In an area in Pakistan and north western India, just east of the modern borders of Iran and Afghanistan and bounded to the north and east by two mountain ranges and to the south by the Thar Desert, a group of cities seemed to appear suddenly on the banks of the Indus river with its seven branches about 3000 BC.
Lothal, Mohenjodaro and Harappa are the best known sites, but there were hundreds of others, large and small. The cities are remarkable for two things. They exhibit unparalleled skill in construction and planning for their period and location. And the people of this culture are mysterious. They appeared suddenly from an unknown origin, and disappeared just as suddenly 1500 years later, leaving many city ruins, artefacts and a script which has not been deciphered. Engineering achievements of these people included drainage systems for removing wastewater, aqueducts to carry fresh water, showers, flush toilets, bridges and roads made of stone. They mass produced needed items like building bricks, used a standardised system of weights and measures, devised a standard layout plan for their cities, and engaged extensively in trade with cities far to the west in Sumer.
The scenario appears made to order for a Strugatsky brothers Roadside Picnic/Stalker explanation. Cosmic travellers from a planet in Andromeda land on earth with a problem with their flying saucer, are marooned for a thousand years or so during which they apply their advanced technological skills to creating sophisticated cities complete with modern style sewage systems and running water, finally repair their ship, and go off back to Andromeda. Or perhaps, like HG Wells’ Martians, they succumbed to earthly bacteria before the remnant were able to finally escape a hostile environment. All those who believe that so-called civilisation originated from technologically superior alien races will find this idea attractive.
What we know of ancient peoples all depends on their environment. If that included baked clay or mud, or stone, we have remaining traces of their activities. If it consisted of wood, leaves or fabric, we don’t have any surviving evidence to go on. What we know of early human civilisations is really only about those who worked with materials which have lasted. All the other early civilisations that existed side by side with that of Sumer or Egypt and built of wood or other perishable materials have not left traces. But they were there.
From about 10,000 BC, when people first started experimenting with the sowing of wild grasses and the systematic harvesting of their grains, groups gathered in settlements to make this activity easier. Slowly these settlements grew larger as increased food supply led to population increases. A world population of about five million humans rocketed to ten times that figure. Gradually other social groups, such as herders and hunter gatherers, were marginalised and agricultural cultivation became the dominant form of human community. Temporary shelters for the harvesters were replaced with more permanent structures. The city was invented. This process was slow, and took about six thousand years to complete.
It was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a certain source for foods, an increased ability to protect young from predators, and a variety of emerging technologies. On the other, more time spent in labour and less in cultural activities, a general decline in health because of a more limited diet, and the rise of community leaders who exploited the rest of the population. A lot of problems we still have first developed at this time. Segregation of the sexes, development of capital to replace barter and the invention of wealth, the rise of social classes based at first on occupations. It was civilisation as we still know it today.
Much confusion is caused by imagining culture originating in one centre, in Sumer, Iran or further north, or in Harappa, starting about 10,000 BC, then spreading to other urban cultures. This is looking for the “origin of civilisation” in one place, influenced perhaps by the story of the Garden of Eden. There were many ancient civilisations starting from 10,000 BC as agriculture developed, and there were likely many more centres leaving no traces. The cultures cross fertilised through trade.
As far as technology was concerned, all the basic inventions had been made early in the development of the human species by hunter gatherer groups. Ideas like domestication of fire, cooked food, tools, pottery, culture, religion, and social roles. Herders had contributed the domestication of animals such as the horse, and cattle, then the development of the wheel for transport and war. The invention of permanent buildings for cities came with the agricultural revolution. The remainder of our technological development was comparatively minor.
The human communities in this way paralleled the development of each human being. Individuals develop most of their skills within their first two years. Further development is comparatively minor. So it was with communities.
Archeologists discovered an anomaly to these development stages at Harappa. The people of this culture didn’t seem to start by making mud bricks by hand for building purposes as elsewhere. They seemed to start with factory processed, oven fired, mass produced bricks formed by a mould. Instead of buildings at first constructed haphazardly as needed, at Harappa the builders seemed to start with a plan of a very large city, and built according to that plan, wide streets at right angles, areas set aside for specific purposes such as grain storage or public baths. As though they already had an idea of what a big city looked like. These cities were a bit like those of Minoan Crete, or of Egypt.
Equally remarkable was how these cities ended. They all seem to have been abandoned. In some sites other people moved into the empty cities and continued a similar, but not as accomplished, a culture, and the archaeological record looks to be continuous. But it isn’t. One group, who built the structures, suddenly moved elsewhere. Another group, related to later Dravidian peoples who were to be pushed southward when the Indo Europeans arrived after about 2000 BC, took their place. What could have happened?
Aside from the aliens from Andromeda theory, which can’t be confirmed until we set up contact with the next galaxy, there are some possibilities that might explain, not how these civilisations arose, but how they ended.
