Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • describe the geography, topography, and climate of South Asia, and its effect on the region’s trajectory
  • explain the nature of the era called the Mesolithic, and what unifies this period archaeologically
  • understand the origins of and transition to agriculture in South Asia, and the debates surrounding these processes
  • characterize the relationship between the fertile floodplains and the resource rich highlands through time
  • describe the traditions of craft specialization from earliest to historic times
  • explain the factors in the rise of complex societies in the Indus region
  • characterize the Harappan urban complex
  • explain the uniformity and diversity found within Harappan cities and their hinterlands
  • discuss the history of thought surrounding Indus social organization
  • describe the origins, use of, and attempts to decipher the Indus script
  • characterize the collapse of the Indus urban world
  • trace the history of thought on the collapse of Indus civilization
  • explain why Shaffer and others describe the Harappan sequence as eras of “regionalization, integration, and localization”
  • describe the societies that rose in the post-Indus era, and why the concept of a “dark age” has been abandoned
  • characterize the kingdoms and empires of the Early Historic period
  • understand the social, political, and religious changes and developments of the Early Historic era
  • assess the impact of outside contact and conquests on the South Asian subcontinent.

Chapter Summary


South Asia (modern India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka) has geographical, linguistic, historical, and archaeological links with parts of Afghanistan and Iran. Its borders are the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram, and Himalayan ranges.

The most obvious features within the region’s extremely varied topography and environment are the Indus and the Ganges river basins, but also include deserts, plateaus, northern and tropical regions.


The peopling of South Asia is not well understood, although this is improving. The Mesolithic period dates to between 26,000 and 1800 bc. A long era, it is characterized by broad-spectrum subsistence strategies and microlithic blade industries, grouped into four regional archaeological zones: Western India; the Ganges Plain; Central India; and Sri Lanka.


Today, researchers identify four geographically and culturally distinct Neolithic clusters. Two clusters, in west and peninsular India, indicate strong regional contributions toward domestication; the other two, in Kashmir-Swat and along the Ganges, may originate elsewhere. Neolithic sites are characterized by ground-stone tools, domesticated plant and animal species, the introduction of ceramics, and the establishment of settlements, although these attributes vary.


By the 4th millennium bc, inhabitants of the Indo-Iranian plateau had colonized the Indus floodplain, and by the 3rd millennium bc had created fortified, planned settlements. By c. 2800 bc, the Early Harappan period, or Kot Diji phase, emerged with over 300 identified sites, termed an “era of regionalization” by J. G. Shaffer.

The earliest Indus plain habitations are exemplified by the 4th-millennium bc sites of Balakot and Amri containing mud-brick structures and decorated wheel-thrown ceramics. Barley and domesticated and wild animals were consumed.

Further north, the Hakra ceramic complex is found. Small, temporary settlements and a few larger, permanent settlements contain distinct wheel-thrown ceramics, microliths, terracotta figurines, and bone and metal artifacts. Important Indus cities, such as Harappa, were established during this phase.

The Kot Diji ceramic style (after Kot Diji, Pakistan), the first clear Indus Valley cultural convergence, succeeded the Hakra complex, dated to c. 3200–2600 bc. Fortifications have been identified at Kot Diji. Other informative data come from the sites of Rehman Dheri, Kalibangan, and Harappa: planned, rectangular settlements with mud-brick walls enclose large areas with rigid grid-iron street plans.


The Indus, or Harappan, (after Harappa, Pakistan) is a Bronze Age civilization termed an “era of integration” by Shaffer, The “mature” phase is dated to 2600–1900 bc, and encompassed 500,000 sq. km (193,000 sq. miles). The Indus civilization is characterized by a four-tier settlement hierarchy, cities, urban planning, writing, artifact standardization, long-distance trade, craft and settlement specialization, and monumental public works.

Settlements lay on the floodplains of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers, where fertile land was annually refreshed by inundation. Recent research has identified wheat and barley, pulses, millets, fibers/oilseed, melons, cucumbers, squashes, and rice. Cattle, water buffalo, goat, and sheep provided animal products. Floodplains lack raw materials; urban economies provided surplus for exchange to obtain them.


