What we can learn from an ancient egalitarian civilization in the Indus Valley

What we can learn from an ancient egalitarian civilization in the Indus Valley

Adam S. Green writes:

The most tantalizing feature of the ancient Indus Valley remains is what they appear to lack: any trace of a ruling class or managerial elite. This defies the longtime theoretical assumption that any complex society must have stratified social relations: that collective action, urbanization, and economic specialization only develop in a very unequal culture that takes direction from the top, and that all social trajectories evolve toward a common and universal outcome, the state. Yet, here was a stable, prosperous civilization that appeared to remain that way for centuries without a state, without priest-kings or merchant oligarchs, and without a rigid caste system or warrior class. How did they manage it?

Unfortunately, in the early decades of exploration and research, archaeologists tended to assume that lack of evidence of a top-down, hierarchical society in the Indus Valley remains meant only that they had not yet been found. Some have argued that lack of evidence of inequality only indicates that the region’s ruling class was very clever at disguising the boundaries between itself and other social strata. Pointing to the fact that Indus Valley burial sites contain no monumental tombs, some researchers suggest that the rulers may have been cremated or deposited in rivers, as was the practice in other imperial cultures. But cremation is not archaeologically invisible; the remains of other cultures often include evidence of it.

More recently, archaeologists have been willing to go back to the original explorers’ observations and use the evidence directly in front of them to develop theories about ancient life in the Indus Valley. Archaeological data from South Asia has improved greatly: and there is much more of it. Numerous Indus sites are now known to archaeologists that decades ago were not, and the environmental contexts that enabled urbanization in the region—climate, natural resources—are now much clearer. Archaeologists have also gathered a strong set of resources for identifying inequality and class divisions: from mortuary data, palace assemblages, aggrandizing monuments, written records, and soon, possibly, from household data. Yet, in a century of research, archaeologists have found no evidence of a ruling class in the Indus Valley that is comparable to what’s been recovered from other early complex societies. [Continue reading…]

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