The economy of the Indus civilization was based on animal husbandry, particularly of zebu cattle, and on arable agriculture, growing cereals, pulses, and other plants. These were supplemented by the exploitation of wild resources, such as fish. Pastoralism and agriculture differed in their relative importance in each of the great diversity of environments that composed the Indus realms.

In the valleys and plains of the Indus and Saraswati Rivers, their tributaries, and other smaller rivers mixed farming was highly profitable; rain and other local water resources also supported farming in other regions, such as Baluchistan, sometimes with the help of irrigation.

Animals were taken at certain times of year to graze on the expanses of seasonal pastures in Gujarat and Punjab and in the uplands of Baluchistan. Coastal settlements took advantage of marine resources such as shellfish, which provided not only food but also shells, an important resource for making ornaments.

The archaeological evidence for Indus agriculture is extremely patchy. The preservation of plant remains is often poor, depending on local conditions, the type of plant, and chance. Whereas cereal cultivation has left evidence in the form of carbonized grain and impressions of stalks and grains in pottery and bricks, and pulses also preserve well, roots and tubers and many fruits and vegetables produce few or no hard parts that survive as archaeological traces, so evidence of their cultivation is rare. This problem is compounded by variations in the standards of recovery in archaeological excavations and by problems of identification.

Agrarian Economy:


Agriculture in the mature Harappan period, as in its antecedent cultures in the Indo-Iranian borderlands, was based on wheat, barley, pulses, sheep, goats, and cattle, the same assemblage of crops and animals as the cultures to the west in the Iranian plateau, southern Central Asia, and West Asia, most of which had originally been domesticated in West Asia.

Each region of Asia had other local plants and animals, notably zebu cattle in South Asia. With a few exceptions, such as sesame and cotton in South Asia, the crops followed a regime of autumn sowing and spring harvest across the entire region from Anatolia to central India.

This is known as rabi cultivation in South Asia. Around the early second millennium, however, major new crops were added that required spring or summer sows and autumn harvesting- kharif cultivation. These crops were to set the pattern for agriculture over much of the subcontinent in later times; although rabi crops have continued to dominate in the northwest, and in many regions both rabi and kharif crops are grown.

Crops Cultivation:


i. Rabi Crops:

Wheat and barley were the staple cereals of rabi cultivation. The Harappans cultivated various types of wheat- a little emmer and einkorn, along with three kinds of bread wheat, of which shot wheat (Triticum aestivum sphaerococcum) was the most common in the Mature Harappan period. Barley was more important than wheat at some sites, including the Indus outpost at Shortugai on the Amu Darya and the Baluchi site of Miri Qalat. The Harappans grew three or four varieties of barley, including both naked and hulled types.

This range of crop varieties allowed them to exploit the different properties of the various types of land suitable for cultivation. At Rojdi in Gujarat, barley was very poorly represented in the extensive collection of botanical remains and was not cultivated after period A (2500-2200 BC), and in the Kachi plain bread wheat was more important than barley.

Oats (Avena sp.) were present at Mehrgarh in the fourth millennium and have also been recovered from Pirak and Late Harappan Hulas. Oats seem generally to have been present in early archaeological contexts as a weed of cultivation that invaded stands of wheat and barley, rather than being deliberately cultivated. This fits with their sporadic appearance in South Asian botanical samples.


ii. Millets:

During the third millennium, a number of indigenous cereals were brought under cultivation by the Indus civilization or by contemporary South Asian cultures. Little millet (Panicum sumatrense) was common at Mature Harappan Rojdi, Oriyo Timbo, and Babar Kot in Gujarat and present at Harappa around 3000 BC, and browntop millet (Brachiaria ramosa) was also grown at Rojdi. A small amount of Setaria sp. was cultivated at Surkotada and Rojdi- This may have been S. verticillata, bristley foxtail millet, also domesticated in South India during the third millennium, or S. pumila, yellow foxtail millet, both native species.

Foxtail millet (Setaria italica), known in the Late Harappan period, is thought possibly to be a local domesticate but was more probably introduced. It was a major crop in China, having been brought under cultivation in the seventh millennium BC, and was being grown as far west as Tepe Gaz Tavila in southeast Iran by the sixth millennium. Seeds of another indigenous millet, Job’s tears (Coix lacrima-jobi), have been found at Harappa and at the contemporary Ahar-Banas settlement of Balathal, in both cases as beads, a common use for these seeds.

Broomcorn (or common) millet (Panicum miliaceum) was probably brought under cultivation in southern Central Asia (as well as in China) and might have reached the Indus civilization via their trading outpost at Shortugai, which was situated in the region adjacent to southern Turkmenia, where broomcorn millet was an important crop. A wild ancestor of broomcorn millet exists in South Asia, so it may alternatively have been a local domesticate. Several species of Panicum were present at Rojdi, and it is possible that broomcom millet was among them. The first certain occurrence of this millet in South Asia is at Pirak, in the early second millennium.

During the early second millennium, a number of plants of African origin appeared in Gujarat and were incorporated into the range of crops grown by the local Harappans. These included three kinds of millet- jowar (Sorghum or Guinea corn or Sorghum Bicolor), bajra (pearl millet, Pennisetum typhoides), and ragi (finger millet, Eleusine coracana). Abundant ragi was reported at Rojdi during the earlier part of the Mature Harappan period, from about 2500 BC onward, as well as possible ragi phytoliths in bricks and sherds at Harappa, but its presence this early is unlikely.

Dorian Fuller (2001, personal communication), an archaeobotanist with a detailed knowledge of South Asian plants, cautions that it is likely that some claimed occurrences of ragi are based on a misidentification of Setaria spp., Echinochloa colona (Sawa millet), or Brachiaria ramosa (browntop millet), all native South Asian millets; a native weedy grass (Eleucine indica) was also abundant at Rojdi. Later there was ragi in Cemetery H levels at Harappa and in Late Harappan Hulas to the east, and Fuller himself has identified a grain of ragi at Hallur in South India, dated after 1800 BC.

iii. Rice:

Rice is indigenous to parts of South and East Asia, including the Indus region and the Ganges Valley. The history of its cultivation is complex and probably involved a number of different centers of domestication. Genetic evidence has recently established that rice was brought into cultivation in at least two separate areas.

Domestication of a perennial wild rice in East Asia produced the short-grained japonica variety whereas domestication, probably in several regions of South Asia, of an annual wild rice gave rise to the long-grained indica variety, which also spread through Southeast Asia and China. Rice cultivation began in the middle Ganges region during the third millennium and somewhat later in eastern India.

The cultures growing rice in Southeast Asia had close cultural connections with the inhabitants of eastern India, Bangladesh, and intervening regions, indicated by shared artifact types such as cord- marked pottery and distinctive shouldered axes.

Rice grew wild in Gujarat. Charred rice husks and impressions of rice husks and leaves in Harappan pottery have been found in this region, at Lothal and Rangpur. These have been studied by Naomi Miller, who has established that they are unlikely to reflect rice cultivation. Instead it is probable that rice was among the wild plants consumed by grazing cattle resulting in rice husks being present in their dung, which was used for fuel and a tempering agent in pottery.