The causal factors behind the Indus civilization’s collapse c. 1900 bc are still debated. Physical manifestations include the loss of planned urban forms, monumental public buildings, and a written script. New cultural traits appeared, and local, pre-urban traditions re-emerged.

By 1700–1600 bc the Gandharan Grave culture was spreading. At Balambat, Timargarha, Aligrama, Bir-kot-ghundai, Kalako-deray, and Loebanr I, homogeneous burials, pottery, and other artifacts are found. This culture may extend into Afghanistan, Peshawar, and Taxila and perhaps the southern Himalayas.


The period between the Harappan collapse and the emergence of the Early Historic or Gangetic civilization was once referred to as a “dark age,” but scholarship now indicates continuity. This period (1200–500 bc) saw the emergence of fortified settlements, planned urban forms, states, the use of seals, script, and mass production. Iron tools first appeared. Several religious teachers, such as the Buddha, date to this period, which ended when the Achaemenid Persian Empire conquered the western subcontinent in the late 6th century bc.

The western subcontinent saw conversion into Achaemenid satrapies. To the east, the number of small settlements in the Ganges-Yamuna doab region expanded and the Ocher Colored tradition was replaced by Painted Gray ware, dated to between the early 1st millennium bc and the 6th or 7th century bc, and associated with iron use. It was superseded in the 6th century BC when Northern Black Polished ware, a direct descendant, spread throughout the subcontinent.

By 500 bc, emergent janapadas, or territories, had coalesced into 16 mahajanapadas, or “great territories,” each with a capital and ruler, ministers and courts, supported by taxes and campaigns, vying for supremacy.

Southern India and Sri Lanka

Cultures of the Deccan Plateau pursued a massive investment in stone funerary complexes. Recent intensive survey has identified associated settlements. In Sri Lanka, recent data comes from the city of Anuradhapura, the island’s capital until the 11th century ad.


The regionalized developments in Afghanistan, Gandhara, the Ganges basin, central India, and Sri Lanka were interrupted in the northwest by annexation into the Achaemenid empire in 520 bc, but the actual impact is less clear.

Archaeological evidence for Hellenistic invasion and colonization of the Indus region by Alexander the Great in 326/325 bc is extremely poor. The closest example of a Greek presence is the Hellenistic city site of Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan.

It is now apparent that competition, emulation, amalgamation, and religious patronage resulted in the convergence of the 16 mahajanapadas of central India into a single integrated unit, the Mauryan empire, by 350 bc.

The Mauryan Empire

The Mauryan dynasty ruled for more than 150 years. The third emperor, Asoka (reigned 272–235 bc) is known for edicts written on boulders, stone pillars, or slabs. These, combined with early texts such as the Arthasastra, enhance understanding of imperial politics and structure.

The Mauryan pacification of South Asia allowed freer movement and networks for trade, leading to standardization of artifacts and craft specialization.

Post-Mauryan Dynasties

Mauryan influence dissipated in the 2nd century bc, giving way to small states. The Gangetic heartland was ruled by the Sunga dynasty. The northwestern region was absorbed into the expanding Greek kingdoms in Bactria that controlled the Hindu Kush. In the 1st century bc, a people known as the Sakas, of Central Asian origin, established a polity in the region.

The Kushan, Satavahana, and Later Dynasties

The region was reunified in the first half of the 1st millennium ad through the rise of the Kushans in the north and the Satavahanas in the south. A large Kushan empire established cities and dynastic cult centers, creating a renaissance of Buddhism in South Asia, which spread into Central and Eastern Asia along the Silk Route, evidenced at Begram (Afghanistan) where ivories, Chinese lacquerwork, and Roman metalwork and glass were found.

To the south, the Satavahana dynasty emerged in peninsular India, expanding to cover the Deccan Plateau, until its decline in the 3rd century ad. Satavahana rulers established capitals and were engaged in maritime Silk Route trade, supported by finds of Roman bronzes, coins, ceramics, and glass.

