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by Emil Shaykhilislamov, Von Erlach Thibaud

Introduction

Many scientists and scholars consider the Indus Valley one of the greatest and mysterious civilizations the world may never know.  It was a first urban culture of South Asia, that was located in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, consisting of what is now mainly present-day Pakistan and northwest India. It reached its peak from 2600 BC to 1900 BC roughly, a period called by some archaeologists “Mature Harappan”.  In spite of this civilization was ancient,  a sophisticated society whose towns had advanced sanitation, bathhouses and gridlike city-planning was revealed from the digs. But the most interesting and mystic thing about the Indus Valley – is how this enigmatic civilization disappeared. Was it eradicated by conquest or washed away by floods, or did its people just blend into other migrations settling the Indian subcontinent? This valley left a lot of  towering monuments and epic ruins, that can tell a lot about that society. But one of the most curious “presents” from Indus Valley people is their script, that is presented in two thousand inscribed seals and samples. And many people for more than 70 years is trying to decipher it, but no satisfactory progress is achieved in this area for nowadays. Obvious facts

  • The most part of the seals has very short and brief texts. The average number of symbols on the seals is 5, and the longest is only 26
  • The language underneath is unknown.
  • There is no bilingual texts exist.
  • The largest database of Harappan writing contains 676 signs in total.

Current hypothesis about the language underneath

  1. The language is completely unrelated to anything else, meaning an isolate
  2. The language is “Aryan” (some form of Indian-Iranian Indo-European)
  3. The language belongs to the Munda family of languages (The Munda family is spoken largely in eastern India, and related to some Southeast Asian language)
  4. The language is Dravidian (The Dravidian family of languages is spoken in Southern Indian, but Brahui is spoken in modern Pakistan)

Recent research and results

There a lot of people who started working on deciphering the Indus Valley script many years ago and some of them are still working on it. Among them Asko Parpola from Finland, Iravatham Mahadevan from India, Pakistan’s Ahmad Hassan Dani, Russian scholar Y.V. Knorozov, Steve Farmer and Rajesh Rao.

Asko Parpola

Generally recognized as the world’s expert on the Indus script, Asko Parpola has been studying this undeciphered writing for over 30 years at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Parpola’s methodology for deciphering the Indus script consists essentially of two parts, namely the rebus principle generally applicable to all ancient logo-syllabic scripts and the linguistic techniques applicable to Dravidian. Dr. Parpola and his team’s further “decipherments” based on the fish sign and old Tamil words for heavenly bodies seem to fit (to the layman, again) very nicely with words designating Venus, Saturn, the Pleaides, and other astral entities. The stars and heavenly signs were important to ancient people everywhere, especially ones who built economies on maritime navigation. Results of his work:

  1. The Indus script represents logo-syllabic writing
  2. The language of the Indus people was Dravidian
  3. The Harappan religion emerging from these interpretations is in an interesting way reflected in the Indus pictograms
  4. As iconic signs making use of the picture puzzle (or rebus) principle, they can simultaneously communicate two separate messages, one pictorial, one phonetic

Iravatham Mahadevan

A National Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Iravatham Mahadevan has been working on the Indus script for nearly 30 years. A Tamil speaker, he has used historical linguistics and statistical studies to examine the Dravidian components in Vedic Sanskrit, and how these might point to interpretations of the Indus Valley script. He followed the Porpola’s methodology to continue deciphering the indus script. Using the Porpola’s results and hypothesis, he has redefined and completed many signs, including planet and star signs. As a result, he published An Encylopaedia of the Indus Script, that was a review of Asko Parpola’s Deciphering the Indus Script. Mahadevan used this opportunity to summarize and review the full breadth of Parpola’s work, from evidence from the often misunderstood question of “Aryans” in the subcontinent to specific interpretations of various signs.