Rice husks and phytoliths have also been found in pottery and bricks at Harappa. Rice, probably wild, is known from Early Harappan Balu in Haryana and Kunal. In Swat rice appears at Ghaligai before 2000 BC as grain impressions in sherds of Late Kot Diji pottery. These may have been from either domestic or wild rice. By the early second millennium, however, rice was certainly being grown in the eastern Indus region. It was among the cultivated plants at the Late Harappan site of Hulas where both wild and cultivated indica rice were identified.

iv. Other Food Plants:

South Asia had a number of native pulses that were locally domesticated. These included green gram (Vigna radiata) and black gram (Vigna mungo), which were grown at a number of Mature Harappan sites and at contemporary Balathal in Rajasthan. Horsegram (Macrotyloma uniflorum) was domesticated in South India during the same period and is known from Late Harappan Hulas.

During the early second millennium, two further pulses, of African origin, were added- hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), the latter being grown at Hulas and both appearing in South India after 1800 BC. All varieties of pulse were more important in peripheral regions such as Gujarat than in the Indus Valley heartland.

Very few other Harappan cultivated plants have been recovered. There is evidence, however, of the widespread cultivation of a species of Brassica, brown mustard (Indian rape), and of gourds in the Mature Harappan period, and later of ivy gourd, while okras were grown at Balathal in the neighboring Ahar-Banas region. Jujube (ber, Zizyphus jujuba), an edible red berry, was known at Mehrgarh from the earliest period, though it was probably gathered rather than cultivated; this may also have been true of its later use.

Melons were cultivated at Shahr-i Sokhta in adjacent Seistan and probably by the Harappans. Other fruits that may have been grown or collected locally include caper, mango, and sugarcane, and adjacent regions may also have supplied fruits, vegetables, and nuts, including cucumbers, pistachios, almonds, and walnuts, all known from sites farther west; walnuts have also been recovered from Hulas, along with the fruit of the pipal tree (Ficus religiosa).

v. Fibres:

Oil could also be obtained from linseed (Linum usitatissimum), which was found at Miri Qalat and a number of Harappan sites, including Nausharo and Rojdi. Alternatively it may have been grown for its fibre, flax. The latter was being used to manufacture linen cloth during this period on the Iranian plateau; however, no linen has been identified from Harappan sites. There is evidence of cotton doth at Mohenjodaro and probably Harappa.

The production of cotton textiles may have meant that linen was of no interest to the Harappans. Cotton may have been cultivated at Mehrgarh by the fifth millennium, though, like Linum, it may also have been grown for its oil-rich seeds. In the Mature Harappan period it was grown in both the Indus Valley and Baluchistan. Locally available plants, such as indigo and turmeric, were probably used as dyes; indigo is among the plants recovered from Rojdi, and the use of madder root is attested to by the presence at Mohenjo­daro of cloth dyed red with madder.

Water and Irrigation:

Irrigation Works:

In Baluchistan the sparse winter rainfall, though important, could not be relied on to water the crops raised in the generally limited areas of suitable soil. Water could be obtained from wells and springs in some cases, but by the early third millennium, if not before, the inhabitants of the region also developed small-scale dams (bunds and gabarbands) to retain some of the water that flowed in seasonal streams and small rivers (nais) after the rains.

In some cases, for example at Early Indus Diwana on the upper Hab River, a dam was designed to impound water, which could be released or channeled onto fields as required. In other cases dams and channels led the floodwater into embanked fields, where they deposited silt and provided enough soil moisture for the growing crops.

One type of dam consisted of small walls built to jut out into the bed of a stream or river so that some of its water was diverted onto the ground behind the wall, depositing fertile silt that formed a small field. Settlements in the Kulli area (southern Baluchistan) seem invariably to be associated with dams; this area also received some unreliable summer rainfall.

Canal irrigation is attested to at Shortugai, the Indus outpost in northern Afghanistan at the confluence of the Amu Darya and Kokcha Rivers- A canal has been traced that drew off water from the Kokcha. This might be taken to indicate that the Indus people brought canal irrigation technology with them when they settled here; however, the Namazga culture in adjacent southern Turkmenia, from whom it is likely that the inhabitants of Shortugai acquired the broomcorn millet that they cultivated, had long experience of canal irrigation that may have inspired the inhabitants of Shortugai.

Water Supply:

Unlike the situation in the mountains and foothills of the Indo-Iranian borderlands, there is little evidence that major irrigation works were used or required over most or the Indus region. Groundwater, rivers, lakes, streams, and especially floodwaters sufficed. The Indus floods in Sindh came largely and July and August, providing water throughout the summer for kharif crops, while winter crops were sustained by the water retained in streams, channels, lakes, and dhands (seasonal lakes), supplemented by water brought down in January or February by the nais flowing off the mountains of Baluchistan.

The Indus plains had a variety of zones suitable for agriculture. The margins of dhands and oxbow lakes, the latter formed by abandoned meanders of the Indus, allowed cultivation from year to year. The active flood plain of the rivers provided excellent arable land, its fertility renewed annually by the silts deposited by the floodwaters, the coarse sediments closest to the river being richest in nutrients.

Patches of deeper sediment reflected the unpredictable distribution of channels cut by the river’s floodwaters. These had to be searched for, but they provided the best agricultural land, cultivable without plowing. In western Sindh, Lake Manchar flooded an enormous area during the inundation, and the retreating floodwaters left fertile ground highly suitable for cultivation.

Today this is around 8,000 hectares in extent. While the productivity of the Indus in Sindh is very high, it is not reliable. About one year in four brings abnormally high or low quantities of water; the river floods unevenly, depending on where it breaks its banks; and it changes its course frequently. This combination of high but unpredictable productivity must have made it advantageous to develop storage practices and facilities wells tapping the high water table of the river valleys, and there as also some summer and winter rainfall.

Most Harappan farming settlements in Gujarat were located in Saurashtra. In the Mature Harappan period, these were confined to locations along the rivers and streams, and particularly along the Nal Depression, which retained floodwater through the winter months. Only in the Late Harappan period did farming settlements spread onto the moisture retentive, black cotton soils in other parts of Saurashtra, where kharif crops could be raised, watered by rainfall brought by the summer monsoon.

The number of settlements in the region expanded at least fourfold in this period. Kutch, to the north of Saurashtra, was an island in the Indus period. Today the brackish subsoil water and poor rainfall provide little support for arable agriculture, but in Indus times, when a considerable flow of river water entered the Ranns, the underground water was probably sweet and could have been accessed for irrigation by digging wells.

Wells and reservoirs also supported the inhabitants of Dholavira on Khadir Island in the Great Rann. Wells here and in other regions could provide ample water for growing crops. Drawing water from them would have been a labor-intensive activity, requiring considerable animal power, though in areas subject to summer flooding only shallow wells were needed to reach the high water table. Masonry well at Allahdino may have been used for irrigation. It was situated on higher ground, from which the water could run down to the fields.

The fine examples of wells in Indus towns show the high level of Harappan competence in constructing them. In the central region, Sindh, the Indus-Ganges doab, and perhaps the western Saraswati, the floods filled numerous hollows (dhands), which for some months acted as reservoirs from which to draw water to irrigate the crops; many held water until December and some as late as February.