To the south, the Sri Lankan state continued to thrive, with Anuradhapura as the capital of the entire island in the 4th century bc. The establishment of the Gupta empire of northern India by Chandragupta I (reigned ad 320–335) represented the end of the fragmented Early Historic period, and ushered in a new imperial system.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Foreign Contact and State Formation 1: The Indus Cities

Key Controversy: The Decipherment of the Indus Script

Key Controversy: The Social Organization of the Indus Civilization

Key Controversy: The End of the Indus Cities

Key Controversy: Foreign Contact and State Formation 2: The Early Historic Cities

Key Controversy: Early Historic Hierarchy and Heterarchies

Key Controversy: Roman Contact and the Origins of Indian Ocean Trade

Key Site: Mehrgarh. An Early Farming Community

Key Sites: Mohenjo-daro and Harappa

Key Site: Taxila

Key words and terms


  • South Asia: India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka
  • Indus river basin
  • Ganges river basin
  • Thar Desert
  • Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea,
  • Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram, Aravalli, Himalayan ranges
  • Vindhyan escarpment
  • Deccan Plateau
  • Eastern and Western Ghats
  • Kothari River
  • Mantai lowlands
  • Malwattu River
  • Indo-Iranian Plateau
  • Baluchistan
  • Bolan River
  • Belan River
  • Palk Straits
  • Rehman Dheri
  • Ghaggar-Hakra River
  • Balakot
  • Surkotada
  • Makkran coast
  • Bahawalpur
  • Sarai Khola
  • Cholistan Desert
  • Indus civilization: Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat
  • Indus civilization periphery: Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Gangetic plains, western Deccan
  • Rann of Kutch
  • Rohri Hills
  • Badakshan
  • Chitral
  • Dir
  • Swat
  • Vale of Peshawar
  • Taxila
  • Hathial ridge
  • Himalayas of Uttar Pradesh
  • Ganges-Yamuna doab
  • Begram
  • Kandahar
  • Gandhara
  • Charsadda (Pushkalavati)


  • Indo-European
  • Dravidian
  • Brahmi
  • Kharoshthi script

Phases, periods, cultures, kingdoms, empires

  • Mesolithic (26,000 and 1800 bc)
  • Aceramic Neolithic
  • Kulli-phase
  • Kot Diji/Early Harappan Phase (3200–2600 bc)
  • Era of Regionalization
  • Chalcolithic
  • Nal, Zhob, and Quetta
  • Kachi, Kili Gul Muhammad, Kechi Beg, Faiz Muhammad phases
  • Hakra phase
  • Mature Harappan Phase (2600–1900 bc)
  • Era of Integration
  • Indus civilization
  • Indus civilization collapse
  • Late Harappan, post-urban (1900–1200 bc)
  • Jhukar Phase
  • Era of Localization
  • Gandharan Grave culture
  • Ocher Colored pottery complex (1700-1200 bc)
  • “Dark Age” (1200–500 bc)
  • Early Historic Civilizations (500 bc –ad 480)
  • Era of re-emergence of regionalized complexity
  • Achaemenid Persian empire in India
  • Kingdom of Vatsa
  • Hellenistic colonization
  • Mauryan empire
  • Sunga dynasty
  • Greek kingdoms of Bactria
  • The Sakas
  • Indo-Parthian kingdom
  • The Kushan kingdom
  • Sasanian empire
  • Satavahana dynasty
  • Gupta empire

Historic people

  • Buddha
  • Darius I
  • Alexander the Great
  • Asoka
  • Pushyamitra Sunga
  • Strato III
  • Gondophares
  • Emperor Kanishka
  • Ardashir I
  • Satakarni I
  • Chandragupta I


