An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History

By Thompson, Thomas J. | Independent Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History


Thompson, Thomas J., Independent Review


Few sorts of "public goods," including basic "law and order," have not somewhere, sometime been privately produced. (1) Nonetheless, the idea persists that imposed systems of "legitimate" violence have been essential to the long-term functioning of all reasonably complex societies--that is, to their avoidance of seriously "suboptimal" production of critical public goods. (2) This idea is understandable because the only well-known case of a long-lived, nonprimitive, stateless society has been medieval Iceland, a society still lacking in cities (Friedman 1979; Byock 1988).

In this article, I show that in early antiquity a whole group of interacting urban societies almost certainly lacking the state existed for approximately seven hundred years; that merchants specializing in long-distance trade organized the production of the largest-scale public goods; and that an unusually early emergence of long-distance trade probably produced these societies. My analysis (albeit of a single civilization) suggests strongly that the extreme frequency of state organization in civilized societies has been, in a perfectly straightforward sense, an accidental feature of our world's development.

Harappan Archaeology and Its Interpretation

South Asia's first civilization, labeled "Harappa" by archaeologists (after the location of one of its important sites of excavation), flourished from the mid-third millennium to the very early second millennium bc e on the plains of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers. A rapid desertification, especially by causing the disappearance of the Ghaggar-Hakra River, brought about its eventual collapse. (3) Harappan civilization was the product in particular of farmers and herders who spread out from the western margins of the plains in the late 3000s bc e, displacing very few, if any, of the earlier inhabitants. The people of this civilization used writing, at least for limited purposes (the Harappan writing system, available only in short inscriptions, is as yet undeciphered), made extraordinarily widespread use of metal tools (Shaffer 1982, 46-47), and inhabited a number of commercial cities that achieved considerable scale (the five largest had peak populations in the tens of thousands) and remarkable levels of urban amenity (virtually every house had a bath connected to a municipal drainage system). (4) The similar layouts and similar public buildings of Harappan cities strongly suggest that no one of them served as a capital. Contrary to what was believed for decades (see, for example, Piggott 1950, 151-71), neither their similar, highly regular layouts nor their many uniformities in construction practices need indicate that a great planning entity was at work: gridlike layouts were the norm even for small settlements of the preurban era, and by far the most impressive uniformity--Harappa's common system of dimensions for bricks--has been shown to have had its origins in a preurban diffusion of technically superior practice (Kenoyer 1998, 52, 57). Entirely distinct regional material cultures are identifiable in Harappan remains (Possehl 1998, 274-75). In light of all the foregoing considerations, it seems unlikely that the civilization had any overarching political unity, although a widely patronized ritual center may have existed (one site contains evidence of what was almost certainly a large ritual bathing complex).

Harappa's urban remains, subjected to numerous excavations since the 1920s (in particular at the two earliest identified sites), are unusual in the extreme in that they offer up not a single obvious palace or imposing temple, but only simple public halls; (5) not one massive tomb (no great mounds, no pyramids); and not even any large statuary. This set of absences, which seems to indicate a complete lack of great public cults (religious or political), has played an important role in leading two of the best-known figures in Harappan studies to view the Harappans as sophisticated but probably stateless peoples (Shaffer 1982; Possehl 1998, 280,287-90). …

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An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History
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