Human Legacy Course/Early India

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Human Legacy Course I
Early India

River Valley Characters

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Hello and welcome to Week 4. In this week, we will be taking a look at Ancient India & China. Now, in this lecture today, we are going to be looking at early India. Our question for the day is:

What do all these characters mean? In the 1920s an archaeologist working in northwest India discovered a remarkable set of ruins, all that remained of a huge ancient city. His discovery was the first clue modern archaeologists had about the advanced civilization of the Indus River Valley that flourished thousands of years ago.

Since that original discovery, archaeologists have learned a great deal about the Indus civilization. Among the artifacts they have found are small seals like the ones above that contain what appears to be writing. Despite the best efforts of the archaeologists and linguists, however, no one has yet been able to decipher even one word from any of the seals.

Part of the challenge of deciphering the script is that linguists know of no related languages from which they can start their studies. In fact, no one knows even the first thing about the Indus language, though linguists have various theories. Some believe that the characters found in Indus writings are part of an alphabet, like that of the Phoenicians. Others believe that each character represents an object or an idea, like characters in Sumerian and Egyptian writing. Even among scholars who agree that characters represent objects, there is much disagreement. One symbol on the elephant tile in the picture, for example, has been variously identified as a fish, a twist of rope, and a noble title. Until such disputes can be resolved, there is little chance that the language can be translated.

India's Geography

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A beautiful picture of the Brahmaptura River
The Thar Desert in India

The Indus River, home of one of the ancient world’s great river valley civilizations, flows across the northwest edge of the Indian subcontinent. As its name implies, most of the Indian subcontinent is occupied by the country of India.

The Indian subcontinent includes three major geographic zones. In the far north are the Himalaya and Hindu Kush (home of the Khyber Pass, which was the route of the Indo-Arayns who invaded the ancient Indians in/around 1500 BCE) mountain systems, which separate India from the rest of the world. In the south is the Deccan Plateau, a high plateau that receives less rain than other parts of the subcontinent. Between the mountains and the plateau are the Northern Plains, where society first developed in India. Flood deposits from three rivers—the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra—enrich the soil of the plains, making it very fertile. And to the east is the Thar Desert, which is home to a few sanctuaries today.

Heavy rains also add to the fertility of the Northern Plains. Much of this rain is brought to India by seasonal winds called monsoons. During the summer months, monsoon winds from the southwest bring warm air and heavy rains from the Indian Ocean. Most of India’s annual rainfall occurs at this time. In the winter, northeast monsoons blow cool, dry air from Central Asia, resulting in drier months.

The people of India’s first civilizations depended upon the monsoons to bring the water that their crops needed. Monsoon rains flooded rivers, which then deposited fertile silt in which farmers could grow their crops. But with the abundance of rainfall came the threat of devastation. If the monsoon rains were too heavy, crops, homes, and lives could be lost. In contrast, if the rains came too late or did not last long enough, people could not grow crops and famine became a danger.

Indus Valley Civilization

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People have lived in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. At first, people lived as hunter-gatherers, but slowly people began to settle down in farming communities. In time, these communities gave rise to India’s first civilization, which developed in the valley of the Indus River. Historians generally date the beginnings of this civilization to about 2500 BC, when people there first developed a system of writing.

Cities & Settlements

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The first ruins of the Indus Valley civilization found by archaeologists were the remains of two large cities. Harappa, named after a nearby modern city, and Mohenjo Daro, which means “mound of the dead,” were both discovered in the 1920s. In fact, the civilization is sometimes called Harappan after the first ruins found. Since then, several large cities have been uncovered, as have hundreds of smaller towns and villages. Much of what we know about Indus society has come from studying their remains.

Indus settlements were well planned and carefully laid out. Streets ran in a grid pattern, north-south and east-west, with major avenues that were twice as wide as minor streets. People drew water from community wells or smaller wells dug in the courtyards of their homes, and public drainage systems carried away waste-water. In the largest cities, a walled, elevated citadel, or fortress, enclosed buildings such as granaries, warehouses, and meeting halls. Homes, workshops, and shrines were built outside the citadel. Such planning and uniformity among cities suggests that a central authority held power over the civilization.


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Historians believe the economy of the Indus civilization focused on agriculture and trade. Most people probably farmed and herded livestock. In cities, however, many people specialized in crafts such as pottery, metalwork, and jewelry. Example of all these crafts have been found in Harappan cities.

The Indus traded the goods they produced not only with people of nearby communities but with distant civilizations as well. Traders from the Indus Valley brought goods to locations as distant as Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mesopotamia (Babylon, etc.).


