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News & Editorial

The Indus civilisation

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Utopia © Richard Wilkinson
Success is easier to achieve when you are unshackled from the absentee laird, as the buy-out community on Eigg have realised. When your nation is independent, techno-savvy or small, like Estonia, or the archipelago of the Faroe Islands serving up the world's fastest Broadband. When you live as a happy, secure nation - Costa Ricans (Ticos) are the happiest folk on the planet, thriving in a demilitarised, sustainable country for 65 years now. Per se, this isn't a call for Indyref 2 or the closure of Faslane, though it is tempting to look at Estonian and Faroese Telecom digital provision, the Isle of Eigg community, and the Ticos living so contentedly, then cry:- "Look what independent, small communities and nations can achieve."

Showing my workings.. This article came about as 2016 marked the 500 year anniversary of the publication of Thomas More's 'Utopia'. I found commentaries about the Indus civilisation in New Scientist and 'Did the people of the Indus civilisation have all the answers?' by Pat Kane in the National newspaper. Further research unearthed reviews of Rutger Bregman's challenging 'Utopia for Realists'. Then I Googled, created Alerts and cautiously consulted Wikipedia.

'Picture a peace-loving Atlantic island ruled by reason. Its 54 cities are governed by educated officials and an elected-for-life prince. Although war hasn’t been abolished, it is used only as a last resort. People see no glory in fighting, and capture enemies rather than kill them. This is the original Utopia – the pagan, communist and pacifist world sketched out 500 years ago in Thomas More’s eponymous work of fiction.' Andrew Robinson, writing in New Scientist.

Was More proposing a blueprint of an ideal society, or satirising the self-interest, greed and military exploits of the hereditary monarchies of his time? Has Utopia ever existed? Most historians and writers reject it, though some idealists, like Scotland's Lewis Grassic Gibbon, accepted the existence of a past 'Golden Age' as far from a misbegotten notion. Environmentalist and Guardian writer George Monbiot ('Feral'; 'How did we get into this mess?') is a modern exponent of the 'innate goodness of humanity' mantra. Yet perceived wisdom and common sense insist that large human societies must be governed by coercion. Certainly the instinct for warfare has been the hegemonic force in most 'civilisations' of the last five millennia, especially the British Empire.

The Indus Old World was the most enigmatic of the four great early civilisations. It covered the landmass of what is now parts of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. While Mesopotamia, Egypt and China gloried in warfare from 2600 to 1900BC, conflict seems to have been absent from the Indus valley for seven centuries. The Indus civilisation thrived during this era of the Bronze Age. For citizens then it was an epoch without warfare - no fortifications, armies, armour or weapons. Nor was there any colonialism or non-elected residual monarchy. Inequality was not entrenched.

At its peak, the civilisation had a population of over five million. Inhabitants of the ancient Indus river valley developed techniques in handicraft (carnelian products, seal carving) and metallurgy (copper, bronze, lead, and tin). Cities are noted for their granaries, baked brick houses, docks, wells and walls. The quality of town planning suggests a knowledge of efficient municipal governments, placing a high priority on hygiene. The ancient Indus systems of sewerage and drainage were more advanced than any excavated in contemporary Middle-Eastern urban sites. The Indus valley civilisation is also known in this mature phase as the Harappan. The city of Harappa was located in the Punjab province of British India. In 1920 it was the first site to be excavated. After Partition in 1947, which involved the division of the Bengal and Punjab provinces, the site is now in Pakistan.

The Indus valley cities lived by fair and prosperous trading, facilitated by major advances in transport technology. Trade was helped by developing wheeled transport and a canal network on dry land. Sea-worthy boats were built to secure maritime trade. Flood-supported farmers who tamed the Indus river brought food into the cities. Traders delivered the materials that workers needed, and took away finished goods to other cities. Such goods included terracotta pots, beads, gold and silver, coloured gem stones, cotton cloth, metals, flints for making stone tools, seashells and pearls. Minerals came from Iran and Afghanistan. Lead and copper came from India. Cedar tree wood was floated down the rivers from Kashmir and the Himalayas.

Between 1900 and 1700BC, this great civilisation began to fall apart. Trade, with Mesopotamia in particular, faltered. After a series of natural disasters, cities started to disintegrate. Rainfall reduced. Waterways changed course, causing flooding, droughts and crop failures. Monsoons became unreliable, and it grew cooler. There's evidence of a major earthquake. People suffered famines. Diseases spread; many folk fled epidemics or died from malaria, bones unearthed have revealed. Unlike their fellow traders in neighbouring Kashmiri, who innovated with underground dwelling pits and wool, using their textile industry and weaving skills, the Indus communities were slow to adapt to life under changing climatic conditions. Though genetics and internecine conflicts cannot be ruled out, the Indus civilisation died away, not due to economic imperatives, immigration, warfare or coercion, nor was it down to Utopian societies being unsustainable. The primary reason for this gradual collapse was climate change.