The Indus people probably used lifting gear such as the shadoof to raise irrigation water from these and from streams and channels. One sherd of Indus pottery from Mohenjodaro bears a scratched picture of such a device, a simple T- shaped arrangement of an upright and a horizontal pole, with a bucket on one side and a counterweight on the other.

Hunting and Gathering of Forest Resources:

The fanning communities of the Indus and neighboring regions had always continued to exploit some wild resources alongside those derived from arable agriculture and pastoralism, and it seems that this practice increased and broadened in the Mature Harappan period.


To some extent hunting was a by-product of agriculture, birds and herbivores being killed to protect crops and predators to protect livestock, but game could also be a valuable addition to the diet. Many types of game animal such as chinkara and other gazelles, onager, wild sheep (urial), wild goats (Persian wild goat, markhor, and ibex), blackbuck, and other antelopes lived in the hills and grazed in the scrub and grasslands of the plains, while the well- watered areas along the rivers and lakeshores were home to nilgai, wild boar, water buffalo, wild cattle, elephant, chital, barasingha, and other deer.

Several varieties of turtle, crocodiles, and dolphins, as well as molluscs and fish, could be taken from rivers and lakes. Wildfowl were also available around water, and particularly on Lake Manchar and in Gujarat. There were also other birds that made good eating, such as francolin, partridge, pheasant, jungle fowl, grouse, and peafowl. Even lizards were caught and eaten.

Edible Plants:

Wild plants were also important- as well as providing grazing for domestic animals, some, such as Chenopodium, were undoubtedly exploited as human food. It may have been through familiarity with the range of local flora that some summer-growing plants were brought under cultivation, introducing the innovation of kharif agriculture. In this way rice, some millets and pulses, and a number of vegetables are likely to have first been incorporated into the diet and then added to the range of crops.

Fruits such as jujube, almond, and pistachio were gathered. It has been suggested that wild plants were collected particularly when cultivated crops were unable to supply the full needs of the community, either because of bad harvests or because of population increase in the region. At Rojdi, about a quarter of the plant food came from wild sources; more than a dozen species of wild plants were utilized at Harappa; and the balance between wild and domestic plant foods was likely to have been regionally and locally variable.


The forests of the Himalayas, Baluchistan, and the Gujarati hills, as well as the jungles of well watered lowlands in the Indus Basin, were the source of timber used as a building material, for fuel, for many domestic purposes, and for export. Useful species included sissoo, acacia and tamarisk, which were widely available. Sissoo was used for roof beams at Mohenjodaro, while acacia was found at Lothal and Rangpur, used for making tools and furniture as well as in construction.

The main use of tamarisk was for fuel, though it could be used for making many objects and structural elements; it is attested to at Rangpur. Rosewood was available on the plains, as well as in peninsular India- It was used for one of the wooden coffins found at Harappa and was also employed for making furniture, tools, and the wheels of carts. In the east the forests also held sal trees.

The trees at higher altitudes in the mountains included deodar and pine, known from Harappa and Mohenjodaro and used in buildings and for other purposes; both are fragrant woods, as is sissoo. Elm, also growing at high altitudes, was used for construction at Harappa. Another mountain species, the birch, is not attested to, but in later times it was used for fuel and its bark was an important writing material.

Teak, generally useful and particularly suitable for shipbuilding because it is water-resistant, grew on the high ground in Gujarat, and in lower parts of the region barn grass (Sorghum halepensis) yielded tough tubular stems up to 5 meters long that were suitable for making smaller boats. Ebony was available in the forests of the Western Ghats but has not been found in Harappan sites, though it may be referred to in Mesopotamian texts as an import from the Indus (sulum meluhhi, “black wood of Meluhha,” alternatively identified as rosewood). Mangrove, also possibly similarly mentioned (kusabku meluhhie, “Meluhhan seawood,” alternatively identified as teak), was available along the west coast and may have been used in boatbuilding and for fuel.

Native fruit trees included jujube, almond, and pistachio; a wooden mortar set in a grinding platform at Harappa was of jujube wood. Bamboo was available in the Makran and its wood was found at Harappa. Date palms grew in the Makran and in Sindh- As well as their fruit, they yielded wood, leaves for making baskets, mats, and roofs, and fiber for ropes and cords.

Mercantile Economy:

One of the features of the Indus civilization that most struck early researchers was its apparent uniformity- The material found in sites throughout the Indus realms seemed entirely uniform, with no regional or chronological variation. Closer familiarity with the Indus material and the establishment of a sequence of development at a few sites, such as Harappa, have dispelled this impression of complete invariability- Some changes through time have been established and some regional variations defined.

Nevertheless, there remains a considerable degree of uniformity in the material found throughout the Indus realms, reflecting a culturally integrated polity with strongly developed internal distribution networks. To a large extent, the people of the Indus realms would have been self-sufficient in food (although the larger towns and the cities would have needed to draw foodstuffs from their hinterland to support their large populations, which included large numbers of non-farming citizens).

Foodstuffs were nevertheless transported between different regions of the Indus realm- The vast majority have left no trace, but date stones at Mohenjodaro and the bones of dried marine fish at Harappa provide tangible evidence that this occurred.

The raw materials of different regions were also transported to other parts of the Indus realms. Whereas in earlier times, local sources of flint were exploited by the inhabitants of each region, during the Harappan period the very high-quality brownish gray flint of the Rohri Hills was intensively extracted and distributed to every part of the Indus polity, either as a raw material or in the form of finished artifacts- For example, most of the stone tools at Balakot were acquired in finished form.

Shells, used particularly as the main material for making bangles, were gathered in large quantities on the Makran and Gujarat coasts. Some were processed locally and distributed either as blanks or as finished objects while others were transported intact to major settlements where they were cleaned and worked.

Often individual workshops concentrated on producing a particular type of shell artifact or on working a particular variety of shell. Similarly, there were lapidary workshops both near the sources of agate, carnelian, and other gemstones and in major settlements far from these sources.

Weights and Measures:

Another insight into the organized nature of the internal distribution network is provided by the existence of a standardized system of weights and measures, used throughout the Indus realms, weights, made of stone such as chert, were generally cubical in shape, but fine jasper or agate weights in the form of truncated spheres also occurred, as well as a few pierced conical weights and knobbed conical weights resembling the pawn in a chess set.

They are known to have been made at Harappa and Chanhudaro. Small cubical weights, ranging from one to sixty-four times the smallest unit of 0.871 grams, were present in all sizes of settlements, while major towns and cities also had heavier weights, up to 10.865 kilograms (12,800 units).

It is highly probable that the Indus weights, like those of Mesopotamia, were used by those in authority in regulating the issue and receipt of goods and in measuring the quantities of goods received in taxation or issued in official payment. Kenoyer (1998, 99) notes that groups of weights have often been found near the gateways of Indus cities, suggesting that they were used by officials who were regulating the flow of goods into the city and collecting dues on them. Whatever their precise use, the very existence of a system of weights standardized through the Indus region implies official control and the regulation of the movement of commodities.


One of the most characteristic finds from Indus settlements is the square stamp seal. Usually made of steatite (soapstone) and hardened by firing, each seal bore an inscription, usually short, and a picture, generally of a single animal, although scenes also occurred. The use of a design on the seal would have allowed their recognition by all concerned parties, such as carriers and warehouse workers, whereas the writing could be understood only by (the probably limited number of) literate individuals.