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Unfortunately, archaeologists and historians have not been able to learn many details about Indus society. Although the people of the Indus Valley had a writing system (pictograms), historians are not yet able to read it. The inability to read what people wrote makes it difficult to learn about society and daily life.

Based on material evidence, some scholars believe that Indus civilization was a single society rather than a collection of independent city-states. As we have already discussed, cities and towns throughout the Indus Valley were remarkably similar. In addition, the people of the Indus Valley apparently shared common tool designs and a standard set of weights and measures. These factors all suggest a single authority in control, though it is not yet possible to know for sure.

Scholars, additionally, believe that the Indus Valley citizens honored a great god, BUT used animals/symbols in rituals. Scholars came to that conclusion because there were no temples or shrines in the area.


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The Indus Valley civilization thrived from about 2500 BC to 2000 BC. After that time, the civilization began to decline. For example, the city of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa was abandoned. No one knows what led to the decline of the Indus civilization, or even if there was a single cause. Evidence from Mohenjo Daro suggests that the city suffered repeated flooding, which may indicate environmental reasons. Meanwhile, for Harappa, four theories might explain what happened. One theory was that the Indus River changed course, the second theory is that the city was invaded, the 3rd theory was that an earthquake struck, and the last theory is that the climate changed.

Ancient records mention a river, the Sarasvati, that once flowed through the Indus Valley but later disappeared. The disappearance of that river could have had devastating effects on agriculture and sped the decline.

In truth, we may never know just why the Indus civilization disappeared.

Invasion of the Indo-Aryans

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Indo-Aryan (European people who crossed the Hindu Kush using the Khyber Pass) migrants appeared around 1750BCE. The Indo-Aryans were skilled warriors and skilled sheepherders, who were seeking ancient India because of the rich, pasture land that Ancient India held.

The Indo-Aryans managed to conquer all of Northern India. We know about the Indo-Aryans because of Vedas, which are religious literature of the Hindu people. Eventually, the Indo-Aryans developed a writing called Sanskrit.

The religion of the Indo-Aryan society was polytheistic (worshiping more than one god). The Indo-Aryan people had nature gods: Earth, Fire, Light, Rain, Sky, Sun, Storms, water, etc. The sky was the father god, the earth was the mother goddess, and to wrap up all these gods was one main creator god, who created the whole universe. This religion, which is now known as Hinduism, have simple ceremonies with sacrifices of food. Though, the Brahmin (priests) will lead more complicated ceremonies.

Not only did the Indo-Aryans have their own religion, but also social groups (Original settlers being dark; Migrants, being the Indo-Aryan people, who were light skinned and nomadic). These social groups led to something known as the caste system.

The caste system was a type of social structure that determined the basis of your life by birth, and NOT personality. For example, if you were to be born into a family of slaves, you are going to be stuck as a slave. If you were born into a priest family, you would stay in that caste level which are designated for the priests. You couldn't move up or down the caste system.

The caste system has FOUR total caste levels, with the fifth being out of the caste system. The highest of them is called the Brahmin, who were priests. The priests are, seen in the caste system, intelligent and spiritual leaders. The caste system below the Brahmins are the Kshartriyas, who were the warriors/rulers. The Kshartriyas were seen as the protectors of society, and the equivalent of the Kshartriyas in present-day life would be the policemen, politicians, military, etc.. The one below the Kshartriyas would be the Vaisyas, who were merchants, farmers, artisans, craftsmens, etc.. These people would be the skillful producers of material things/objects. The last of the caste system are the Sudras, who were servants and unskilled laborers. The fifth one (out of the caste system) would be the Pariahs, the slaves/untouchables. Your level in society is called your varna.

Not only did religion and culture (caste system for example) take affect on the ancient Indian culture, but also the economy. The economy of the Indo-Aryans were mostly wheat, barley, rice, sugarcane, vegetable gourds, peas, beans, and lentis. Village trades were common, but transportation was poor.


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  • Question #1: What are monsoons, and how do they affect life on the Indian subcontinent?
  • Question #2: Why did Indian civilization begin in the Northern Plains?
  • Question #3: How might the geography of India have helped protect the Indus Valley civilization?
  • Question #4: What were two characteristics of cities built in the Indus River Valley?
  • Question #5: Why do many historians think that a single central authority ruled in the Indus Valley?
  • Question #6: Do you think it is important that historians learn to read Indus writing? Why or why not?
  • Question #7: What were the varnas?
  • Question #8: Why did priests gain influence within Vedic society?
  • Question #9: How do you think the development of the caste system affected India’s social structure after the Vedic period?

Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.