The Strange Collapse of the Harappan Civilization?

Some 4,000 years ago, the mighty Harappan civilization accounted for 10% of the entire global population. Suddenly, this once-great society collapsed. What happened to the Harappan civilization?

Why did the Harappan Civilization Collapse?

The Harappan, or Indus, sprouted up 5,200 years ago. It grew into an ancient powerhouse, covering a massive area of 386,000 square miles, including parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Archaeological digs show it contained large cities, plumbing, sea links, trade routes, and a unique writing system (which has yet to be deciphered). But then, after more than 1,000 years of existence, the society began to crumble. People abandoned their homes and moved east.

“Antiquity knew about Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the Indus civilization, which was bigger than these two, was completely forgotten until the 1920s. There are still many things we don’t know about them.” ~ Liviu Giosan, Geologist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Recently, Liviu Giosan and a team of researchers collected vast amounts of data on the area’s geological history. They discovered that monsoon rains caused rivers to once flow through the region. These rivers were initially too wild to support agriculture. However, they started to weaken about 5,000 years ago, coinciding with the rise of the Harappan civilization. But eventually, the rivers dried up and the Harappan shifted east toward the still-wet Ganges basin. Thus, the “collapse.”

Why do Complex Societies Collapse?

The question of why complex societies collapse is an old one. These days, environmental explanations are all the rage. And it’s no accident. Throughout time, collapse theories have served as critiques of the modern world.

“Whereas collapses were once attributed to impious or selfish rulers, or in West’s view to indolent masses, in today’s framework the sin is gluttony: ancient societies collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacities of their environments, degrading their support bases in the process. And since it happened to past societies, it could happen to us too. According to contemporary literature, the next collapse will come because all of us have consumed too many goods, eaten too much, driven too far, and produced too many children.” ~ Joseph Tainter, Collapse, Sustainability, and the Environment: How Authors Choose to Fail or Succeed

Take the Classic Maya for example. The Maya used a complex water management system that depended on regular rainfall. So, when rain decreased for an extended period of time, the Classic Maya were supposedly unable to adjust. They proceeded to abandon their cities, causing the famous collapse of the Classic Maya civilization.

Sounds good right? Ancient climate change wrecks havoc and people move away, seeking better conditions. But that presents a problem. Complex societies are formed to deal with complex problems. So, why didn’t the Harrapan or the Maya find ways to deal with their environmental problems? Well, in all likelihood, they tried to. And thus, we would postulate that there is another reason for their collapses. Collapses, as Joseph Tainter once said, “happen.” They are a natural part of civilization.

“As a society faces problems, it becomes more complex in order to solve them. A central government creates “solutions” which consume resources and cause yet more problems. The society becomes increasingly complex, leading to the necessity of even more complex solutions. Eventually, the costs of maintaining such a complex society outweighs the benefits at the individual level. When problems arise – things like drought or invasion – the collapse of the society is more desirable than the alternative. At that point, the civilization undergoes a process of simplification.” ~ David Meyer, The Mystery of the Vanishing Maya

Interestingly enough, the Harappan didn’t construct new cities once they fled their old homes. Instead, they shifted toward “small farming communities.” This would appear to support the idea of deliberate simplification.

“Cities collapsed, but smaller agricultural communities were sustainable and flourished. Many of the urban arts, such as writing, faded away, but agriculture continued and actually diversified.” ~ Dorian Fuller, Archaeologist, University College London

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The desire for societal collapse might strike some of you as strange. But you have to remember that ancient societies weren’t uniform. Not everyone could be an astronomer or a high priest. Most people were ordinary workers.

As ancient societies got more complex, layers of bureaucrats, academics, and other “elites” began to form. The brunt of supporting these layers often fell on a particular group of people. These people built massive buildings, provided food, were pressed into wars, served as sacrificial victims, and paid taxes for the “privileges of society.” Under those conditions, many people would’ve found view the loss of complexity as a blessing. For example, studies have shown that the health and nutrition of peasants deteriorated during the rise of the Classic Maya. These same factors improved after the collapse.

It’s possible climate change served as a trigger for the collapse of the Harappan civilization. But many civilizations have managed to avoid similar collapses despite horrific droughts and famines. So, it seems quite possible to us that there is another explanation at play here. When the river began to dry up, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The cost of maintaining the complicated Harappan society just became too steep for the average peasant. Rather than stick it out, they decided to seek better lives. While we view this as a collapse, the ancient Harappan may have seen it differently. To them, it might’ve been a new beginning.

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