Ancient Leftovers: The diet and agricultural practices of the Indus Civilization

Pre-Vedic (2600–1900 BCE)


“The ability to produce and control agricultural surpluses was a fundamental factor in the rise of the earliest complex societies and cities.” (4)

The Indus Society

The Indus Valley Civilization, or Harappan Civilization was one of the great early complex societies of the bronze age.  The Indus dominated a land area larger than either ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, covering much of today’s northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. Between 3300–1300 BCE, it was the most widespread of three early cradles of civilisation of the Old World. (3) Harappa, one of the largest Indus cities, was located in modern day Pakistan. (3)

The Indus society began to flourish around the same time that the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids and Mesopotamians constructed the first great cities.(3) During its peak, between 2600–1900 BCE, Indus cities are believed to have maintained a population of some 40,000 within large and carefully planned urban centers.(1) The Indus cities are noted for their urban planning, baked brick houses, elaborate drainage systems, water supply systems, and clusters of large  building non-residentials. The expansive region across which Indus settlements were distributed was both geographically and culturally variable, creating equally similar variations in Indus subsistence practices. (4)

Diet Overview

The foods and cooking of the Indus civilization laid the groundwork for the modern-day “curry” dishes of South Asia. The Harappans incorporated a variety of foods into their diet, including grains and pulses, vegetables, fruits, and animal products, as well as a variety of seasonings and spices still used in South Asia today. (2) Current research suggests that diet and agriculture focused primarily on the raising of cattle, goat, and sheep, supplemented by cultivation of wheat and barley supported by winter rains. (3)

Of legumes and pulses, the Harappans were known to grow and cultivate lentils, chickpeas, peas, green gram (mung beans), and black gram (urad dal). (2) Their staple grains included wheat and barley; millet was also cultivated in certain regions, especially Gujarat. They used wheat and barley to make breads, and they may have also cooked them in water as a gruel or porridge.

Though rice is a modern staple in this region, its status as a staple grain during this time is unclear. Researchers previously thought that rice farming did not take prevalence until the end of the Indus era; rather, rice farming was developed in China and brought to the region around that time. (1) There is evidence that during this time, wild rice was cultivated as animal fodder. (2) However, in some areas researchers have found large quantities of rice, enough to suggest that it was preferred over wheat or barley. (3) This also suggests that rice farming may have developed in tandem with rice cultivation in China, rather than afterward. (1)


Regarding this, Dr. Jennifer Bates notes, "We found evidence for an entirely separate domestication process in ancient South Asia, likely based around the wild species Oryza nivara. This led to the local development of a mix of 'wetland' and 'dryland' agriculture of local Oryza sativa indica rice agriculture before the truly 'wetland' Chinese rice, Oryza sativa japonica, arrived around 2000 BC." (1)

It is believed that the Harappans ate a variety of local fruits, including dates, jujube, grapes, figs, and possibly mango. Cultivated vegetables include a variety of brassica and brown mustard greens, and possibly okra and capers. A variety of herbs, spices, and seasonings were also available and likely cultivated, though evidence is lacking. Notably these include coriander, sugarcane, garlic, turmeric, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon. (2) Ginger, garlic, and turmeric are considered to be key ingredients in cooking. (3)

The Harappans raised cattle for meat, but they also raised chickens, buffaloes, sheep, and goats. They also hunted game, namely a variety of wildfowl, deer, antelope, and wild boar. Their diet also included fish and shellfish from local rivers and lakes and the sea. Fish were eaten fresh, or sometimes dried or salted, as evidenced from the discovery of marine fish remains far inland. (2)

For oil, sesame was used, and possibly flaxseed oil as well. (2) Excavation of Indus sites has resulted in the discovery of tandoori-style ovens used for cooking.(3) This is an extraordinary discovery showing the roots of modern-day Indian cuisine in the Bronze Age. Tandoori ovens are used in many popular dishes such as tikka masala and for the traditional preparation of naan. They have spread across the world with the Indian diaspora, and thus can be found even in small towns in the UK and United States.

Agricultural Practices

In 2016, a public release from the University of Cambridge confirmed new archaeological findings about the Indus Civilization. The research reveals ways in which Indus populations utilized complex strategies for multi-cropping based on season, which also involves a critical awareness of varying watering regimes.  Before other other civilizations were varying their crops seasonally, the Indus people were favoring rice, millet and beans in the summer; and wheat, barley and pulses in the winter. Radiocarbon dating even shows evidence of horsegram crops as far back as 2580 BC, and rice as far back as 2430-2140 BC. Not only were these agricultural practices increasing dietary variety, but also providing the opportunity for organization of labor and provisioning throughout the year.  Beyond the benefits to an individual community, this variety of crops may have been responsible for the establishment of ancient urban cities, as produce from regional growers was transported to markets for trade. (1)

Pre-Vedic India offers glimpses into the subtle wisdom of Ayurveda in its clever affinity for seasonal eating, as well as the use of a variety of grains and pulses, such as urad dhal. The notion of seasonal eating, also called ritucharya, is emphasized in the ancients texts of ayurveda (Charak Samhita, 200 BCE).

Whether perusing the classical texts of Ayurveda, opening a modern Ayurvedic cookbook or sitting down to a curry or tandoori dish in Denver or Darwin Australia, Mumbai or Birmingham UK, we are still experiencing the ingredients and cooking methods of ancient Harappa.


  1. Rice farming in India much older than thought, used as 'summer crop' by Indus civilization. EurekAlert! The Global Source for Science News. Published November 20, 2016. Accessed February 2, 2018.

  2. What kinds of things did the Indus people eat?. Accessed February 2, 2018.

  3. The Origins of Curry in the Indus Civilization. Published May 30, 2016. Accessed February 2, 2018.

  4. Petrie C, Bates J, Higham T, Singh R. Feeding ancient cities in South Asia: dating the adoption of rice, millet and tropical pulses in the Indus civilisation. Antiquity. 2016;90(354):1489-1504. doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.210.