How did the Indus Valley Civilization die out

Indus culture

Extension and most important sites of the Indus culture.

The Bronze AgeIndus culture or Indus civilization was one of the earliest urban civilizations, dating from around 2800–1800 BC. BC along the Indus in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. It extended over almost all of today's Pakistan as well as parts of India and Afghanistan, a total of 1,250,000 km², and was therefore larger in area than ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia combined. Alongside these, it was one of the three earliest civilizations in the world.

It will be partially too Harappa or Harappa culture named after Harappa, one of the main excavation sites on the Ravi. Another alternative name for this culture is Sindhu Sarasvati civilization and is based on the theory that this is a civilization mentioned in Vedic literature. It may also be with Sumerian Meluha to identify.

To date, over 1050 sites have been identified, mainly along the Indus. In addition, there is evidence of another large river east of the Indus, which has now dried up and which could be identical to the ancient Ghaggra-Hakra or Sarasvati. Over 140 ancient cities and settlements have been found along its course. The two largest urban centers of Harappa culture were probably Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, there were also large cities near Dholavira, Ganweriwala, Lothal and Rakhigarhi. In its heyday, the Indus culture probably numbered over five million people. She was already familiar with town planning and architecture. It may also have a script, but whether the so-called Indus script is an actual script is a matter of controversy among experts.

Discovery and exploration of the Indus culture

In contrast to the other two advanced cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the sources of the Harappa culture are very limited. Only about ten percent of their settlements have been excavated. Its writing has not yet been deciphered, nor has it disappeared from around 1900 BC. Clarified. Even Sanskrit texts from the 1st millennium BC do not directly mention this early culture. It is also not certain which language people spoke at the time or what they called themselves.

Although the ruins in Harappa had been known for a long time and for the first time by Charles Masson in his book in 1844 Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and The Panjab was described as "a ruined fortification made of bricks", its importance was only recognized much later. In 1857, when building the East Indian Railway from Karachi to Lahore, the British used fired bricks to fortify the route, which they found on the nearby field of ruins in Harappa. The location in Harappa is therefore quite poor compared to Mohenjodaro. Mohenjo-Daro was also known for a long time, but here the interest was more in the remains of a Buddhist monastery from the 2nd century AD, which had been built on the ruins. In 1912, J. Fleet found seals with unknown characters in what was then British India, which attracted the interest of the scientific public in Europe. Subsequently, excavations were carried out in 1921/22 in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro under the direction of John Marshall, the then director of the British Antiquities Service. The similarity of the two excavated cities quickly made it clear that a previously unknown high culture had been discovered here. By 1931, more than 10 hectares of the city had been uncovered in Mohenjo-Daro, but after that only smaller excavations took place, including in 1950 by the British Mortimer Wheeler. In 1935/36 another Indus culture site was excavated with Chanhu Daro. Since the partition of British India in 1947, the settlement area of ​​the Harappa culture has been on Pakistani and Indian territory. In Pakistan, the Americans, French, British and Germans carried out the further research work together with Pakistani archaeologists, while the Indian Antiquities Service continued the work in India. The Briton Aurel Stein, the Indian Nani Gopal Majumdar and the German Michael Jansen had and still have great influence on the Indus research, besides the already mentioned and other archaeologists.


The earliest known evidence of human activity in what is now Pakistan dates back to the Paleolithic and is approximately 500,000 years old. Around 8000 BC The transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer and cattle breeder took place here, and with it a settled settlement took place. Early farming cultures developed, which also appeared in the hills of Balochistan in present-day Pakistan. The best explored site of this period is Mehrgarh, which dates back to around 6500 BC. BC originated. These farmers domesticated wheat and cattle and began using them from 5500 BC onwards. Also pottery. From around 4000 BC In addition to that, peas, sesame, dates and cotton were grown and the water buffalo, which is still essential for agriculture in South Asia, was domesticated. The Indus Valley was probably settled from the edges to the center. From the fourth millennium BC, the Amri culture is attested in the Indus valley. It precedes the Indus culture in many places such as Amri.

