Were the Harappans a Peaceful Society? An Evaluation of Warfare in the Indus Civilization

by thathistorydude

Abstract The Indus Civilization may not have been as peaceful as previously believed. This paper looks at the amount of copper weapons and tools found at the Indus sites, to argue that warfare was practiced by the Indus Civilization.



The Harappan phase of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BC) is believed to have been the time of great urban planning and building. This is the time when the people living in the Indus valley, created civilization. The Indus valley is located in the region of what is now Pakistan and northwest India.  Warfare has often been believed to be absent in this period, with the idea that the Harappans were a peaceful trading people. This idea of a peaceful trading society is starting to be overturned with the discovery of an abundance of bladed tools, axes/adzes, and arrowheads being found in the larger Harappan cities. This paper argues for the presence of warfare in the Indus Civilization. The Indus Civilization seems not to have had a standing army or a warrior class, but that does not make them a peaceful society.


The first excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were started in 1921-1922. Sir John Marshall first discovered Harappa, and later discovered Mohenjo-Daro with Ernest J.H. Mackay. These early excavators used the technology available at the time to help them develop the first theories of the Indus Civilization. Marshall was the first to publish his ideas on the Harappans. “Marshall’s Harappans were austere, peaceful, urban, merchant burghers, whose beliefs were harbingers of later Indian Ideologies” (Possehl 1997:9). Mackay was the first to comment on the scarcity and ineffectiveness of Harappan weapons. “He observed that the blades found at Mohenjo-Daro would ‘double up upon impact’, and linked this specifically to an absence in warfare: ‘judging from the small number of weapons of offence and defence, the people of Mohenjo-Daro appear neither to have been a warlike people nor have feared invasion’” (Cork 2005:2). This peaceful Harappan idea has been taken up by the majority of the archaeologists studying the Indus Civilization.

The people who later created the Indus civilization are believed to have settled in the Indus Valley around 6500 BC, in what is called the Early Food Producing Era (Hoffman and Miller 2009) (Fig. 1). This era dates from 6500-5000 BC. In this era, the people of the Indus valley were starting to switch from hunting and gathering, to the more sedentary life of farming communities. These early farmers grew wild and domesticated barley, along with domesticated wheat. The next era, the Regionalization Era, ran from 5000-2600 BC, saw “the beginnings of the growth and development of the major Indus sites” (Hoffman and Miller 2009: 250). During this era, the population was growing to where the people could start to form larger settlements and the beginnings of cities.

Fig. 1 Map of Indus Civilization (crystalinks.com)

In the Integration Era or Harappan Phase, which dates to 2600-1900 BC, the big cities were formed like, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. In this era the Indus Civilization was in its golden age and it is where we see trade with standardized weights and measures, along with a form of writing called the Indus script. The last era is the Localization Era or Late Harappan Phase, which dates from 1900-1300 BC. In this era the Indus Civilization seems to collapse, with people abandoning the cities for small farming towns (Table 1). Environmental disaster may have been the cause of the downfall of the Indus civilization, but no concrete evidence has been found that explains the collapse of the Indus Civilization (Possehl 1997).

Early food producing era c. 6500–5000 BC
Regionalization era c. 5000–2600 BC
Early Harappan–Ravi Phase 3300–2800 BC
Early Harappan–Kot Diji Phase 2800–2600 BC
Integration era Harappan phase 2600–1900 BC
Localization era Late Harappan phase 1900–1300 BC

Table 1 General chronology of Indus Civilization (Hoffman and Miller 2009)

The physical environment of the Indus civilization consisted of “the highlands and plateaus of Baluchistan to the west and the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India to the northwest and north” (Kenoyer 1991:339). The Indus plain was watered by two rivers the Indus and the Ghaggar-Hakra. The coastal plains of Gujarat are bordered by arid and mountainous ranges. The Indus and coastal plains provided good area for agriculture, due to the alluvial soil and mild temperate weather.

