A Piece of the Sky and the Bridging of Worlds — Seafarers of the Harappan Age

GS “Sial Mirza” Goraya
9 min readJan 31, 2022

Some time around 3000 BC, how far this way or that we cannot say, there was an event, rather common, mundane and perhaps even boring, then, but in the context of human history, monumental — this happened most likely somewhere off the Makran coast, off present day Iran, perhaps somewhere approaching the waters of the Straits of Oman.

We can imagine a fisherman out in the sea, carefully close enough to keep the coast in sight, witnessing on the eastern horizon a boat, rather larger than ones used by other fisherfolk of these waters. At first, our fisherman friend is only slightly intrigued, but as the boat from the east draws closer, he observes sitting in it men the likes of whom he has never seen.

They are dressed in white, a few wearing tunics around their waists, and barechested otherwise, but one has a slightly longer cloak, which oddly leaves one of his shoulders bare. The fisherman is intrigued by this man, a grim face with a trimmed beard and well-kempt hair, combed straight back, held in place with a band. Our simple fisherman is unaware that the human body, and especially its foliage, can be so efficiently gardened — he scratches his scraggly beard in amazement, as the soft breeze struggles to ruffle his grizzly hair. The strange boat slides in closer, and now seen at the stern is another main, with a fiercer demeanour — he wears on his head a cap with huge, protruding black polished horns, and once within range, calls out to our fisherman friend.

A stranger thing, the tongue in which this horned man speaks is oddly familiar to the fisherman, though a few words seem garbled and vague. The man had asked, if he had any spare fish. And once closer, asks again, if by chance his net brought up some shells from the coastal waters, which was prone to happen when fishing too close to the shore.

The fisherman, perhaps smiling, looked down at the large pile in the centre of his boat, all wrapped in his coarse net, and shouted back — of course he did, but what may he ask, they had to give him in return.

The man showed him a a rounded, polished stone, which caught the light of the sun, and glimmered crystal blue, like a piece of the sky itself.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when archaeologists first began to excavate the cities of the Indus Valley, or Harappan Civilization, that was a revision — backwards — of the antiquity of Indian Civilization by about 1500 years. Through the 20th century, our knowledge has been extended to such an extent, or depth, and archaeologists have been finding evidence of ancient settlements going back thousands of years more, in the words of Will Durant, wherever they care to dig. Consequently, we now have a timeframe of Indian civilization, of almost 10,000 years.

This bracket of time, the 10,000 year marker, is a useful broad temporal framework, during which humanity began to transition, or invent, a form of society radically different from all lifeways which had existed before — as settled agriculturalists. This transition was gradual, over millennia, beginning from the hotspots of the Levantine corridor, and almost simultaneously, in the greater Indus region, at two ends of the Indo-Mediterranean, and gradually spreading throughout the vast oikumene in between, flourishing, most abundantly and luxuriously in two regions which were somewhat late to the party, Mesopotamia, followed by the Nilotic valley. (Such linearity is only useful for writing an essay, and is definitely not representative of the real world, whatever that may be — it is useful and broadly relevant, yet if one goes into the detail,, one will always find the odd exceptions scattered here and there, in between these two axial early-civilisational cores.)

By about 7000 BC, a distinct settled society based lifeway (which I call the domus society — the Latin root word for domesticated), had developed, diverging from the old hunter/forager lifestyle. However, there was still a deep synergy between these two lifeways, and a gray area between them — wherein certain smaller communities chose a way of life which borrowed from both, creating a new kind of syncretic ‘camp culture’ — this would soon become what I call the ordos type of society, what we know in popular historiography, as the nomad/barbarian. (The word ordos is borrowed from the Turkic orda, meaning tent.)

The old ways of the pure hunter/forager would soon be restricted to a few pockets, or times of necessity. A few remain still.

A synergy between the settled, agricultural village based domus societies, and the moving, camp based ordos cultures, over the next few millennia, created wide-ranging structures of exchange, of materials and knowledge, which by about 5000 BC, had set the stage for what I call the first epoch of globalization, and the beginning of the first world system.

To explore these processes, see this presentation :

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I will write about these long millennia of the first half of the Holocene Civilizational Aeon in detail in other, following, essay. But now, to follow along our long view.

From 5000, till about 3000 BC, this world system was one than operated through a structure of primarily long range land based exchange networks, linking our Indo-Mediterranean oikumene, as its core, with other world regions, as far as China and the European peninsula, and to the further northlands of Eurasia.

Then at around 3000 BC, there was a maritime revolution, most likely initiated by sailors of the greater Indus Valley civilisations (note the plural), which created for the first time long range oceanic trade, between the burgeoning city-states of Sumerian Mesopotamia, and the rich north Indian megacivilisational realm.

There are two things we need to discuss before we can dig in deeper into the consequences of this maritime revolution — and also discuss why we call it that.

First, traversal of the seas, on rafts or other means of floatation, had most likely been something human beings had been doing since the first migrations beyond the confines of continental spaces.

We can say for certain that the human settling of Australia had required at least some voyaging on the seas, despite the lower water levels in the Pleistocene, which left much of South East Asia as an off continent land bridge of sorts. It is difficult to say how much of this was accidental or intentional. But despite the awe inspiring bravery of these early human voyagers, we would have to wait thousands of years till human societies actually based around sea faring emerged.