2600 BC The small villages were transformed into cities with several thousand inhabitants who were no longer primarily active in agriculture. A culture emerged that produced uniformly constructed cities within a radius of 1000 kilometers. The sudden appearance seems to have been the result of a planned and conscious effort. Some cities have been completely rebuilt to correspond to a well thought-out plan, or they have been created from scratch, which can also be seen in Mohenjo Daro, where no traces of previous settlements have been found. The structure of many of the larger cities in the Indus Valley is strikingly similar, so that the Harappa civilization was probably the first to develop urban planning. Earlier scholars could only explain this sudden occurrence through external factors such as conquest or immigration. However, more recent findings show that the Harappa culture actually emerged from the arable cultures in this area.



The techniques used by the farmers of that time are largely unknown today due to the sparse information that has been handed down. The fact is, however, that the agriculture of the Harappa civilization must have been extremely productive in order to feed the many thousands of city dwellers who were not primarily engaged in agriculture. It is also clear that rice, which was still unknown as a useful crop at the time, was not grown, but mainly wheat. The plow, which was pulled by water buffalo, is one of the remarkable technological achievements that were made in this region before the Indus culture. Undoubtedly the farmers of that time made use of the fertile mud of the Indus, similar to the farmers in Egypt up to the construction of the Nasser Reservoir, but this simple method was probably not enough to feed large cities.

References to dams or irrigation canals have not been found to this day; if there were structures of this type, they were probably destroyed in the numerous floods in the area. However, a city recently discovered in India is known to have collected rainwater in massive rock-cut reservoirs that could supply cities during dry spells.

In the Harappa culture, wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, peas, cotton and flax were grown. Gujarat belonged to the sphere of influence of the Harappa culture (Sorath-Harappa), but was dependent on rain-fed agriculture due to the lack of large rivers and therefore shows clear differences in economic methods. In sites of the late Harappa culture such as Rojdi and Kuntasi, Kutki millet predominates among the plant remains, and remains of the lively and red bristle millet have also been found. Wheat and barley are only sparsely occupied. From Rangpur and Lothal, pot shards that were allegedly leaned with rice straw come from. So far, this is the only and uncertain evidence for the domestication of rice in the Harappa culture. Safe remains of rice do not date until the late 2nd millennium. It is still unclear whether the water buffalo was domesticated or just hunted. Because of numerous bone finds, it is believed that the chicken was kept as a pet since the late Harappa culture. Traces of arable farming with the simple hook plow (Arl) from the early Harappa culture come from Kalibangan.

Crafts and trades

The handicraft production was often located in workshops in-house, but also in own craft districts on the outskirts. Some products were mass-produced. The range of handicraft products was wide and included, among other things:

  • Textiles: The Indus culture was the first to plant cotton and produced, for example, loincloths and long cloaks, which were standard clothing. The fabrics were partly dyed in bright colors.
  • Pottery and stone ware: A large variety of objects with a great wealth of shapes were produced. Some of these were mass-produced goods for everyday use, others were more expensive individual items. Kitchen vessels (for example, cookware, serving plates, water jugs, large storage containers, small ointment pots), children's toys (animal figurines), pens, dice, game pieces or mousetraps were produced.
  • Tools and weapons: knives, razors, hammers, axes, drills, cleavers, swords and arrowheads were manufactured. Most heavy implements were made of stone, bone, or wood, and knives and razors were made of copper. Bronze was scarce due to a lack of tin.
  • Jewelry: A major role was played by the jewelry industry, which produced a wide variety of products. In addition to metal and semi-precious stones, the main materials were mainly shells. Stone bracelets, sometimes with a short inscription, were also very popular.
  • Processing of mollusc shells: Snail shells and mussel shells from sea-dwelling mollusks were a particularly popular raw material, from which numerous different objects were produced.