Ahmad Hassan Dani

Dr. Dani is one of the subcontinent’s most remarkable archaeologists. He has published over 30 books. In 1949, he published the first article linking the Vedic “Hariyupiyah” with today’s Harappa; in 1981 he edited Indus Civilization: New Perspectives. In his work, he refused the Porpola’s hypothesis that the Indus language was closed to the Dravidian. He worked with Sir Mortimer Wheeler and helped him excavate Mohenjo-daro in 1945. After excavations, they didn’t find out, how the writing evolved.  They decided, that the Indus writing was an indigenous development. “Here we find directly logo-syllabic writing. Hence, they must have known about the logo-syllabic writing then in use in Mesopotamia with whom they had trade connections, and then evolved their own, on the same basis. This is what I am maintaining: that as we do not find from the simple pictograph developing into logo-syllabic in Indus Civilization, but we find it in Mesopotamia, and therefore some wise man, some intellectual here in this region must have known that here is a system of writing, why not evolve our own on the same basis”.

Steve Farmer

During our research, one point of view sticked out of the crowd as it went against it, not hesitating to refute some of the most promising advance made in the direction of translating the Indus valley scripts. This opinion is that the Indus Valley civilization would actually not be literate at all and that it was only an assumption that each and everyone took for granted. Farmer make his point by saying first that the average length of an inscription is 4.6 signs which is much shorter than in any encountered language till know. He says that they might have written on perishable material but that then, one would have found evidence on mural paints for example or a lot of other non-perishable objects as it was the case for the egyptians, greeks, romans … that also wrote on perishable material but in the case of the Indus Valley none of it has been found which he says is quite odd and raises the question if this civilization is actually literate, if the scripts actually aren’t the transcription of speech (i.e. that it is not the encoding of a sound). To support that hypothesis, he also argues that there is almost no repetition of signs on one tablet even on the longest one. He also presents two ways that have been taken till now to translate the signs. The first one is from Wells where every small change in a sign was considered as a new sign which led to about 600 different signs. On the opposite side, there is the Rao hypothesis which states that actually everything is based on 20 different signs. Furthermore Farmer discredit this last research by saying that Rao doesn’t have any support anymore for his hypothesis, that he only describes obvious things but even more shocking, that he falsified his data !

Rajesh Rao

Rao’s first hypothesis is that the seals found are a kind of tags used to tag goods which means that they could be seen as names although one is not sure about that. He says that three major hypothesis concerning the Indus-Script exists:
  1. That is not at all a language but something corresponding to our roadsigns
  2. That it is an indoeuropean language (ancient one such as sanskrit)
  3. That the people in the Indus Valley are ancestor of people living south india which speak Dravidian, a language found all over India in the past
But that at the time being, one has no idea which might be the right supposition. Furthermore, there is no Rosetta stone to help us and only short texts exists. The first assumption is about the direction of writing which he claims being from right to left and explains that one can find out about it by looking at the seals and see that the symbols are squeezed on the left of it which would mean that the writer ran out-of-place to put his symbols.
He also says that every language has a pattern, and that the Indus-Script has also one: texts often start with the same symbol and the position of a symbol as well as the suite of symbols follows some rules that can be statistically derived. A computer can learn those patterns in a statistical way and predict missing symbols (which were right in 75% of the case for known suite, the rest being in the 2-3 first guesses). This technique can be used to complete broken seals and create more material to work on. On another point, he says that one can describe a linguistic script by its entropy, a too high entropy is only found in DNA and music but not in any linguistic script, a too low entropy on the contrary is found only in some really strictly ruled computer programming languages. A linguistic script is somewhere in the middle, having an intermediate entropy. After some computer calculations, he finds that the Indus-Script falls in the range of linguistic scripts which means it might be one !
Furthermore, the computer found some scripts with unusual patterns but this be explained by the fact that those scripts where found on trade roads of the Indus Valley Civilization which means that the signs might have been used to write different languages also !
Finally, he offers a translation with a rebus principle by saying that tags should represent names and that names in India are based on planets and stars constellations.
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References:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwYxHPXIaao
  2. S Farmer, R Sproat, M Witzel – Science, 2009 – safarmer.com
  3. RPN Rao, N Yadav, MN Vahia, H Joglekar, R Adhikari… – Science, 2009 – sciencemag.org
  4. N Yadav, H Joglekar, RPN Rao, MN Vahia… – PLoS One, 2010 – dx.plos.org
  5. The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization
    S.Farmer, R. Sproat, M. Witzel
  6. “Indus Script”, http://www.ancientscripts.com/indus.html
  7. “Decoding the Ancient Script of the Indus Valley”, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1919795,00.html
  8. The Indus Civilization, http://www.harappa.com
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