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Birth of a Civilization Volume 51 Number 1, January/February 1998
by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer

[image] Script on bull seal from Mohenjo-daro (Courtesy J.M. Kenoyer and Department of Archaeology and Museums, Pakistan) [LARGER IMAGE]

For more than four millennia, agricultural and pastoral communities in what is now Pakistan and western India traded with one another and shared ritual practices and customs. In time a vast civilization emerged with large, well-planned cities and a common writing system, mythology, and iconography. Flourishing between 2600 and 1900 B.C., it encompassed more than 250,000 square miles of land, twice the area inhabited by contemporaneous Sumerian and Egyptian cultures. How this happened over so large a region is a question archaeologists are answering at sites such as Harappa, Mehrgarh, Mohenjo-daro, and Nausharo in Pakistan, and Dholavira in India.

At its height, the Indus civilization, named for the river that enriched the area's farm and grazing lands, extended from the lapis mines in mountainous northern Afghanistan to the coast of the Arabian Sea, from the highland pastures of Baluchistan to the mineral-rich deserts of Cholistan and Thar. Its core area was the vast alluvial plain of the Indus and now-dry Ghaggar-Hakra rivers, but numerous settlements were also established in peripheral regions of Saurashtra, Gujarat, and the upper Ganga-Yamuna River Valley. The rivers, plains, and nearby mountains offered abundant wild animals, fish, and timber, and raw materials such as steatite (talc) and copper.

Although there is ample evidence for walled towns and cities, there is no indication so far that military force was used by one settlement to conquer another. Recent discoveries at Harappa and elsewhere suggest that trade, social and political alliances, and common religious beliefs linked these communities. Though the Indus script remains undeciphered, study of artifacts has fostered a better understanding of how the society came into being, how it flourished, and why it eventually collapsed.

* Click here for the Harappa site.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project. He is the author of Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, to be published later this year by Oxford University Press.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America