There was a relatively intensive, also spatial, commercial division of labor. Excavations along the Ghaggra, a now dry river east of the Indus, suggest that the settlements each specialized in one or more production techniques. For example, in some cities metal was more likely to be processed, while others preferred to produce cotton.

Domestic trade

Contrary to what was assumed in the 1950s and known from the cultures in Mesopotamia, there was probably no central temple economy in the Indus Valley that collected the surpluses via tribute and distributed it to the various specialist groups as required (after deducting a more or less large share for the elite) . Rather, the exchange within the economy, which was already quite divided in labor, was based primarily on trade.

This was fueled by significant advances in transportation technology. These advances included carts very similar to those used in what is now South Asia, as well as boats and ships. Most of these ships were probably small flat-bottomed boats, as can still be found today on the Indus. Whether the carts, of which essentially only terracotta models exist, were in profane use, however, in view of the experience made with cart models in Mesopotamia, remains open.

The most important goods in domestic trade were probably cotton, wood, grain, livestock and other foodstuffs. A highly standardized and very fine system of units of measurement was used to organize trade (and probably also to collect taxes).

Foreign trade

Judging by the distribution of the artifacts of the Indus civilization, the trade network spanned a large area spanning parts of Afghanistan, the coastal regions of what is now Iran, northern and central India and Mesopotamia. In many of these countries there were places of the Indus culture, which are obviously trade enclaves. At Shortugai, parts of a settlement of the Indus culture were excavated, the importance of which may have been in the lapis lazuli trade. At Ra's al-Junaiz on the Persian Gulf, the remains of a settlement were found that were probably a base in maritime trade.

Important import goods were

  • Gemstones: Jade from the Himalayas, lapis lazuli from what is now Afghanistan, turquoise from the Iranian highlands, amethysts from the Deccan highlands in India, hematite and jasper from Indian Rajasthan
  • Gold (from south india)
  • Wood (from south india)

Important export goods:

  • Cotton goods, for which the Indus culture had the monopoly at that time and whose bright colors were coveted
  • Wood (cedar from the Kashmir region, teak from the Punjab forests)
  • ivory
  • Gemstones
  • Jewellery
  • possibly spices
Remains of the port facility in Lothal in what is now India

A lively exchange of goods with Sumer in particular, both over land (through today's Iran) and by sea (via Dilmun, today Bahrain), is evidenced by finds and documents in Sumer. For example, in the tomb of Queen Puabi, who lived around 2500 BC Lived in Ur in Mesopotamia, found carnelian jewelry from the Indus region. In addition, a Sumerian inscription, which probably refers to the Indus culture, uses the name Meluhawhich is the only indication of what the people of the Indus valley could have called themselves back then. The center of trade seems to have been Mohenjo Daro, where administrative and trade structures could be identified.

Waterways formed the backbone of the transport infrastructure at that time. In addition to the above Inland waterways were also larger, seaworthy ships. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a large dredged canal and harbor docks near Lothal on the coast of the Arabian Sea, as well as possibly the oldest artificial harbor basin in the world; very progressive for the time.

For foreign trade, several trading stations were set up far outside the Indus Valley, except for the one mentioned above. Lothal in the south and others in the west.

Urban development

The general plan of Kalibangan (Rajasthan, northwest India) illustrates the structure of a typical city of the Indus culture: A citadel-like upper town in the west and a lower town with continuous north-south axes in the east each form parallelogram-shaped urban districts.

Almost all of the larger settlements of the Indus culture had a similar, strictly geometrical urban structure. A citadel-like upper town in the west towers over the spatially separated and approximately parallelogram-shaped, rectangular or square lower town or residential town in the east. The largest ancient city found so far in the Indus Valley is Mohenjo-Daro ("Hill of the Dead"), which is located in what is now Pakistan in the province of Sindh directly on the Indus. Together with other important archaeological sites such as Kot Diji, Lothal, Harappa and Kalibangan, it is characterized by the consistently high quality of urban development, in particular its water supply and sewerage. The British archaeologist Stuart Piggott formulated in 1950 that the cities of the Indus culture were laid out like a chessboard, similar to New York today. In fact, only the north-south axes run continuously, while the east-west roads are articulated.[1] Nonetheless, the uniform urban architecture is evidence of advanced knowledge of urban planning and hygiene, as well as efficient administration. Monumental buildings of a sacred or cultic nature were unknown to the Indus culture.