The seals had a semicircular perforated boss on the back so that they could be carried on a cord or fastened to a belt or wrist strap. Seals may have had a number of uses. In the context of trade and the movement of goods, they could be used in two ways. First, they could have acted simply as tokens establishing an individual’s identity or credentials. In this context they may have been issued as badges of authority to merchants traveling on official business and to other individuals who needed to show their authority or prove their credentials.

In historical times, tokens bearing an official seal were used as passes in a system controlling road traffic. If the Indus realms were not a united states but a series of smaller polities, the seals might similarly have been used as identifiers by individuals who passed between the polities on the business of trade and resource procurement. Personal seals could also have been used by individuals to establish their identity in private transactions.

Second, seals could have been used to create impressions in soft media, such as clay or wax, attached to goods. Such sealing’s could serve to identify packaged goods as the property of the state or of a particular individual or as deriving from a particular place. The presence of an unbroken clay sealing could also act as a guarantee that the sealed package had not been opened or tampered with before it reached the intended recipient.

Doors, to houses or storerooms, could similarly be sealed, a practice attested at the Helmand city of Shahr-i Sokhta and in Mesopotamian literary sources, though not known from any Harappan site. In Mesopotamia, where documents were written on lay tablets, seals were also impressed on a variety of documents to identify the individuals or officials involved in, acting as witnesses to, or attesting to the accuracy of an agreement or transaction. If comparable documents were created by the Harappans, they were made of perishable materials of which no trace remains.

Distribution Mechanisms:

The closely integrated nature of the Indus realms implies the existence of efficient communications networks, utilizing inland routes over land and by river and along the coast by sea.

Land Transport:

Local transport was on foot or by bullock cart. Terra-cotta models provide a clear picture of the wooden carts with solid wooden wheels that were widely used for land transport over short distances. These are virtually identical to those of modern farmers of the Indus region. Some consisted simply of a solid wooden platform above the axle, others had an open framework.

In some cases the platform may have had permanent sidepieces but many just had holes into which wooden stakes could be slotted when required to form sides supporting a load. These carts were drawn by oxen or bullocks, of which there are also terracotta models. A different style of cart, with a short chassis, a roof, and high sides, was probably a vehicle in which people traveled. A small platform in front of the cab provided a seat for the driver.

Land transport over long distances probably generally employed pack animals, though small valuable commodities could be carried by people on foot. In modern South Asia, pastoralists play an important role in providing links between settled communities and in transmitting goods from place to place as they move in their seasonal round.

Seasonal movement was an important part of the pastoral economy in Harappan times, and it seems highly probable that people taking their animals through different parts of the Indus realms would have acted as carriers, moving goods from source to consumer and participating in a complex network of connections among pastoral groups from different regions, enabling the produce of one region to be transported to others.

While the camels and horses available to more recent pastoralists were not present in Indus times, cattle can transport heavy loads and even sheep can be used as pack animals. While many goods probably moved within private transactions, pastoralists may also have been entrusted with the carriage of official consignments of goods by representatives of those in authority.

Water Transport:

Although land transport was important, particularly over short distances and between lowland and highland regions, water transport along the rivers and streams would have been easier for long ­distance transport, particularly of heavy or bulky goods. Most of the major settlements were linked by a network of waterways that were navigable for at least part of the year.

The Indus is navigable from where it enters the plains in Punjab, south of the Salt Range. Coastal communications by sea would have linked communities within Gujarat, and those of Gujarat with those of the Makran coast. The development of watercraft was stimulated by the needs of fishers and the colonization of areas where water transport was required, such as the islands of Gujarat and the shores of Lake Manchar.

During the rainy season, when a huge area surrounding Lake Manchar is submerged by floods, modern inhabitants of the region abandon their homes on its shores and take to houseboats, or they live year round on houseboats, a way of life that may have existed in Indus times. Modern communities also live on houseboats on the Indus in Sindh.

Boats like these with a shallow draft can be used on the Indus except during the most turbulent period of the summer inundation; other branches of the modern Indus, such as the Western Nara, are navigable for most of the year. While the course of the Indus and its branches and tributaries have changed since Harappan times, there is no reason to suppose that it was any less navigable then than now. The Saraswati system must also have offered water transport.

A clay model from Lothal represents a boat with a mast, attachments for a sail, and a steering oar. It seems to have had a keel, a flat bottom, and high bows, with a lower stem. Such a ship could have been used both for coastal sailing and for seafaring in the Gulf where its shallow draft would have been advantageous.

Although the model gives no indication of the material from which such vessels would have been built, teak, a preferred timber for shipbuilding, grows in Gujarat, where the Hasappan seagoing ships would have been constructed, as does Thespesia populnea (country teak), a wood used particularly for the keels of ships. It is likely that Harappan ships would have been built of these timbers, which were also among the Harappan exports to Mesopotamia where they were also destined for shipbuilding.

Teak vessels had a life expectancy of many decades, possibly as much as eighty years. Although there is no evidence of the method of construction, it is possible that they were made of planks stitched together, as are many modern South Asian boats. Vessels constructed in this way are very resilient. Other country craft include boats made of hollowed logs, and such vessels may also have been used by the Harappans for coastal or river travel and fishing, though only plank-built vessels would have been suitable for carrying any volume of cargo.

South Asian Trade and Exchange:

Although the resources of the greater Indus region were rich and varied, it lacked a number of important raw materials, notably copper. Metal tools played an important part in Harappan Industry, such as stone carving and carpentry, and were also used in preference to traditional stone tools for some purposes. Some of the raw materials required by the Harappans could be obtained from neighboring areas. Finds of Harappan material in the settlements of adjacent foraging, fishing, or farming cultures reveal the extent of their trading links.


Contacts between farmers and hunter-gatherer communities are attested from early times when hunter-gatherers at settlements such as Bagor in Rajasthan and Loteshwar in Gujarat acquired domestic sheep and goats by trading or raiding, perhaps as early as the sixth millennium BC. The spread first of pastoral groups and later of farmers into the Indus plains and beyond into Gujarat and the Indo- Gangetic divide brought fanners and hunter-gatherers into closer contact, and in many areas this led to acculturation.

For example, hunter-gatherer communities in Saurashtra in the late fourth millennium began to make pottery that was distinct from the Kechi Beg wares of the contemporary inhabitants of Baluchistan, adopting the technology but inventing their own styles; this phenomenon is paralleled in other parts of the world, for example, in Europe, when hunter-gatherers and farmers came into close contact.

Later this region had several different styles of Harappan pottery (Sindhi and Sorath), but its inhabitants were no longer pursuing a hunter- gatherer way of life. However, in some other regions, such as the adjacent north Gujarat plain, farming settlements did not become established and here hunter-gatherers continued their established way of life, often moving with the seasons to exploit the resources of different economies.

In most parts of the world, me development of farming ultimately spelled the end of hunting and gathering as a way of life, due to competition for land and the destruction of the parts of the environment on which hunter-gatherers depended. This was not the case in the Indian subcontinent, where hunter-gatherer groups have continued to exist up to the present day. Instead of being submerged they adapted their self-sufficient lifestyle, moving gradually into mutually beneficial interdependence with settled communities.