The floodplains of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers provided the perfect area for agriculture and grazing. It seems the Harappans domesticated wheat and barley, since wild wheat and barley grew in the area, but they may have acquired it through trade with Mesopotamia. They grew wheat and barley in the fertile soils of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra floodplains. The larger cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro focused on growing large seeded crops, because they were located along the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers, “in ecosystems suitable for the large cereal grains like wheat and barley, which could feed large populations” (Weber, Kashyap, and Harriman 2010:41). Wheat and Barley have deep extensive root systems, which allow them to tolerate stresses encountered during seedling establishment (Weber, Kashyap, and Harriman 2010: 43). The root system also allows the cereal crops to have a greater output and produce more seeds. Smaller Indus settlements in the dryer regions seem to have grown wheat and barley in the wetter season and they focused on growing small grained millets in the dry season. Millets require less rainfall than the larger seeded cereals, and are tolerant to drought due to their quick mature period (Weber, Kashyap, and Harriman 2010: 50). Millets generally take less energy to plant and manage, but it takes more energy to gather and process them.

The Harappans practiced animal husbandry and may have been able to domesticate cattle, water buffalo, sheep, and goat. Wild cattle, sheep, and goat, along with water buffalo were native to the Indus Valley, so it seems very likely the Harappans were able to domesticate these animals. The Harappans may have also gained access to the domesticated animals through trade. “These animals are adapted to different types of grazing and so could have exploited the vast grasslands on the meander plain, as well as the forested alluvium that was not being farmed” (Kenoyer 1991:355). There is evidence that leads some to believe the Indus people may have used cattle to plow their fields. What appeared to be a plowed field was found at Kalibangan and a toy terra-cotta plow was found at Banawali. It seems very likely the Harappans discovered that tilling the soil “increased yield dramatically, thus producing significantly more food for less energy and could support much larger populations” (Weber, Kashyap, and Harriman 2010:40).

The three largest cities in the Indus civilization were Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and Ganwariwala. Each city is in the range of 80 to 85 hectare (Kenoyer 1991: 335). The cities were laid out in what Kenoyer calls “Irregular net plan”, this plan has led some earlier researchers to think the streets were laid out in a grid fashion. The cities were divided into quarters, with each quarter having community wells for the neighborhoods (Kenoyer 1991: 336). The main streets were 45 feet wide and some were a mile long. The cities were also equipped with an elaborate and extensive sewage system. The sewage system connected to the houses and streets, and even had slits in the covered drainage trenches to allow for inspection. Each house had its own private bathing pool that was connected to the city sewage system (Kenoyer 1991: 336). The cities were very uniform in their design and clean, due to the elaborate sewage system.

Most of the Indus cities were surrounded by walls made of baked bricks. It has been speculated that the walls may have been used for a variety of reasons, including protecting the cities from monsoon flooding, controlling the amount of trading coming into and out of the cities, to define the limits of the city for administrative purposes, and for defensive purposes (Kenoyer 1991: 340). The building of public structures like the great bath and warehouse at Mohenjo-Daro and the walls around the cities, indicates governmental organization. Priest-kings may have ruled the Indus Civilization. They were in charge of organizing the workforces required for building the major work projects.

The warehouses seem to have been used to store the goods collected as a form of tax. Clay tags with seal impressions have been found at the warehouses. These tags have pictographic writing known as the Indus script. The Indus script was most likely created as a way to keep track of all the goods coming in. It was used for administrative purposes and allowed the rulers to keep track of who was paying taxes. The Indus script has also been found on clay and copper tablets. The main theory is these tablets had a religious or ritual function (Hoffman and Miller 2009: 250). The Indus script has yet to be deciphered.