Since there are no significant deposits of natural stone directly in the Indus plain, all of the building structures that have been preserved consist mainly of air-dried clay bricks. Natural stone was only occasionally used in the foundations of larger structures. Wood was probably only used in ceiling structures. From a structural point of view, the architects of the Indus culture preferred right-angled masonry in a block bond. Round fountain surrounds, which have not survived either from the pre-Harappan cultures or the high cultures that existed in parallel in Mesopotamia and Egypt and therefore probably represented a novelty in the entire building history, were built from wedge-shaped bricks. Vaults, on the other hand, were unknown with the exception of the cantilever vault.[2]

Typical structure using the example of Mohenjo Daro

Mohenjo-Daro is probably the best-explored city of the Indus civilization. The British Antiquities Service carried out extensive excavations here in the 1920s and 1930s, uncovering large parts of the city that had been completely buried by the Indus mud for the past 4,500 years. Probably to protect against flooding, the city was built on an artificial platform made of burnt bricks and earth. A higher area, which was about 200 m wide and 400 m long and is called the citadel, was followed by an area called the lower or residential town, where the houses were located. There was a space of about 200 m between the citadel and the lower town.Main streets ten meters wide ran through the lower town in a north-south direction, and smaller side streets branched off at right angles from them in an east-west direction. This is how blocks of houses were built, in which the city's residents probably lived.

The citadel, whose purpose is unknown, although a defensive function is suspected, has a much less schematic floor plan than the block-like lower town. Here in 1925 a large basin made of special fired bricks was discovered, which measured approximately 7 mx 12 m and could be climbed via two flights of stairs. It was surrounded by an arcade and was supplied with water from its own well, which was located in an adjoining room. It is not known whether this was a bathing pool for ritual washing or a public bathing establishment. Also on the platform was a large brick building called a granary, although this function has not been proven either.


The rectangular houses in the lower town, laid out in street blocks, were very functional and made of fired bricks. About 50 percent of the houses were between 50 and 100 m² in size, almost as many between 100 and 150 m² and a few even had 210 to 270 m² of living space. Closed to the outside and unadorned, they typically consisted of an inner courtyard connected to the street by an anteroom around which the actual rooms were arranged. Daily life took place in this inner courtyard, which is often partially covered. There were often roof terraces above the rooms that could be reached by stairs. The typical house had its own toilet that faced the street and was connected to a public sewer system via clay pipes. Water was supplied by its own well. The level of water supply and disposal was extremely high and has not yet been achieved in some parts of Pakistan and India.


The cities, which were planned in great detail and built by engineers, testify to the advanced level of science at the time. The people of the Indus culture achieved astonishing precision in measuring lengths, masses and time. They were probably the first to develop and use uniform weights and measures. Your measurements were extremely precise. Its smallest measure of length, found on an ivory scale at Lothal, was about 1.704 mm, the smallest unit ever discovered on a Bronze Age scale. Weights were based on units of 0.05; 0.1; 1; 2; 5; 10; 20; 50; 100; 200 and 500, each unit weighing approximately 28 grams. The decimal system was already known and in use.

Fired bricks with the perfect proportions of 1: 2: 4 that are still in use today were used as building material for the first time in human history. In metallurgy, too, new techniques were developed with which the craftsmen of the Harappa culture processed copper, bronze, lead and tin.

Finds from 2001 from Mehrgarh suggest that the basics of medicine and dentistry were also mastered.