Since hunter-gatherers had a mobile way of life, exploiting regions that could not support agriculture, they could provide the desirable products of jungle and desert that were otherwise difficult or impossible for settled groups to obtain, such as honey, wax, ivory, resin, wild silk, and plant fibers for making cord. Agate and other gemstones for making beads may also have been obtained by hunter- gatherers.

They could also act as carriers, transmitting the commodities of one settled region to the inhabitants of another; in exchange they could receive both foodstuffs, such as grain, and goods whose manufacture was beyond their own technological capabilities, such as copper knives. At the time of the Indus civilization, this relationship was in its infancy but was nevertheless becoming an established pattern.

The extent to which hunter-gatherers were integrated into Harappan society probably varied regionally. In some areas, such as Saurashtra, hunter-gatherers may have been occupational specialists comparable with transhumant pastoralists or the people who gathered and worked marine shells, and were probably regarded as members of Harappan society. Such foragers are difficult to identify or distinguish archaeologically from other Harappans. In contrast, in other areas, such as the north Gujarat plain, hunter-gatherers were culturally distinct and were among the many groups with whom the Harappans traded.

Neighbours to the South:

Rajasthan and the Deccan:

The Harappans enjoyed good trading relations with a number of other cultures of other cultures on their borders. Of particular importance was their trade with the people of the Aravallis, the Jodhpura-Ganeshwar culture, who gained much of their livelihood from fishing, hunting, and gathering. The Khetri region of the Aravalli Hills is one of the richest sources of copper in the subcontinent.

Often the copper ore occurs in association with arsenic- when smelted, arsenical copper ore produces a useful natural alloy that is harder than pure copper. These hills also yielded steatite, used for the majority of Indus seals. Other minerals occurring there include turquoise, sodalite (a mineral resembling lapis lazuli), zinc, gold, silver, and lead, though there is no evidence that these were extracted there during the Indus period.

Tin deposits are known in the Khetri belt, particularly in the Tusham Hills in Haryana, at the northeast end of the Khetri belt, not far south of the eastern region of the Harappan civilization. However, although a number of Harappan metal artifacts were made of bronze (tin-copper alloy), the majority were of copper or copper-arsenic alloy. Tin was not used in the post-Harappan period when this eastern region was a focus of settlement, and in the first millennium BC tin was imported. All these data suggest that this local source of tin was not known in ancient times.

As early as the Early Indus period, a trading relationship had developed between the Indus farmers and the people of the Aravallis, who had been exploiting the region’s copper since the late fourth millennium. The Jodhpura-Ganeshwar people seem to have mined and smelted the copper ore themselves and to have exchanged the smelted copper with Harappans who traveled to the region to trade.

In return, the people of the Aravallis obtained manufactured goods and other Indus produce, probably including objects made from the copper they had previously supplied, since Harappan arrowheads were found at Kulhadeka-Johad near Ganeshwar in the Khetri mine area and at Jodhpura. The trade network probably operated along a riverine route, particularly through Kalibangan, located some 250 kilometers to the north of Ganeshwar along the Kantali River, which was tributary to the Drishadvati in antiquity.

In the Early Indus period when copper artifacts were relatively rare, Kalibangan had an unusually large number (fifty), including characteristic Jodhpura-Ganeshwar arrowheads. Kalibangan was therefore probably engaged in the importation of copper and copper artifacts from the Aravallis from the Early Indus period onward.

In the Mature Harappan period, the route through Kalibangan (which has yielded twelve hundred Harappan copper objects) was probably used to bring copper to Harappa. Rakhigarhi, Mitathal, and Banawali to the northwest of Ganeshwar may also have been involved in the importing of copper in the Mature Harappan period. Another route may have led west from the Aravallis to Kot Diji and thence to Mohenjo-daro.

Southern India:

Whether the Harappans traveled farther south is unknown. South India has one of the world’s largest gold reefs, as well as precious and semiprecious stones such as amethyst, beryl, and amazonite. Gold from Karnataka in south India has a natural admixture of silver, and so the electrum objects known from the Indus civilization may indicate that gold from there was being imported and worked by the Harappans.

South Indian Neolithic gold and Deccan amethyst may have been exploited and traded, ultimately reaching the Indus through exchange networks; there is no evidence of direct contacts between this region and the Indus. However, communications of some sort, operating through the regions between the northwest and southern India, are suggested by a number of data- the appearance of sheep and goats in South India during the later third millennium; a surface find of a Mesopotamian cylinder seal at Maski, near me Hutti gold reef (known to have been exploited in early times, since gold is present at Neolithic sites such as Piklihal, Maski, and Kodekal); the discovery of a Harappan bronze chisel at Piklihal; and the recent discovery of a stone axe inscribed with four signs in the Indus script from Mayiladuthurai in Tamilnadu.

Hunter-gatherers were probably involved in the chain of communications. It is possible, though unlikely, that the Harappans themselves traveled to Karnataka to exploit its gold and minerals.

Neighbours to the North and West:

The mountainous regions to the north and west of the Indus realms, the Indo-Iranian borderlands and the Himalayas, were rich in resources useful to the Harappans- notably timber, metal ores, and other minerals. The Indo-Iranian borderlands had been culturally integrated with the Indus Basin during the Early Harappan and preceding periods, but major changes had occurred with the cultural unification of the Indus civilization.

Many earlier settlements were abandoned. The Kot Diji areas of the northern borderlands developed their own separate Late Kot Diji culture, though they continued to trade with the Harappans. Harappan artifacts such as beads, terracotta cakes, and toy carts might have been acquired haphazardly in individual transactions, when, for example, pastoralists from this region migrated to the plains during the winter, but the presence of an Indus weight in the Late Kot Diji settlement of Gumla shows that this trade was organized.

Harappan pottery was present in some settlements such as Periano Ghundai, Rana Ghundai, and Sur Jangal- Often the Harappan material was concentrated in a small part of the settlement. Very little Mature Harappan material was found in the town of Rehman Dheri, the major settlement of the region, but it was common in the small site of Hisham Dheri immediately to its north, perhaps suggesting the latter might have been a caravanserai or trading settlement where Harappan traders came to conduct local business.

Among the important resources of this region was salt, from the Salt Range where a Late Kot Diji settlement is known at Musakhel. The Salt Range also had copper ore and gypsum. Farther north in Swat, where the important Late Kot Diji settlement of Sarai Khola was located, there was alabaster; this could also have been obtained farther south, from the western Bugti Hills.

To the east of the Late Kot Diji culture area, in Kashmir, there were settlements of the Northern Neolithic culture, such as Gufkral and Burzahom. In the early third millennium, these sites had been in contact with settlements in the northern borderlands and the Indus plains, and these contacts continued. The presence of traded Indus material, such as the cache of nine hundred agate and carnelian beads at Burzahom, reflects the importance to the Harappans of Himalayan timber, exploited over a broad front. 

The Harappans may also have obtained minerals from this area, including gold, silver, lead, copper, steatite, agate, and amazonite, and possibly jade from Khotan in China, a material obtained and used by the Kashmir people themselves.


