Writing about a Civilization with Little Information
Hi, I’m really interested in the Indus Valley Civilization, the Harappans. I’ve thought about using what little is known about them for an alternate world or fantasy setting, but since I’m white I’ve stepped back to think. There’s a lot to be fascinated with, but there’s a lack of information compared to Mesopotamia and Egypt, and archaeology isn’t always the most reliable thing to begin with. So I wonder if it might not be a good idea. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.
The Indus Valley Civilization
We know everything there is to know about the IVC, except who they were, how they got there, and where they went. Though contemporaneous with Sumer and ancient Egypt, civilizations we know quite a bit about through archeological and linguistic methods, we know a lot less about the IVC. Archeology may not always be the most reliable method, but it’s the best one we have for uncovering the material past, and an unbiased look at the evidence is the best way to infer something that is likely to be close to what the truth actually was. The problem is not with the method, but with human biases in using it, and what archeology has been able to tell us about the IVC is this:
- At its peak, it may have had a population of over 5 million
- They had sophisticated metallurgical technology, urban planning techniques, drainage and irrigation systems—this was clearly an urban society
- They traded with surrounding societies, particularly Sumer and Mesopotamia, probably with pre-Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian nomadic/pastoral societies to the north
- Excavated statuary seems to show people phenotypically similar to modern South Asians—the people of the IVC probably looked quite similar to people living in eastern Pakistan/western India today
- They may have had stringed musical instruments
- They had wheeled transport similar to modern bullock carts, and boats—there is no evidence for horse-drawn chariots and whether the wheels were spoked or solid is uncertain
What we’re given is pretty thin is some respects, and though the ruins excavated are singularly impressive for their scale and organization, we’re left to infer and hypothesize about pretty much everything else. These were clearly cities, but what of the people of lived in them?
What we know about the IVC comes primarily from three sources: archeology, culture, and language. These are listed in descending order of how much they’ve contributed to our knowledge. I’ve discussed what the archeological record show above, and there’s plenty of research and hypothesizing out there.
From culture, we see elements in modern Hinduism and India that don’t seem to have come from another source (such as Vedic society), and we find things in the archeological record that suggest connections to those elements. One example might be cremation as a Hindu funerary rite.
We know basically nothing of the language of the IVC, but words show up as early as Vedic Sanskrit, a very old Indo-European language, that aren’t Indo-European root words, so they must have come from somewhere else. A language often borrows words for novel concepts, so when we find loan words into Sanskrit that refers to things like “threshing floor” and “brick” and “irrigation canal,” it suggests that they came from some other culture that had those things. Once again, the archeological record shows that the IVC had those. It’s not a concrete connection but it’s a plausible one. If we find that those ancient loan words have relatives in modern languages from a different family, it opens the possibility that the language of the donor culture was also related to those modern languages. Indeed, there seem to be some Dravidian loan words in Sanskrit for these novel concepts that the Vedic tribes didn’t have but that the IVC perhaps did. So one possibility that has some evidence behind it is that the people of the IVC were a Dravidian-speaking people.
Of course I should discuss the infamous “Indigenous Aryans” theory. This is basically that the Vedic Aryans were the people of the IVC and that they, who Hindu nationalists often consider the sole progenitors of classical and modern Indian civilization, spawned the IVC’s sophisticated culture and even take it to the level of having advanced scientific knowledge (think the show Ancient Aliens), which blatantly flies in the face of available evidence.
They seem to be allergic to the idea that “Indians” could ever have come from somewhere else, but they ignore much of the evidence. Sanskrit is clearly an Indo-European language whose relatives are found all across the Old (and now New) World, and whose linguistic and cultural ancestors are vanishingly unlikely to have been indigenous to the subcontinent. Modern India continues some elements of Vedic society but many, many other influences shine through as well. Syncretism was the order of the day in prehistory.
Having examined the evidence and weighed it, I come down in favor of the Dravidian theory for the IVC.
Can You Write About It?
Can you write about it? Can you be inspired by it? Sure, I don’t see why not. I feel like the dearth of evidence and the fact that we may never know much more is itself appealing, which maybe plays into the human need for a coherent story. It is indeed tantalizing, but because we don’t know so much, what we do know becomes extraordinarily important, and must be treated with respect.
It’s likely that daughter and sister cultural elements from the IVC are continued in modern Hinduism and South Indian Dravidian societies, but they’ve undergone at least four thousand years of change. To make an analogy to a related issue, should I refrain from attempting to write accurately about Vedic pastoralists because I might offend modern Hindu nationalists? I think not. They key is to treat the evidence with due respect, and to be accurate to what you can. Do not instead kowtow to historical revisionism just because it comes from people of color. (The recent incarnation of the Hindu nationalist movement have repeatedly shown themselves to be a bunch of lying bastards anyway, so screw ‘em.)
I don’t really see much that could be construed as either appropriation or erasure, as long as you don’t go off and do something wildly incongruous with the available evidence, like pretending the IVC were white Europeans, or that aliens built their cities.
Depending on what theory you subscribe you about the IVC (and like I said, some are definitely better than others), you can use sources for what you take to be cultures related to the IVC as inspiration. For instance, I subscribe to the Dravidian theory so I might look to Old Tamil literature from the Sangam period. There is a 1400 year gap between the IVC and the Sangams, but we have examples from other cultures of cultural elements persisting for much longer and also you’re writing fantasy, not a peer-reviewed archeology article. When filling in the gaps from elsewhere, you just have you use sources that are more likely to be connected than that are certain to be connected, because we don’t know what those are.
Yes, you run the risk of writing something and then having new evidence come to light that invalidates it. But you know what? Who the heck cares? Andy Weir wrote The Martian, became a bestseller, and had a movie of his book come out not two weeks before NASA discovered possible evidence of running water on Mars—evidence that could have derailed his entire plot line. Isaac Asimov thought computers would still be running on punch cards and tape in 2061. There are forward-looking examples, but the principle still applies to unknowns in archeology and uncovering the past. You’re writing fantasy, building a territory using a blinkered view of reality as the map. Good news: “The map is not the territory” — Alfred Korzybski.
Doesn’t mean you can get away with not doing the work. Go forth and be inspired, but know that a good product is 10% inspiration and 100% hard, disciplined work (yeah, I know that’s 110%—that’s how important the work part of things is).