The civilisation of Harappa, of the Indus Valley, was originally another Mesopotamia. It arose between two rivers, the Indus and the Ghaggar-Hakra River. The Ghaggar is now a dry river bed which flows with water occasionally, but once it was as plentiful as the Indus. Starting from about 3000 BC, when the Harappan culture was itself emerging, geological forces diverted the water from the slopes of the Himalayas elsewhere. It was a slow and gradual process. Originally the area in which this culture arose was a bit like the Nile Valley, where plentiful water supply from not one but two river systems produced a rich harvest of crops such as cotton, sesame, peas, barley, and cotton during an annual inundation. Almost imperceptibly, the Ghaggar provided less and less water. It was likely this process was accelerated by deforestation practised by the settlements, as the people cut down trees and other vegetation for food and shelter for their animals.
Eventually the cities were bordered by a long strip of marshland where the Ghaggar once had flowed. It is likely that many people died or were incapacitated from malaria as they were attacked by accelerating populations of mosquitoes. Other, more protected cities would have had huge increases of population as people who had built on the Ghaggar moved to the more fertile areas. Malaria would have spread throughout all the cities. Malaria was a major cause of the decline of many ancient civilisations, including that of Rome. Still today it is a major cause of economic stagnation and poverty and kills over a million people each year. Aside from death it causes debilitating fever and neuromuscular disorders.
This was the situation the militant Indo European tribes found when they arrived in the area. As they had done in Crete and Troy, here they raided and demolished a weakened and debilitated culture, and drove the remnants south. The heroes of the Rig-Veda were not as heroic as they liked others to suppose.
In the year 2600 BC there were four areas where cities flourished, with the organised government this development implied. Egypt, where the architect Imhotep created the first pyramid complex for king Djoser. Egypt had trading links with Knossos, where the architect Daedalos created the palace of Knossos for king Minos. Egypt also had trading links with Sumer, where the great builder Gilgamesh was making Ur the mightiest city. Ur in turn had trading links with Harappa, where an unknown architect created a city plan for an unknown Harappan king during the same period. It was an era when ideas travelled widely; civilisations cross fertilised one another and there is little point in determining who was ‘first’.
Harappan civilisation remains mysterious because no ancient texts have survived. These people had a writing system,fragments of which have survived on what look to be seals, but the documents they sealed have not. Perhaps these were written on a perishable vegetable leaf, like the later dried palm leaf in southern India, or Middle Eastern papyrus. The symbols used on the seals have been verified as a writing system by computer analysis, but are not complete enough to provide an alphabet, or clues to a grammar. They could have combined pictographic and ideographic systems with phonetic ones.
The only surviving evidence for describing the culture consists of building remnants and sculptures. This evidence could change with the next excavation results, so conclusions made are highly tentative. There are no surviving temples, apparently, no sacrificial altars. There may not have been a professional priestly class (as there wasn’t in ancient Athens). Archaeologists have identified what appear to be granaries, and public baths. These structures may have been religious in function, but there is no way of telling one way or the other. Some sites have revealed artisans’ workshops, merchants’ warehouses, others cemeteries and grave goods. There seem to be no city walls built for protection, and, as yet, no evidence of armaments or armed conflict. Politically, there is no evidence for a ruling caste, nor of an empire that included all excavated sites. Each site was likely an independent city/state, like the Greek polis. Some would have been wealthier than others. There are some similarities with remains of Minoan culture.
The Aryans of the Vedic culture are said not to have worshipped Siva. This leaves the interesting possibility that Siva was a god of the Harappan culture. There is no way of telling if the surviving sculptures are gods, heroes or kings, but it would be consistent with what survives of other cultures to think of them as gods the people of Harappa worshipped. There is one described as a dancer who might be a lady of the cosmic dance. There are the people moulded in clay with birdlike faces who might well be gods too. Or aliens from Andromeda. The seals give expert depictions on a small scale of oxen, elephants and other animals of the time, as well as the frustratingly incomplete examples of the Harappan script.
A goddess with naked breasts and bell like skirt shows a likeness to Minoan goddesses/priestesses, though without snakes.
A god adopts a pose similar to images of Gilgamesh, holding ferocious beasts at bay. Are these sculptures evidence of similar myths, or were they once the sacred objects of a trader from Knossos or Ur resident in the Indus city region?
As to where these people came from, while the space-suited, bird-headed people or gods depicted in sculptures seem to strengthen the aliens from Andromeda theory, it is really more likely that the various more and more accomplished levels of culture of these people just built on existing sites, obliterated previous, less developed traces of their achievements, and gave a misleading appearance from surviving ruins of having suddenly appeared with astounding technological accomplishments.
We really need to get in contact with Andromeda soon.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.