In contrast to the northern borderlands, southern Baluchistan, home to what is known as the Kulli culture, remained closely linked with the Indus civilization. Opinions are divided whether the Kulli material and settlements represent a separate culture or merely a highland regional subculture of the Indus civilization.

Indus seals and weights have been found in several Kulli settlements, confirming the close economic and cultural between the Indus civilization the Kulli region. The people of the Kulli culture, presumably the descendants of Amri-Nal farmers and pastoralists of the region, seem to have combined pastoralism with sophisticated irrigation agriculture.

They occupied large walled settlements generally situated on bluffs, which often had an elevated area with monumental platforms that may have served some religious purpose. Distinctive Kulli material included many figurines of bulls and women, as well as certain forms and decorative motifs in the pottery, such as straight-sided canisters and zoomorphic designs.

However, many of their pottery vessels resembled those of the Harappans, and other characteristic Harappan artifacts, such as model carts, were known in Kulli sites. Conversely, a few Kulli objects were found in Harappan settlements in adjacent regions, such as Nausharo and Lohumjodaro; these included two steatite boxes at Mohenjodaro that resemble ones from Mehi.

Since at least the seventh millennium, the Kachi plain had benefited from its location on a major route through the Bolan pass into the interior of Baluchistan and from there through the Quetta and Kandahar Valleys to Seistan or beyond, through the Khojak pass, to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The political changes that accompanied the emergence of the Harappan civilization, however, seem to have closed this route beyond the Quetta Valley.

Northwestern Baluchistan, with the important town of Mundigak, became incorporated into the Helmand culture and no longer traded with the Indus region. Small quantities of Harappan material in the Quetta Valley show that a limited amount of interaction occurred with the people of what had earlier been the Damb Sadaat region.

Traffic through the Bolan pass would now have come almost exclusively from southern Baluchistan, passing through the Quetta Valley- The use of this route is indicated by the presence of Kulli material in Nausharo in the Kachi plain. Another route from the Kulli area led through the Mula Valley to the plains at Pathani Damb, site of a Mature Harappan town that may have been of considerable size.

Procurement Centers:

One of the hallmarks of the Indus civilization was the establishment of outposts beyond the main area of Harappan settlement, designed to control the produce of key regions. These included Manda, Ropar, and Kotia Nihang Khan in the north, located in the Himalayan foothills on the Chenab and Sutlej Rivers, near where each became navigable. These settlements were well placed to control the exploitation and distribution of timber such as pine, ebony, sissoo, and sal from the Himalayan foothills and deodar from higher in the mountains.

These were carried downriver to other Harappan regions and also exported overseas. Gold dust may also have been available on the upper Sutlej. Another Harappan settlement in the north was located near Mianwali bordering the Late Kot Diji territory south of the Salt Range and may have been concerned with salt procurement. At the opposite end of the greater Indus region was the outpost of Mehgam on the southern Gujarat mainland, a site linked to the exploitation of gemstones. The most distant (and surprising) outpost was at Shortugai in Afghanistan.

The Indus town of Lothal in Saurashtra lay on the border between the agricultural lands of the Indus civilization and the sparsely inhabited north Gujarat plain, home to hunter-gatherer groups, and was not far from the sea. A substantial part of this small town was given over to the manufacture of various Indus products such as beads and objects of copper, shell, and ivory.

The volume of these goods produced was quite out of proportion to the needs of the town’s modest resident population and the inhabitants of its hinterland. The greater part of its products, therefore, must have been made for use elsewhere. Some, it seems likely, were intended for trade with the hunter-gatherer inhabitants of north Gujarat and the desert regions to the south of the Indus realm. Others may have been made for export overseas.

Overland Trade across the Iranian Plateau:

From the earliest period of settlement at Mehrgarh in the seventh millennium, far-reaching trade networks had given the village’s inhabitants access to the products of other regions, such as seashells from the Makran coast, turquoise from Kyzyl Kum in Central Asia, and lapis lazuli probably from Badakshan in Afghanistan. By the fifth millennium, lapis and turquoise were also reaching Susiana and Mesopotamia at the western end of the Iranian plateau, showing that trading networks operated right across these regions.

These became more developed in the fourth millennium, with a number of trading towns growing up in the Iranian plateau, particularly at nodes in the trade routes, some procuring raw materials, some working local or imported materials, and most reaping the benefits of transit trade.

Two major routes traversed the Iranian plateau between east and west- One (later a part of the famous Silk Road) ran north of the desert interior and crossed the Zagros Mountains through the Diyala Valley to reach Assyria and Babylenia; the other ran to the south of the desert, passing through Anshan to Elam and from there into southern Mesopotamia.

Key materials involved in this trade included chlorite from Kerman, copper from a number of sources including the arsenic-rich deposits at Anarak in western Iran, tin from Afghanistan and the south Caspian, silver from Iran, steatite from southern Iran, turquoise from Central Asia, and gold from western Iran. A major source of minerals, including copper, alabaster, steatite, diorite, and aragonite, lay in the Chagai Hills of western Baluchistan, equally accessible to the cultures of the Indo- Iranian borderlands and those of Seistan.

Lapis lazuli from Badakshan or perhaps Chagai found its way to centers throughout the trade network, small amounts reaching Baluchistan, Elam, and the Gulf, while considerable quantities were imported into southern Mesopotamia, where it was used to decorate many valuable objects.

Early Trade Networks:

Elam, a state comprising Susiana and Anshan in southwest Iran, played a major role in this trade in the early third millennium, establishing trading stations in a number of Iranian towns, including Shahr-i Sokhta in Seistan. By around 2800 BC, Elam no longer played a dominant role in eastern Iran, and from around 2300 it was incorporated into the empires of southern Mesopotamia, although the trading towns and trade network continued to flourish.

The products of these towns enjoyed a wide circulation- For example, chlorite bowls (serie ancienne) manufactured at Tepe Yahya, mainly during the mid-third millennium, are known from towns and cities in Mesopotamia and Elam, on the Iranian plateau, and in the Gulf region; one fragment was recovered from the lowest excavated levels at Mohenjodaro, and others have been found at Nausharo, Dholavira, and near Sutkagendor in the Makran.

Towns in the Indo-Iranian borderlands and Early Indus settlements in the river plains were active participants in this trade network. Trade routes through the major valleys of the borderlands linked the Indus Basin to Seistan and Afghanistan and beyond them to the Iranian plateau and Central Asia.

In the later third millennium, however, a major shift in trading patterns occurred. Mesopotamia, a major consumer of raw materials from the Iranian plateau and beyond, shifted most of its interest to new sources and suppliers in the Gulf, and communications between the Indus region and Seistan ceased. This had the major effect of denying the Harappans access to the important and varied mineral resources of the Chagai Hills.

Trade within the Iranian plateau continued, reaching as far west as Susa, but it no longer provided the international highway between Mesopotamia and the Indian subcontinent. Little Harappan material is known from Iranian sites, and the few objects found could have been acquired by trade with third parties such as Magan and Elam.

The known finds include etched camelian beads at Tepe Hissar, Shah Tepe, Jalalabad, Kalleh Nisar, and Tepe Yahya; a sherd bearing a Harappan seal impression was also found at Tepe Yahya. Harappan etched camelian and long barrel camelian beads were found at Susa, as well as a cylinder seal with a Harappan bull-and-manger design and some Indus script signs, and a round seal with a bull and six Harappan signs.

