahead of their times our ancestors were. Standardized sizes of bricks, planned cities, plumbing. These ancestors of ours certainly have much that we can learn from.

  23. Uzma says:
    July 22nd, 2008 6:14 pm

    This is an excellent contribution. Thank you very much for it Prof. Najam. It is always remember for us to remember our true heritage and history and articles like this make up for the miseducation that we were subjected to when young.

    I agree with others that the point about trade and city planning are amazing when you consider how ancient these ancestors of ours were. Yes, indeed, I wish we could learn more about them and also more from them!

  24. PMA says:
    July 23rd, 2008 9:24 am

    I am all for acknowledging the various periods of the history of the land now we call Pakistan. We must claim all of it as ours. But to consider ‘Indus Man’ as our biological ancestor will be a stretch. Nor we can say that present day Pakistani culture is derived from that period. There is no evidence of the unbroken continuation of the Indus Valley Civilization. On the contrary the Civilization disappeared for reasons still unknown to the archaeologists, anthropologists and historians. Lets not get carried away.

  25. Nishat says:
    July 23rd, 2008 3:45 pm

    My heartfelt thanks, Prof.Najam, for bringing this illuminating article to our attention and for penning this erudite blog.
    After reading the piece, I was reminded of a remark made by a Professor of mine at a New York based University, which I will paraphrase – “No other place but South Asia [Pakistan , India and Bangladesh] could have produced some of the world’s most glorious philosophies/cultures/religions like, Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Indus Valley and Harappa ; and some of the greatest women and men like, Akbar the great, Razia Sultan Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Iqbal, Tagore, Azad, Tipu Sultans, Shah Jahan, Ashoka, etc”

    btw, said prof. happened to be of english extraction whose grand father had worked in Lahore during the early 40s.

  26. Rafay Kashmiri says:
    July 23rd, 2008 4:30 pm


    you have replaced Islam with sufism, that seems to be
    a new discovery ? you mean
    The Mughals were all sufis ?
    Aulia-e-Kirams were all sufis ?
    Ameer Khusro was a sufi ?
    The Aryans were all sufis then, No ?
    can you please authenticate your claim ?
    I might learn something from you!!!
    Rafay Kashmiri

  27. PMA says:
    July 24th, 2008 9:00 am

    Nishat: Sufism is a product of Indian Subcontinent? Seems like today ‘sufism’ has become a ‘catch-all’ phrase. Declare yourself a ‘sufi’ and feel free to practice ‘indian-brand’ of Islam. How convenient!

  28. Manzoor says:
    July 24th, 2008 10:28 am
  29. Manzoor says:
    July 24th, 2008 10:46 am
  30. Nishat says:
    July 24th, 2008 4:18 pm

    Rafay Kashmiri,
    I only alluded to those philosophies/ideas/traditions which were born in South Asia.

    PMA, While Sufism may not have been birthed, in the strictest sense, in the India of yore, it sure blossomed there. And truth is that Sufism did import ideas and concepts from Hinduism and Buddhism.

  31. PMA says:
    July 24th, 2008 5:47 pm

    Nishat: You are thinking about the ‘sufism’ of Subcontinental variety. Yes that brand of ‘sufism’ is laced with Hindu and Buddhist thoughts and practices where Shrine substitutes the Temple and Pir stands in for the Guru. Singing and dancing at shrines is akin to Hindu worshiping in temples. Move away from the Indian Subcontinent to other Muslim lands and you will find different kinds of ‘sufism’ there, devoid to Hindu/Buddhist influence. Case in point are the different varieties of ‘cultural islam’ and ‘sufism’ practiced in Black Africa, Byzantine Eastern Europe, Ancient Anatolia or Asia Minor, Russia and Central Asia. The further one travels away from the Arabian Peninsula, diluted the Arab ‘cultural islam’ gets. Indian Subcontinent has no monopoly over ‘sufism’.

  32. Zeital says:
    July 24th, 2008 5:49 pm

    Asalam Walaikum,

    I liked reading this article. As more research is done it seems there are many new things to learn about civilisations based in Egypt/Nubian, Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Indian Subcontinent. It is worth learning about Chinese Civilisation (oldest human civilisation), and how these entities interacted with each other, via trade and exchange of ideas. Central Asia played a more important role in exchanges between China, Persia, and Indus Valley civilisations.

  33. omar r. quraishi says:
    July 26th, 2008 4:03 am

    adil why dont you write a piece for us on this?

  34. Khairsoomro says:
    July 26th, 2008 11:15 am

    Wonderful story. Can someone get the original articles in PDF format as I don’t have access to the magazine website?

  35. July 26th, 2010 4:49 am

    It is sad that archaeologists like Masih and Shinde, working towards the common goal of unravelling an ancient civilization, cannot collaborate on their findings. Haven’t our great politicians considered archaeology in Indo-Pak or SAARC talks yet?

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