Among the first of these in core civilisational zones where sea-faring was cultivated as an integral geotechnology, are at two ends of the Indo-Mediterranean oikumene — in the Red Sea, and off the coasts of western India.

For the Red Sea, there is significant evidence that cultures on both the African and the Arabian sides of the sea were traversing the waters and had most likely created interfaces of exchange.

In Egypt, some remarkable discoveries have been made through petrochemical analysis of obsidian found at the Naqada I and II period sites along the Nile.

We have found some some obsidian artefacts, the material for which shows signs of having been derived from southern Arabia. There are some sources on obsidian in Africa as well, in the Horn of Africa, from where obsidian was derived by the Naqada people as well — this too, most likely through coastal trade.

There is ample evidence that middle Egypt around 5000 BC was home to what we might call a culture of boatpeople. These people lived along the Nile, but traversed — and also possibly had way station camps in — the dryland valleys known as wadis which link the Nile to the Red Sea. Scattered throughout some wadis and the eastern deserts of the Nile valley we find artistic depictions in wall art of rudimentary ships. Interestingly, remains of deep sea fish have also been found in some settlements along the Nile. This culture most likely was structured around a hybrid riverine and sea faring lifeway, legacies of which survived in the rituals festivals of Seker and Henu long after the descendants of the Red Sea people had become landbound in pre-dynastic, early Pharaonic Egypt. I will devote an entire essay to exploring this culture, and its transitions in the future.

For now, we move to the other end of the Indo-Mediterranean oikumene.

In the lower valley of the Indus, in the fourth millennium BC, thrived a culture known by the location of its most prominent present day settlement, as the Kot Diji culture of Sind. The Kot Dijians represent what we might call the second phase of civilisational expansion in the greater Indus Valley region — the first is represented by what we might call a chain of mountain cultures, located in key mountain passes along the arc of the Hindu Kush mountains, with the oldest of these sites being Mehrgarh founded around 7000 BC. Curiously — or not, as I will explore subsequently — the fertile lands around the lower course of the meandering Indus was settled much later, from around 5000 BC. There are a few transitionary sites between the highland and lowland cultures which show how this expansion of civilisational space might have occurred, most likely also through complex interfacing of cultural assimilation, geotechnological expediency and exchange between highlands agricultural, pastoralist and wetland cultures. The consequence was a prolific civilisation of the lower Indus in the fifth millennium to fourth millennium period, which created a significant corpus of legacies for the subsequent third millennium Harappan era of the greater Indus valley.

In addition to other important cultural forms, artistic styles and perhaps even political culture, of sorts, the legacies of the fifth/fourth millennium Indus cultures included the idea of a walled city, and the legacy of sea faring. The Kot Dijians, along with their Amri Nal cousins, also of the Sind, began to explore and subsequently colonise the western regions of the Indian peninsula, in present day Gujarat. And they also had something to do perhaps with the transmission, through relay trade — that is trade passed on from one neighbouring people to another — through a complex symbiosis of land and sea routes, of rare and exotic material which made its way to the Naqada people of the Nile valley, all the way from the western Pamir mountains of Badakshan — lapis lazuli.

The piece of the sky which created a gleam in the eye of our Omani fisherman friend.

According to one scholar of ancient trade in the Indian Ocean region, the beginnings of longer distance trade between the Sumerians and the people of the Harappan Age of the Indus Valley in the third millennium BC had an event like quality. Perhaps it did, as I have attempted to show in the imaginary scene above. Or perhaps it was nothing at all, just one more episode in the longue duree of trade and exchange in the greater Indian Ocean world.

But then again, no greater Indian Ocean world existed, that is, there was no comingling of horizons, till an actual effort to bridge the distance between worlds was actually, and intentionally made.

This extended quote by Julian Reade from the book Indian Ocean in Antuquity, is insightful -

“We may visualize, then, a great number of effectively self-sufficient communities, strung in a long linear fashion along appropriate shores, with little scope for centralization. Presumably there were tribal relationships over limited distances, and adaptive pressures favoured efficiency and sometimes seasonal movement. If the sea is a perennial larder, it still requires intelligent exploitation, particularly some understanding of the migratory habits of fish. We may certainly envisage through millennia, just as we can observe historically, small improvements in fishing techniques and boat-making technology, which made slightly longer trips practicable; but there was no incentive for rapid movement over significant distances, since marine resources were essentially much the same along most neighbouring shores. Communications along a coast have to be distinguished from serious sea-faring.”

Serious sea-faring, we might say, begins (and ends) with the goal of making intentional contact with some one, some thing or some place, on the other side, or other end of the voyage.

The Red Sea people and the Kot Dijiians were both serious sea farers, and they were crossers of horizons and the bridgers of worlds, and their legacies set into motion the world that would emerge in the millennia which followed. But these emergences, and interminglings on the seas, also required coterminous emergences on the lands these waterscapes had the potential to connect.

These were primarily two — the emergence of a unified and integrated, Indus Valley wide civilisation of the Harappans, and the burgeoning and voraciously appetited city-states of the Sumerian heartland of the Mesopotamian civilisation.

We will turn to exploring these next.

This post is from my new blog Erythean Horizons, while I will be sharing many of my essays from the blog here, do follow the site, as I have a few plans to grow that into a more well organised and well resourced forum to explore these themes.

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