Gulf Trade:

The cultures who bordered the (Arabian/Persian) Gulf had a long history of intercommunity contacts, mainly be sea, going back to the fifth millennium when pottery in the style of Mesopotamian Ubaid wares was distributed as far south as Oman. Coastal fishing communities were probably regularly in contact with those in adjacent areas and across the mouth of the Gulf, and those of the Arabian Sea coast of Oman may also have been in contact with others along Arabia’s southern coasts.

The mid-third millennium saw a radical change in the patterns of trade in the great area from West Asia to the Indus. Although trade with neighbours and between the cultures of the Iranian plateau continued, Mesopotamian and Harappan participation in the trading networks right across the Iranian plateau, which depended on the use of pack animals, virtually ceased, and was replaced by trade using water transport.

Though not without its risks, such as storms and perhaps pirates, this was generally an easier and more efficient means of transporting goods, particularly bulky or heavy materials. Direct seaborne communications through the Gulf were now established between the Indus civilization and Mesopotamia, the main Near Eastern consumer of imported raw materials.

This link enabled the Harappans to conduct direct commercial relations with Mesopotamia, giving them direct control over the management of their trade rather than depending on intermediaries (as the land traffic had) and thereby improving both their returns on their exports and their ability to control the supply of imports. Sea trade also gave the Harappans access to the resources and markets of the cultures in the Gulf. The establishment of new Harappan settlements along the Makran coast reflected the development of this maritime trade.

Maritime Conditions:

The coastal Harappans came to play a major role in seafaring in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea. From Sutkagendor westward, the South Asian coast benefited, from the sheltered sailing conditions of the Gulf. East and south of this area however ships were exposed to the perilous currents and storms of the Arabian Sea and to the strongly seasoned pattern of the winds. During the winter months, between October/November and March/April, the gentle northeast monsoon winds blow from India toward the Arabian Peninsula and ultimately East Africa.

If the Harappans had the knowledge and skill to use these monsoon winds, they may have sailed directly between Gujarat and the Oman coast in the winter; the settlement of Ra’s al-Hadd, where Harappan material, including a seal and an ivory comb, has been found, is today the natural landfall for ships using the monsoon winds. Marine conditions bring an abundance of fish into Arabian coastal waters during the late summer and winter, making this the main fishing season.

This was therefore the time of year when contacts across the Gulf of Oman would have been at their peak, and this would have been the time when fishers and traders crossed between the Indus region and the lands of Arabia and the Gulf, especially the Oman peninsula.

In contrast, in summer, between May and September, the violent and stormy southwest monsoon winds make seafaring dangerous- there was therefore no easy route for seafarers from the Gulf to reach Gujarat at this time of year. Seafaring during the summer would probably have been confined to the calmer waters of the Gulf and to creeks and backwaters in the Indus delta and Gujarat.

Magan and the Harappans:

Confirmation of the seasonal pattern of seafaring, at least in Oman, has come from the sites of the eastern Omani coast, such as Ra’s al-Junayz (Ra’s al-Jinz) and Ra’s al-Hadd, which were occupied only during the winter months, September to March, when they were used as a base for fishing and shell working. The seasonal inhabitants of these settlements brought with them copper tools, pottery, and plant foods from the interior. Such coastal settlements in Oman and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have yielded stone net sinkers, fishhooks of shell or copper, and shell lures.

From the Makran coast, it is a short, easy sea crossing, around 30-40 hours under sail, to Oman on the western side of the Gulf, known as Magan to the Mesopotamians, and seaborne relations between these areas may have been established by the early third millennium BC; fishing sites on me Oman coast are known by the fifth millennium.

Magan and the Makran probably belonged during the earlier third millennium (Hili period in Magan) to a cultural interaction sphere in which ideas and small quantities of each region’s local materials were exchanged and in which links were created and maintained by fishers exploiting the marine resources of the southern end of the Gulf during the winter months. Later trade between them is demonstrated by the presence of a few imported objects in Kulli sites and Kulli material in burial cairns on Umman-Nar in Magan.

The Eastern Gulf:

By the twenty-fourth century BC and probably earlier, the Harappans were also sailing right through the Gulf to Mesopotamia. The most direct and easiest sea route north followed the eastern shore of the Gulf. This is an inhospitable land. The mountains of southern Irana run parallel with and chose to the coast, leaving only a narrow strip of coastal land, accessible from the interior of the Iranian plateau only through a few passes, and offering few resources to support human habitation.

Settlements, such as Siraf, were established in some periods at points where a good anchorage existed, though such sheltered spots are few in number. One such place was Bushehr where a pass cut through the mountains by the Shapur River allowed a route to be established linking Anshan to the coast via Shiraz, but this was probably little used in the third millennium.

Elam, the major state in the southwest of the Iranian plateau, had access to the sea at the head of the Gulf via the navigable River Karun but developed its main trade networks overland. Around 2300 BC, Elam was conquered by Sargon of Akkad and remained largely in the orbit of the southern Mesopotamian states until 2004 BC, when the Elamites sacked Ur. A number of Harappan seals, beads, and ivory inlays and a Harappan weight were found at Susa, the Elamite capital, and gaming boards of similar design are known from Susa and Lothal.

East of Anshan in the interior of southern Iran were various small polities, notably Shahdad and Tepe Yahya in Kennan, Jiroft in the Halfl Rud Basin, Bampur and other towns in Iranian Baluchistan, and the Helmand culture in Seistan. These lay on routes running mainly east-west through the Iranian plateau, but a route to the seacoast around modem Minab and Bandar Abbas, opposite the northern tip of Oman, connected them with the sea.

Trade between these towns and Magan took place during the earlier third millennium, but the people from the Iranian plateau do not seem to have sailed farther a field. During the Mature Harappan period, when the Harappans dominated the Makran coastal region, the volume of this Iran-Magan trade became negligible.

The Western Gulf:

The western shore of the Gulf is mainly desert but settlements thrived in oases such as Hofuf and in coastal locations suitable for fishing. Islands off the western shore also offered opportunities for settlement. During the early third millennium, there was a flourishing culture on Tarut Island, and by the middle of the millennium Bahrain, which had earlier seen settlement followed by abandonment, was reoccupied and rapidly built up a flourishing economy based on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, and particularly fishing.

A town was established on the coast at Qala’at al-Bahrain, where there was a good natural harbour. The island’s main agricultural product was dates, which came to be famed in the Near East for their quality. The surrounding waters yielded not only fish but also oysters from which “fish-eyes” (pearls) and mother-of-pearl could be obtained. The island is blessed with springs of freshwater that also bubble up offshore, and it has fine natural harbours, including one at Qala’at al-Bahrain.

It was therefore a natural port of call for seafarers sailing through the Gulf who would put in to replenish their stocks of water. This led to the islands eventually developing a major role as a trading entrepot where goods from Mesopotamia, the Indus, and other places could be exchanged or obtained. Trading relations also existed between Magan and Dilmun (the Mesopotamian name for the eastern Arabian littoral and Bahrain). For example, Umm-an-Nar pottery has been found in Bahrain.

