Trade Networks of the Indus Civilization

he Indus Civilization is a culture wrapped in a shroud of mystery. In many ways, the largest urban culture of its time is still poorly understood by modern-day historians. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the Indus script remains un-deciphered and the second is that relatively few archaeological digs have been conducted at the sites that have been discovered – not to mention the countless more that remain lost under both the deserts and fertile fields of the Indian Subcontinent.

Nevertheless, one aspect of the Indus people that has been studied somewhat extensively is the trade relations they had with the surrounding civilizations. Thanks to archaeologists an extensive ancient trade network based on modern-day Pakistan and stretching to Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, South India and possibly even further afield has been uncovered.

The Indus or Harappan Civilization was the first urbanized culture in South Asia. We do not know what language they spoke or even what they looked like but genetic evidence has been able to reconstruct their ethno-racial origins. The earliest people in the Indus region were South Asian Hunter Gatherers, similar to the Adivasis of India or the Andaman Islanders in the Bay of Bengal. These people mixed with Neolithic migrants from the Middle East, who may have introduced agriculture, although recent ancient DNA studies revealed that at least some of them may have reached South Asia up to 18,000 years ago. Thus agriculture may have been discovered independently in the Indus Valley. These two groups merged to form the Harappan people who subsequently built mighty cities such as Harappa and Mohenjodaro in what is known as the Mature Harappan Period from 2200-1900 BCE. This is the same time period as the great civilizations in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The Indus Civilization was spread over a far larger geographical area than either Egypt or Mesopotamia – encompassing all of what is now Pakistan as well Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and all the way to western Uttar Pradesh in India. This made it the most widespread culture of its time and the massive population it sustained produced many goods which were in high demand across the ancient world. They also required many raw materials both to produce luxury items and for the consumption of the population. We have modern archaeology to thank for all that we know about the Indus Civilization as the Harappans were completely forgotten by history once the civilization collapsed. A few hints remained though in the written works of the Mesopotamians, pointing to an exotic land to the East from where luxuries unheard of in the Middle East were obtained.

A bead from the Indus Civilization with a white design, dating back to 2900–2350
BC – found in Nippur, an ancient Mesopotamian site in modern-day Iraq

Many Indus artifacts including jewelry, fabrics and the famous Indus Seals have been discovered in the ancient cities of Iraq. Leonard Woolley, the archaeologist who discovered the ruins of Ur, was fascinated by the intricate jewelry and head dresses which he discovered. These seemed to completely distinct from anything else found in Mesopotamia. Later scholars have argued that these designs were copied from the Indus people. This is based on similar designs found in Harappan art. The ancient Mesopotamian texts speak of a land to the East called Meluhha. It is from there that they obtained luxuriant fabrics, ivory, spices, jewels and even animals. The water buffalo was introduced to Iraq from the Indus Valley during this period. Peacocks were also in high demand. Large seagoing vessels would depart from both the Indus port cities of Dholavira and Lothal, in present day Gujarat as well as from smaller settlements on the Makran Coast. There is evidence that the Indus people settled in Oman and even produced Indus artworks there to transport onwards to the great trading hub of Dilmun, present day Bahrain.

The exact extent of Harappan seafaring is unknown. Agriculture, though, provides us with a few hints. Millet is now a staple crop in much of South Asia and it was introduced during the era of the Indus Civilization. It is native to Africa and was first cultivated in East Africa. Millet arrived in South Asia during the days of the Harappans, who consumed it as one of their primary food grains. The Ancient Indus people thus may have reached East Africa or perhaps received it from intermediaries in Yemen. Spices such as pepper and cinnamon, native to South India and Sri Lanka, were also used in both Indus and Mesopotamian cooking, meaning that the Indus people sailed down to these regions as well. This proves that the Indian Ocean Trade, based on the monsoon winds, is at least four thousand years old and the Harappans were its pioneers.

The Gulf and Mesopotamian trade is the best known aspect of Ancient Indus international commerce but although plenty of Indus products have been found in those regions almost nothing from the Middle East has been discovered from Indus sites. Again the lack of excavation of Mature Harappan sites can be blamed. But surely given the extent of this trade, something should have showed up in Mohenjodaro or Dholavira by now?

One theory is that the Harappans exchanged their goods for gold and silver. Another product which the Mesopotamians produced was woolen cloth, which was not in production in South Asia at that time. Perhaps woolens for use in the chilled months of December and January were imported from Iraq? No woolens fabric has been recovered from Indus excavations, probably because wool does not last very long in a climate which experiences extreme heat coupled with humidity for several months of the year.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Indus trade was the importation of Lapis Lazuli from what is now Northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Indus people used Lapis in their jewelry and also exported it to Mesopotamia. As Lapis was used most extensively by the Ancient Egyptians perhaps they too obtained it from the Harappans? At the time there was a large semi-urban civilization in Central Asia stretching from what is now Turkmenistan to Tajikistan. This culture is known to archaeologists as the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) or the Oxus Civilization. Indus artifacts have been found at BMAC sites, indicating that they did interact. Furthermore ancient DNA analysis has shown people with distinct South Asian heritage among the Oxus People. It is probable that these were the people who supplied Lapis to the Harappans, but the most interesting part of the story is that the Harappans, a people from the hot subtropical Valley of the Indus actually built a colony along the banks of the Oxus in Bactria, a land frozen for much of the year!

Shortugai was excavated in 1976 and lies on the Oxus River not far from the Afghan city of Balkh and across the river from Tajikistan. Archaeologists confirm that the very layout of the ruins is in classic Harappan style and that it was a trade colony established by the Indus People. It is the northernmost Indus Civilization site discovered so far and it shows the zeal that the Indus People had for trade. Many artifacts have been uncovered from Shortugai but perhaps the most striking is an Indus Seal bearing the Indus script with a picture of a rhinoceros, reminding us of the far-off “exotic” homeland of those settlers in the cold heart of Asia!

One thing we can learn from our Harappan ancestors is that commerce and a love of art are far more worthy activities than warfare. Despite the Indus people having colonies from Oman to Afghanistan and inhabiting most of Northern South Asia, they were a peaceful people. Unlike any other contemporary civilization virtually no weapons have been uncovered from Harappan sites.

This is perhaps their most striking legacy: that a race of seafarers and overland traders went about relatively unarmed created the largest and one of the most advanced cultures of their time.

The author is the writer of ‘Asiatic Angling Adventures’, a travelogue on fishing and adventure travel across Asia, available at Saeed Book Bank, Islamabad and at Find the author on Twitter: @FatehMulk

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