Year 3, Month 6, Day 8: The Indus Near!

The more things change…

The slow eastward migration of monsoons across the Asian continent initially supported the formation of the Harappan civilization in the Indus valley by allowing production of large agricultural surpluses, then decimated the civilization as water supplies for farming dried up, researchers reported Monday. The results provide the first good explanation for why the Indus valley flourished for two millennia, sprouting large cities and an empire the size of contemporary Egypt and Mesopotamia combined, then dwindled away to small villages and isolated farms.

The Harappan civilization, named after its largest city, Harappa along the upper Indus River, evolved beginning about 5,200 years ago and reached its height between 4,500 and 3,900 years ago, stretching across what is now Pakistan, northwest India and Eastern Afghanistan. An urban society with large cities, a distinctive style of writing and extensive trade that reached as far as Mesopotamia, the society accounted for about 10% of the Earth’s population at its height and rivaled Egypt in its power. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, however, the Harappans did not attempt to develop irrigation to support agriculture. Instead, they relied on the annual monsoons, which allowed the accumulation of large agricultural surpluses — which, in turn, allowed the creation of cities. The civilization was largely forgotten by history until the 1920s, when researchers finally began studying it in depth.

OK, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it felt good to write this. Sent May 29:

The ancient Harappans had it good for a long time. The annual monsoons provided ample water for their crops, ensuring food enough to sustain their civilization for well over a millennium. What did the Harappan people think when the seasonal rains began to get irregular? Were priests lavishly paid to perform elaborate incantations in the hopes of restoring the no-longer-idyllic climate? Did traveling storytellers tell their listeners that everything would be just fine, that the monsoons had always been undependable? Was there a bitterly polarized political standoff between those who recognized that things were changing and those who steadfastly refused to accept the facts?

Of course, their culture was regional, not global — and their demise was not self-triggered through profligate consumption of fossil fuels. But future anthropologists will surely puzzle over industrial civilization’s apathetic and uncomprehending response to global climate change. Are we all Harappans today?

Warren Senders

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