Persian Gulf Seals:

During the later third millennium, the people of Dilmun began to make round (Persian Gulf) seals, with simple motifs representing mainly animals or a human foot and with a high domed boss with a central groove. These continued in use into the early second millennium. A number of similar round seals bearing Harappan motifs, particularly of short-horned bull, and occasionally Harappan script have also been found, particularly in Bahrain and at Ur, but also from Failaka, Babylon, Girsu, and Susa and from Mohenjodaro and Chanhudaro in the Indus realms.

Some of these seals had recognizably Harappan sign sequences, but in other cases the inscriptions included some signs or sign combinations unknown in the Indus region, suggesting that they rendered non-Harappan names or words.

Mesopotamian Traders in the Gulf:

At the head of the Gulf lay Mesopotamia. Sumer, its southern region, saw the development in the early third millennium of city- states along the branches of the Euphrates. At that time the waters of the Gulf extended much farther north than today, and the city of Ur lay near the sea. The rivers of the region were navigable, providing a link from the sea to the cities of Akkad, the region north of Sumer.

The independent city-states of Sumer and Akkad were united into a single state by Sargon of Akkad between 2334 and 2316 BC. This empire broke up around 2200, but the region was reunified under the Ur III dynasty (2112-2004 BC). Sumer had developed writing during the late fourth millennium and by 2500 BC was creating copious records of economic transactions, legal documents, political statements, letters, and literature, so a considerable amount of information survives on Mesopotamian involvement in Gulf trade.

This seems to have ebbed and flowed. During the fifth millennium (Ubaid period), characteristic Ubaid pottery is known right through the Gulf, from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to Qatar and UAE. This distribution may reflect active trade with these regions by the Sumerians, but it is more likely that contacts between people from different parts of the Gulf, probably in the course of fishing expeditions, led to the exchange and spread of this desirable pottery; faunal remains in the settlements of the period in the eastern province of Arabia were composed largely of fish.

In the fourth millennium (Uruk period), the Sumerians turned their attentions northward, trading with northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Fishing communities in the Gulf, however, probably continued to interact with their neighbours.


In the early third millennium, finds of pottery show that the Sumerians established trading relations with settlements on the UAE coast of Magan, such as Umm-an-Nar, whose inhabitants obtained copper and diorite through their connections with the interior. The Sumerians may also have penetrated the interior in this period.

They continued to trade with Magan throughout the third millennium, receiving copper, timber, red ochre, turtles, diorite, and olivine-gabbro in return for wool, textiles and garments, oil, hides, large quantities of barley, and bitumen. By around 2500 BC,

Umm-an-Nar, situated on an island just off the western coast of Magan, was a major trading entrepot. Crawford (1998, 126) suggests that the under representation of women and children among the burials at Umm-an-Nar may reflect the role of this settlement as a specialist center for traders and sailors without families.

A building with seven narrow rooms in this settlement may have been a warehouse for storing goods for trade and commodities received in trade. Mesopotamian material was found only in coastal settlements, in contrast to Harappan material, known throughout Magan, suggesting that Mesopotamian traders were confined to the coast.


By the late fourth millennium, the Mesopotamians were trading with a land they called Dilmun. This name probably referred to different areas of the Gulf at different times. In the early third millennium, it was probably applied to the island of Tarut and to the Eastern Province of the adjacent Arabian mainland.

In the later third millennium it seems to have referred also to the Island of Bahrain, which by the early second millennium had become the main center. At this time the people of Dilmun also established a major outpost on the island of Failaka off the southern coast of Mesopotamia.

Nature of Sumerian-Harappan Trade Relations:

History and ethnography show many patterns of trade, exchange, and the acquisition of goods. Some involve gift giving in the context of activities involving kin or social partners; these may not require an equivalent return. In some other cases, goods and materials are obtained by force or the threat of force, and the donor may gain little or nothing in return.

Goods may be exchanged for nonmaterial rewards, such as an increase in status or protection against foes. In a high proportion of cases, however, transactions are on a reciprocal basis, in which each party feels that they profit by the transaction, though the goods exchanged may seem to the outsider quite unequal in their value- glass beads for gold, for example.

The Sumerian and Harappan civilizations were comparable in their organizational and economic complexity. Furthermore, it seems that it was the Harappans who took the initiative in the trade between their countries, rather than the Sumerians, despite the fact that Sumer and Akkad had a great need to engage in trade to obtain the goods necessary for daily life (such as metals) and for other, prestige purposes, such as the embellishment of temples and the enhancement of royal status.

The Harappans’ export of timber to Babylonia is of great significance in this context. While small quantities of precious commodities like lapis lazuli or obsidian were easily moved over long distances, the transport of relatively low-value, high-bulk goods, of which timber is an excellent example, is likely to be undertaken only in the context of a well-developed trading network, between roughly equal partners, and for substantial profits.

One would expect the society to whom the trade was of the greater importance to be the one that invested the labour in transporting such bulky goods. In later times when the Mesopotamians obtained timber from the Levant and elsewhere, they undertook expeditions to fell and transport the timber themselves.

The epic tale of “Gilgamesh and Huwawa” shows that this was the normal procurement method in early times also. Yet during the later third millennium, the Sumerians were content to rely on supplies brought to them by the Harappans. This implies that the Harappans had strong motives for trading and as traders were at least as organized and accomplished as the Mesopotamians, if not more so.

The trade in lapis lazuli seems to support this interpretation. The Harappans expended considerable efforts to acquire this stone, even establishing a special procurement center, yet this was almost entirely for trade with Mesopotamia, given that they themselves made little use of it.

These considerations, coupled with the attested presence of resident Harappans in Sumer, make it certain that the Harappans were trading with southern Mesopotamia for their own profit and that through this trade they acquired commodities important to them, despite the paucity of evidence for these imports.

This contradicts the frequently expressed belief that the Harappans gained far less from the trade than the Sumerians. The Harappans were therefore clearly an impressive mercantile society engaged in substantial seaborne trade.

Changing Trade Patterns:

The last centuries of the third millennium had seen the emergence in northern Afghanistan of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC). Over subsequent centuries, it expanded west and south. It took over Shortugai and its region and ended the Indus lapis trade. It also expanded into Seistan, bringing it into the vicinity of the Indus realms.

Distinctive BMAC material, such as stamp seals with geometric, floral, and avian designs, and local products reflecting BMAC designs began to appear in the Indus cities now in decline, and beyond them in the villages and small towns of the Deccan where, for example, sealings with BMAC- style motifs were found at the Ahar-Banas settlement of Gilund.

The stylistic similarities with BMAC material were particularly marked in Baluchistan and the Kachi plain, where in addition there were camel and horse figurines at Pirak after 1700 BC. This must reflect a resumption of links between the Iranian plateau and South Asia across the passes of Baluchistan, making use of pack and draft animals.

The second millennium, therefore, although it did not see the complete abandonment of sea trade, saw a reversion to the earlier communications network operating between the northern part of the Indian subcontinent and its western neighbours, the Iranian plateau and southern Central Asia. At the same time, while the Harappans close integration of the Indus regions was gone, relations were growing and developing between the various communities of the subcontinent.