Stone figure of the Indus culture from Mohenjo-Daro interpreted as the “priest king”

Compared with the advanced civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, very few stone sculptures have been found on the Indus. Among other things, heads and rams enthroned on pedestals were discovered, which indicates a sacred meaning.

In contrast, the people of the Indus culture produced jewelry in many variations. The starting materials were various precious stones such as carnelian, agate, jasper and lapis lazuli, as well as gold (more rarely), crystals and other earthenware. With great craftsmanship, including grinding and polishing, bracelets, chains and headdresses were made.

In addition, many smaller sculptures made of clay were discovered, often slender female figures, which presumably represented symbols of fertility, and animal figures that were worked in great detail.

As small clay and bronze figures depicting the corresponding scenes prove that dance, painting and music were also very important. Archaeologists discovered a representation of a harp-like instrument on a seal, and two objects from Lothal could also be identified as stringed instruments.

Language and writing

Despite various attempts, the Indus script, which is not related to any known script, has not yet been reliably deciphered. Typical inscriptions are no longer than four or five characters, the longest known inscription comprises 26 characters. In the Indus culture, seals (for example in the form of a lion) were used as a personal signature.

Decline and collapse

For over 700 years the Indus people lived in prosperity, and their artisans made products of great beauty and quality. From around 2000 BC Apparently larger problems arose, the nature of which is not known, but which coincided roughly with the transition periods in Egypt and Mesopotamia (transition to the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, or the end of the kingdom of Ur-III in Mesopotamia). The big cities were abandoned and those who stayed were malnourished. Around 1800 BC Most of the cities were abandoned. In the following centuries the memories and achievements of the Indus culture - in contrast to the cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia - were completely lost. The Harappa culture did not leave any monumental structures like the pyramids in Egypt or the numerous ziggurat temples in Mesopotamia, which would have proven their existence and kept their memories alive. One can assume that this was not possible, as there are few suitable stones in the Indus Valley, although this also applies to Mesopotamia. Perhaps the people of the Indus culture were also alien to the concept of large monumental buildings. Neither royal graves nor valuable grave goods were found. Men and women were buried in the same way. These indicators point to a less hierarchical society.

Today one no longer speaks of a relatively sudden decline of the Indus civilization, but of a gradual decline. In the course of this, a process of dissolution can be recognized: The uniform culture with a dense trade network broke up into various regional cultures that were influenced to different degrees by the Indus civilization. Evidently there were also migrations: some people of the Indus culture seem to have migrated eastwards, into the Ganges plain, others migrated to the fertile Gujarat plain in the south (western India). The ceramic tradition also survived for some time. In essence, then, it was not people who disappeared, but their civilization: the cities, the writing and the trade networks. This decline was never complete, however, as many features of civilization survived and became part of later high cultures: craft knowledge, art, agriculture, and possibly elements of social structure.

The reasons for the decline are unclear. The theory that was particularly popular in the middle of the last century that the decline of the Indus culture could be explained solely by the appearance of Aryan nomads in the Indus valley no longer has many supporters. Today the interaction of a whole bundle of factors of ecological, climatic, political or even economic nature is being discussed, which, however, are not yet certain in detail:

  • Climatic changes may have played a significant role. The Indus valley was around 2600 BC. Wooded and teeming with animals. It was more humid and greener than it is today. In this way, the people of the Indus culture were able to supplement their food with hunting during periods of drought or floods. It is known that around 1800 BC The climate in the Indus valley changed: It became significantly cooler and drier. The monsoons may have shifted to the east. The lower rainfall could ultimately no longer have been sufficient to irrigate the fields.
  • The drying up of large parts of the Ghaggra-Hakra river system could have been important, the source of which was diverted into the Ganges plain by tectonic processes, whereby there are some uncertainties about the exact time of this event. With the drying up of the Ghaggra-Hakra, a significant part of the fertile farmland was lost.
  • Centuries of intensive cultivation may have helped gradually deplete the soil.
  • Possibly (as in Sumer) centuries of incorrect irrigation technology, which paid too little attention to drainage and produced salt residues through strong evaporation, caused a gradual salinization of the arable land.
  • Overgrazing by the large flocks of sheep and goats, with which the constantly growing population met their meat needs, may have reduced the vegetation on the mountain slopes to such an extent that the soil eroded and the natural water balance was disturbed.
  • The enormous demand for wood (building material and fuel for the brickworks) has probably destroyed entire forests, which further reduced precipitation and caused deserts to grow in the already drier land.
  • The fall of the Indus civilization could be related to the end of the Sumerian Empire and the loss of trade relations.
  • Armed conflicts are also discussed as a possible cause. The peoples settling in Central Asia experienced population growth and expanded their settlement area. Equestrian tribes from the Iranian plateau also invaded the area of ​​the Indus culture.
  • Illnesses may also have played a role in the end of the Harappa culture.

History of the Indus Valley as a table of times

6500 BC Chr. (uncertain dating) Mehrgarh oldest discovered settlement in the Indus valley
2600 BC Chr. High culture begins: town planning, sewerage
1800 BC Chr. Fall of the Indus culture
1500 to 600 BC Chr. Vedic period
500 BC Chr. Beginning of the Buddhist Gandhara culture, around 1000 years
711 AD First Islamic influence
1526 to 1761 Mughal empire, heyday of Islam on the Indian subcontinent
1859 to 1947 British rule
from 1947 Division into the states of India and Pakistan

See also



  • Bridget and Raymond Allchin: The rise of civilization in India and Pakistan. Reprinted Cambridge among others in 1988.
  • D. K. Chakrabarti: Indus Civilization Sites in India: New Discoveries. Marg Publications, Mumbai 1004, ISBN 81-85026-63-7.
  • Dorian Fuller: An agricultural perspective on Dravidian historical linguistics: archaeological crop packages, livestock and Dravidian crop vocabulary. In: Peter Bellwood / Colin Renfrew, Examining the farming / language dispersal hypothesis. Cambridge 2002, pp. 191-213.
  • S. P. Gupta: The Indus-Saraswati Civilization: Origins, Problems and Issues. 1996, ISBN 81-85268-46-0.
  • Michael Jansen: The Indus civilization. Rediscovery of an early high culture. DuMont, Cologne 1986. ISBN 3-7701-1435-3
  • B. B. Lal: India 1947-1997: New Light on the Indus Civilization. 1998, ISBN 81-7305-129-1.
  • B. B. Lal: The Earliest Civilization of South Asia (Rise, Maturity and Decline). 1997.
  • Gregory Possehl: Ancient cities of the Indus. Delhi 1979.
  • Gregory Possehl: The Indus Civilization. A Contemporary Perspective. Lanham 2002.
  • Jim G. Shaffer: The Indus Valley, Baluchistan and Helmand Traditions: Neolithic Through Bronze Age. In: Chronologies in Old World Archeology. Edited by R. W. Ehrich. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1997.

Material culture

  • Alexandra Ardeleanu-Jansen: The terracottas in Mohenjodaro. An investigation into small ceramic sculptures in Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan (around 2300–1900 BC). Aachen 1993.

Language and writing

  • Asko Parpola: Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge 1994.
  • Michael Witzel: The Languages ​​of Harappa (Early linguistic data and the Indus civilization). In: J. Kenoyer (Ed.): Proceedings of the conference on the industry civilization. Madison 1998; Text online (PDF; 216 kB).
  • further publications by Asko Parpola, Gregory Possehl and Iravatham Mahadevan.


  • The miracle on the Indus. Docu-drama, 2008, 45 min., Production: ZDF, first broadcast: June 1, 2008, with online video

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Klaus Fischer, Michael Jansen, Jan Pieper: Architecture of the Indian subcontinent. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1987, p. 111
  2. ↑ Klaus Fischer, Michael Jansen, Jan Pieper: Architecture of the Indian subcontinent. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1987, p. 137