The Indus civilization did trade with Mesopotamia and may have also traded with China. The process of trading with their neighbors, may have led the Harappans to standardize weights and measures. The kind of trade the Harappans participated in was the import of raw resources, including copper, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and other exotic goods. They created ceramics and pottery, which they traded for raw resources. The Harappans may have also traded agriculture goods with China in the form of wheat and barley for legumes (Weber, Kashyap, and Harriman 2010: 37).

The Indus Civilization is looked at by most scholars as a peaceful trading society. This image is due to the lack of art depicting warfare and the lack of weapons found at Harappan sites. The first excavators of the sites created the peaceful Harappan image, because they found no documentation of warfare, and the weapons they did find, they believed were too thin to do any damage. Arrowheads and daggers were believed to be used for hunting instead of being used in warfare. This idea of a peaceful Indus Civilization is based on received wisdom and has not been thoroughly tested by modern archaeologists (Cork 2005).


The Indus Civilization seems not to have had a standing army or a warrior class, but that does not mean they did not practice warfare. It seems very likely the Harappans used warfare to control the vast area of the Indus Valley. It is hard to believe the Indus valley was acquired through peaceful means. The Harappans were also trading with Mesopotamia, which was a warlike state. If the Harappans were truly peaceful and did not practice warfare, then it seems Mesopotamia would have expanded and conquered the Harappans. The Harappans must have had some way of defending themselves from invasion or way to scare off would be conquerors. Since nothing has been found that indicates warfare between the Harappans and the Mesopotamians, it seems very likely that the Harappans reputation was not of being a peaceful society.

The Harappans imported copper ingots from their neighbors, which they used to make tools, weapons, jewelry, household items, and ritual items. The kind of tools they made were blade tools, rod tools, and axes/adzes (Hoffman and Miller 2009: 240). The weapons they made consist of spearheads and arrows. Edward Cork uses a category called ‘tool/weapons’ which is comprised of the bladed tools, axes, and arrowheads. The items marked as ‘tool/weapons’ were items that could serve two functions, domestic and violent. The items used for hunting, like spears and arrows could have been used to hunt men, just as effectively as animals.

Since the Harappans seem not to have had a standing army or a warrior class, then it seems very likely the men in the city fought the battles. Farmers, trader, and craftsmen may have fought the battles and the weapons they used were whatever they could find. They may have used axes, spears, daggers, and arrows; anything that could be used as a weapon was used. This would explain for the lack of traditional weapons and for the amount of ‘tool/weapons’ found at the sites. By traditional weapons I am referring to the maces and socketed axes used by the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. I am not including swords because they didn’t come into use until the Iron Age, which explains the lack of swords at Harappan sites (Cork 2005: 420). Since the men were farmers and craftsmen they had no use for traditional weapons since they were not warriors and didn’t train with them. Instead they used what they were comfortable with, which were the tools they used every day.

The axes found at Harappan sites are unsocketed axes; these kinds of axes are deemed by most scholars to be technologically inferior to the socketed axes. Evidence has been found of unsocketed axes being used alongside socketed axes by the Mesopotamians and Egyptians in warfare (Cork 2005: 415). Unsocketed axes are just as effective as socketed axes in warfare. Since unsocketed axes were used in Mesopotamia and Egypt, then they were probably used by the Harappans as well.

Harappan axes and blades conform to a broad types found throughout the Near East and Egypt. They may be considered technologically less developed; they were still used alongside more complex designs. Harappan weapons cannot, therefore, be viewed as technologically inferior or inadequate for combat. The effectiveness of Egyptian weapons, despite the slow adoption of more advanced designs, further refutes the suggestion that the technological conservation seen in Harappan weaponry equates to a lack of warfare (Cork 2005:6).

