Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2396:
THE INDUS VALLEY

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the Indus Valley. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lower Indus River Alexander the Great spread his empire south and east from Macedonia until he was stopped at India's Beas River. His last conquest had been the Indus River Valley, which runs the length of present-day Pakistan. I wonder if Alexander, gazing across the Indus Valley 2400 years ago, realized that a great civilization had thrived there, three thousand years before him. Did he understand that he would be only a brief visitor? Probably not.

There were three early urban civilizations. One in Egypt's Nile Valley, another along Mesopotamia's Tigris and Euphrates, and the third along the Indus. Settled agriculture was thousands of years old in all three by 3200 BC. Then cities rose in each. The Indus Valley Civilization crumbled some 3400 years ago -- possibly hastened by drought, maybe drawn away by new civilizations rising in India to the east. Perhaps some combination of both.

The Indus Valley only began to reveal her civilizations after the mid-19th century. British rail builders first started turning up ruins. The ancient cities of Babylon and Memphis were well known by then. But, when this old world was finally found, it was slow to catch our imaginations. We're only just learning about cities like Mohenjo-Daro or Harappa.

Some 35,000 people lived in the brick houses that made up the orderly planned city of Mohenjo-Daro. They were served by elaborate water distribution and sewage systems. They had a large public bath, colonnades, and a watch-tower system. This was a world-wide trading center -- as was the city of Harappa, far up the river to the northeast. And Harappa was even larger.

Mohenjo-Daro site detail The Indus civilization was based on trade, craft, and agriculture. It was far more egalitarian than ancient Egypt. Much more of its wealth went into the common good than into the glorification of a tiny ruling elite -- no Pyramids here -- some fancy aristocratic housing but a strong focus on urban planning for everyone.

Its mercantile economy led to sophisticated weights and measures. Standardized length scales were subdivided down to about a sixteenth of our inch -- far greater precision than in any other bronze-age society. Weight measurements were refined to a mere ounce.

Indus dentists drilled and crowned teeth; Indus engineers built tidal locks and other sophisticated water management equipment. Indus merchant ships traded with distant Mesopotamia. They were fine metallurgists. Their sculpture was lovely and imaginative, their musicians played a variety of stringed instruments. They had what was probably an ideographic form of writing, something like that later used in Central American cultures.

All this is still coming to light. We're learning about a world that some compare with the Mycenaeans: tradesmen & artisans, farmers & sailors. That world was so different from Alexander's. Alexander, who flung his armies across the region so long after those peaceful old cities had vanished and been forgotten.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


A. Lawler, Boring No More, a Trade-Savvy Indus Emerges. Science, Vol. 320, 6 June, 2008. pp. 1276-1285.

See also the Wikipedia articles on The Indus Valley, on Harappa and on Mohenjo-Daro. Here are the site web pages for Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Images: aerial views courtesy of Google Earth, Priest-King sculpture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Priest King
Sculpture of a Priest King, ca. 2500 BC, from the Pakistan National Museum, Karachi

Mohenjo-Daro site
Aerial view of the Mohenjo-Daro site

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.