Seeds of Urbanism: Palaeoethnobotany and the Indus Civilization

By Weber, Steven | Antiquity, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Seeds of Urbanism: Palaeoethnobotany and the Indus Civilization


Weber, Steven, Antiquity


Within the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization located in northwest South Asia, a dramatic shift towards more localized cultural units and away from urban complexes is thought to have begun at the end of the 3rd millennium BC. The reasons for decentralization and localization are still debated, but explanations often assume that a changing agricultural system was a causal factor in these processes (Kenoyer 1991; Jarrige 1985; Possehl 1986). This paper will focus on recently collected palaeoethnobotanical data from two sites, Harappa and Rojdi, which allow us to examine changes in agriculture during this critical time, and to understand how these changes are related to shifts in the socio-economic structure. Analysis suggests that while the types of plants at the two sites differed, the agricultural strategies in both places were changing in similar ways, The argument to be proposed is that the same socio-political and environmental issues were affecting inhabitants at both sites, and that even though Harappa and Rojdi represent very different types of occupation in different kinds of environment, their agricultural strategies were nonetheless modified in a manner not unlike one another. In turn, the way the agricultural strategies change suggests that they were a result of cultural change, and not its cause.

The Indus Civilization

At its height, around 2600 BC, the Indus Civilization included nearly a thousand sites dispersed throughout northwestern India and Pakistan, ranging from village farming communities and small towns to several fully developed city complexes housing large populations, with tens of thousands of people (FIGURE 1). These larger communities had houses with uniform-sized bricks, granaries, massive city walls, gateways, and extensive areas of craft production (Kenoyer 1991; 1998; Possehl 1990; Jacobson 1986). Many of the craft products were standardized and distributed throughout the Indus region. The subsistence system consisted of food production with domesticated plants and animals, some hunting, fishing, and wild plant gathering (Meadow 1991; 1996). Supplying the demand for raw materials, food and finished products was a major mechanism in integrating the widely dispersed settlements (Kenoyer 1991). Similarities in pottery, weights and seals are strong evidence for a shared ideology and suggest the existence of an administrative system to oversee the manufacturing and distribution of goods (Kenoyer 1991; 1998; Glover & Ray 1994).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

About 2000 BC, cultural integration begins to break down. We see a rise in regional systems that were no longer held together by a single ideological or socio-economic system, associated with an increase in settlements and the abandonment of many larger urban sites (Shaffer 1993; Possehl 1990; Kenoyer 1991). These fragmented, regional cultures, that are referred to as Late Harappan, occur at a time when the inhabitants of the large urban centres lost control of the trade networks that had helped integrate this vast region (Kenoyer 1991; 1998; Glover & Ray 1994). Disruptions and shifts in agricultural production play a prominent role in explanatory models of the Late Harappan (Possehl 1993). It is argued that there was a decline in traditional crops which fed the large population centres, at the same time as the emergence of new agricultural techniques and crop plants that spurred the development of local, independent communities (Jarrige 1985; Kenoyer 1998). Although explanations for these disruptions in the agricultural base tend to be regional in nature, they point to widespread causes such as tectonic movement or changes in moisture patterns (Kenoyer 1991; Allchin 1995; Chakrabarti 1997). These in turn may have caused changes in river patterns, resulting in flooding and sedimentation. Crop failure would have been followed by settlement abandonment. Population dislocations, disrupted trade networks and new agricultural strategies would have then produced new, localized political units (Kenoyer 1998). …

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