Different amounts and types of copper items have been recovered from each of the Indus sites. At Mohenjo-Daro 420 copper objects have been found, with the assemblage mostly comprised of tools (Hoffman and Miller 2009: 255). “Within the tool category, blade tools are the dominate subcategory comprising 48 percent, with rod tools comprising 38 percent of the tool assemblage and axes/adzes making up 13 percent” (Hoffman and Miller 2009:18). The early excavations at Harappa have recovered 190 copper objects, with tools comprising the majority of the assemblage. “Blade tools dominate the tool types, with the hoard being comprised almost totally of copper vessels, axes, and blades” (Hoffman and Miller 2009: 253). Later excavations at Harappa have recovered 110 copper objects comprised mainly of arrowheads and ornaments.

The other cities and villages have a more balanced assortment of copper tools and ornaments. They are not dominated by blade tools or axes/adzes; instead there are more copper vessels, ornaments, and rod tools (Hoffman and Miller 2009). This evidence of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa having a higher concentration of ‘tool/weapons’, leads me to believe that Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were more aggressive, than the other cities in the Indus Valley. The ‘tool/weapon’ finds indicate the Harappans may not have been as peaceful as some researchers think.

Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and other Indus settlements, had high walls built around them. In most other civilizations, the main function of walls was defense and the walls are seen as a sign of warfare. The received wisdom of the Peaceful Harappans has scholars believing the Indus walls were used to protect the cities from flooding, used to control the amount of trade, and used to define the city for administrative uses (Kenoyer 1991:346). The use of the walls for defense is hardly looked at, or tested by some scholars. “The claim of unsuitability of walls and gates is somewhat subjective, and ignores sites with bastions and double axis gateways, such as Dholavira and Surkotada” (Cork 2005:10).

The majority of the walled cities can be found along the alluvial plains of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers. This has led some scholars to believe the main function of the walls were to protect the city against flooding. Walled settlements have been found in the piedmont and peripheral zones (Kenoyer 1991: 370). The main purpose of the walls in these settlements seems to have been defensive purposes. These settlements may have acted as forts, to protect the Indus Valley from invasion. It seems very likely the walls for the cities and settlements were constructed for multiple purposes, with defense being one of the purposes.


The idea of a lack of weapons found at the Harappan sites does not seem to hold up to the evidence. There is a lack of traditional weapons at the sites, but there is an abundance of ‘tool/weapons’ in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. The majority of copper objects found at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, consisted of blade tools, axes/adzes, and arrowheads. Unsocketed axes were used in warfare by the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. It seems very likely the Harappans used unsocketed axes in warfare, just like their neighbors. If the Harappans were truly peaceful it, seems likely their aggressive neighbors would have conquered them.

The walls around the cities seem to have been built for multiple purposes and the walls around the settlements outside the valley, seem to have been built for defense. The settlements on the border of the Indus territory, may have acted as forts to protect against invasion. The Indus Civilization seems not to have had a standing army, or a warrior class, but that does not make them a peaceful society. They had aggressive neighbors, whom they traded with and it seems they had some way of defending themselves from the ambitions of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians.

It is not very effective to look at the Indus sites through received wisdom, because there is a lot that can be missed. Instead it is better to look at the sites, without any preconceived notions of what to look for. Modern day archaeologists need to develop their own ideas about the Indus Civilization, instead of falling for the received wisdom of the peaceful Harappan model.

References Cited

Cork, Edward

2005 Peaceful Harappans? Reviewing the evidence for the absence of warfare in the Indus Civilization of north-west India and Pakistan (c. 2500-1900 BC). Antiquity 79(304): 411-423.

Hoffman, Brett C. and Miller, Heather

2009 Production and Consumption of Copper-based Metals in the Indus Civilization. Journal of World Prehistory 22(3): 237-264.

Kenoyer, Jonathan M

1991 The Indus Valley Tradition of Pakistan and western India. Journal of World Prehistory 5(4): 331-385.

Possehl, Gregory L

1997 The transformation of the Indus Civilization. Journal of World Prehistory 11(4): 425-472.

Weber, Steve, Arunima Kashyap, and David Harriman

2010 Does size matter: the role and significance of cereal grains in the Indus civilization. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2(1): 35-43.