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Ahead of Copenhagen Climate Meetings, NYU Anthropologist Looks Back at an Ancient Civilization's Sustainable Practices in a Complex Economy

November 20, 2009
N-150, 2009-10

The Indus civilization, a South Asian contemporary with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, was not discovered by scholars until the 1920s. While much of this civilization remains a mystery, many of its economic practices and responses to a changing climate are detailed in The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy, and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by New York University Professor Rita Wright.

Wright uncovers how Indus farmers, pastoralists, artisans, and merchants developed and sustained a complex economy, offering a rigorous account of societal adaptation and cohesion that may offer lessons ahead of next month’s Copenhagen climate meetings.

“Studying ancient climate change contributes to an understanding of the impact of climate change on populations and their responses,” Wrights explains. “A significant difference between present-day global warming debates and ancient climate changes, however, is that early societies did not engage in activities that led to the emission of greenhouse gases. Most of the changes they responded to were the result of natural causes and, if induced by humans, were of a more local nature.”

Wright, a member of the Department of Anthropology and NYU’s Center for the Study of Human Origins, emphasizes the interconnected nature of early societies by focusing on the period’s social networks between city and rural communities; farmers, pastoralists, and craft producers; and Indus merchants and traders. As she notes, if Egypt was the gift of the Nile, then the gift of the Indus was its unique, resource-rich setting that its leaders brought together into an integrated society.

With its core situated among rich alluvial plains and ecologically diverse zones, the Indus drew an abundance of raw materials, fashioned elaborate crafts, and created a complex administrative system of standardized weights and inscribed devices. These were used to good effect in establishing political and social networks that enhanced the civilization’s integration. To the south were the oceans, seas, and port locations that promoted active trading with contemporary complex societies that grew and flourished throughout the greater Near East.

“In this way, the Indus established itself as an important player on the world stage, which brought them into contact with cultures bearing different ideas and ways of life that cross-fertilized with their own,” Wright observes.

Reporters wishing to speak to Wright should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or For review copies, contact Joyce Reid, Cambridge University Press, at

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science, Research

Type: Press Release


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