  • Bagor
  • Langnaj
  • Sarai Nahar Rai
  • Mahadaha
  • Damdama
  • Adamgarh
  • Ghagharia
  • Bhimbetka
  • Batadomba Lena
  • Kitugala
  • Anuradhapura
  • Mehrgarh
  • Kili Ghul Mohammad
  • Rana Ghundai,
  • Burzahom (Kashmir)
  • Gufkra
  • Kalako-deray
  • Loebanr III
  • Chopani Mando
  • Mahagara
  • Koldihawa
  • Chirand.
  • Kudatini
  • Tekkalakota
  • Sangankallu
  • Hallur
  • Shahr-i Sokhta
  • Mundigak
  • Balakot
  • Amri
  • Ghaligai Cave
  • Kot Diji
  • Rehman Dheri
  • Kalibangan
  • Harappa
  • Mohenjo-daro
  • Chanhu-daro
  • Dholavira
  • Rakhigarhi
  • Ganweriwala.
  • Lothal
  • Surkotada
  • Kuntasi
  • Nageshwar
  • Shahr-i Sokhta
  • Las Bela
  • Edith Shahr
  • Nindowari
  • Pirak
  • Balambat
  • Timargarha
  • Aligrama
  • Bir-kot-ghundai
  • Kalako-deray
  • Loebanr I
  • Sarai Khola
  • Hastinapura
  • Atranjikhera
  • Diamabad
  • Prakash
  • Inamgaon
  • Malvan
  • Bala Hisar
  • Timargarha
  • Hastinapura
  • Kausambi
  • Kara
  • Brahmagiri
  • Maski
  • Watga
  • Anuradhapura
  • Birkot
  • Ai Khanoum (Aï Khanum)
  • Pataliputra
  • Ujjain
  • Sisupalgarh
  • Mahasthan
  • Sanchi
  • Barhut
  • Sirkap
  • Shaikhan Dheri
  • Sirsukh
  • Dalverzin-tepe
  • Pratisthana
  • Sannati
  • Dhayakataka
  • Satanikota
  • Ter
  • Bhokardan

Artifacts, features, structures

  • rock drawings and paintings
  • bell-shaped pits
  • polished stone axes
  • stone querns
  • hand-made ceramics
  • cattle stockades or pens
  • ash mounds
  • Kot Diji ceramic style
  • Harappa cemetery H
  • Quetta hoard
  • Sibri cemetery
  • Gandharan burnished red ware
  • Ocher colored pottery
  • Northern black polished ware.
  • Painted gray ware
  • Fire temple


  • Deraniyagala family
  • G.R. Sharma
  • Mortimer Wheeler
  • Asko Parpola
  • Rafique Mughal
  • B.B. Lal
  • George Dales
  • Mark Kenoyer
  • Richard Meadow
  • John Marshall


  • transhumance
  • resource territoriality
  • regional diversity
  • individual differentiation
  • trade networks
  • indigenous origin of agriculture vs. Southwest Asian imports
  • indigenous vs. imported rice cultivation
  • early village communities
  • colonization of the Indus floodplain
  • fortified, planned settlements
  • cardinal orientation of site structures
  • bull motif
  • craft specialization
  • economically specialized settlements
  • Indus civilization traits: cities, artifact standardization, four-tier settlement hierarchy, writing, long-distance trade, urban planning, craft and settlement specialization, and monumental public works
  • “peaceful” Indus civilization
  • absence of elite differentiation
  • resource routes linking urbanized centers and hinterlands
  • long-distance trade with Elam and Mesopotamia
  • Indus collapse: loss of planned urban forms, monumental public buildings, writing
  • new links to Central Asia
  • satrapies
  • Janapadas, mahajanapadas,
  • Hellenistic colonization
  • Asokan stone pillars/edicts
  • Arthasastra

Technology, inventions

  • microlithic blade industries
  • composite tools
  • broad-spectrum subsistence strategies
  • Chalcolithic ceramic production centers
  • wheel-thrown ceramics
  • Indus script
  • advanced technologies for working lapis lazuli, carnelian, steatite, shell, chert, tin, copper, and gold into finished materials
  • megalithic burial sites